A woman's point of view: Three authors interpret feminism
Three authors interpret feminism—from how different a life would Sita had led to a non-fiction and Calcutta during World War II.
In Bhumika: A Story of Sita, Aditya Iyengar envisions a life for his protagonist without the Man-God who has come to define her in the collective consciousness. In the twilight of her life, a somewhat embittered Sita is given an opportunity by Sage Vishwamitra to find out what could have been if a certain someone hadn’t prevailed at her swayamwara, won her heart and spirited her away to fulfil the dictates of his destiny. What if she had never married Rama or been abducted or cast aside because her purity had been called into question? What if in an alternate life, Sita had been Bhumika, a Queen who will defy convention and fight to live life on her own terms?
Bhumika is a feminist reinterpretation of Sita, who has long been held up as the ideal woman given her perceived docility, innate goodness and submissiveness, although there are those who would argue that like other strong women in mythology, it is only the jaundiced lens of patriarchy that has rendered her thus, since this remarkable character has always been more complicated and strong than most believe likely.
Be that as it may, Bhumika cleaves to more contemporary views of the feminist ideal. She can lift and string the mighty bow, Pinyaka, and is more than capable of ruling her kingdom without a man’s help, thank you very much.
This queen is determined to include women in the workforce and free others from restrictive gender expectations. Bhumika’s crusade is a lonely one though and she has neither close friends nor lovers but only strife for company. Sita later wonders if it had all been worthwhile. Iyengar leaves the reader in no doubt that both their choices were valid and ultimately it is all about making your peace with the decisions made for better or worse.
Shanta Gokhale’s One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told Through the Body has its feet planted firmly on the ground with all things earthy, profound, and practical. It is a remarkable autobiography of a life lived fully, unapologetically, and narrated with oodles of grace and humour to spare.
The feminist perspective on display in these memoirs is subtle, matter-of-fact and entirely effective.
Gokhale bares intimate details about her life through her body, never shying away from discussing her tonsils, misaligned teeth, adipose tissue, breasts, buttocks, menstruation, childbirth, menopause, glaucoma, cancer, and bunions. While navigating the topography of her body, she takes the reader on an arresting journey across the landscape of her life that includes badminton, idyllic childhood vacations, dance lessons, a stint in cold England for her education, young love, failed marriages, disappointing relationships, children and a varied career as an author, translator, journalist, critic and an executive at Glaxo, the pharmaceutical company, among other things.
The most inspiring takeaway from the book is Gokhale’s cheerful acceptance, boundless optimism and ever-present equanimity even in the face of the trials and tribulations that cropped up at regular intervals—the way that they are wont to. Whether it is a relationship gone wrong, the ineptness of doctors who almost certainly exacerbated severe health issues she faced in her later years like failing eyesight and cancer, or even the household help who molested her, Gokhale has the refreshing air of one who has made her peace with the past and is free of resentment or anger.
Her independence, free spirit and absolute refusal to point fingers at anyone for the little and big things that went wrong along the course of her existence is a valuable lesson for everyone in this age where it is fashionable to play the name, blame and shame game with impunity.
Dust under Her Feet, Sharbari Zohra Ahmed’s confident debut novel, is a historical romance set in 1940s Calcutta, when American troops set up an army base in India to beat back the Japanese from Burma. Yasmine Khan is the unlikely proprietor of a night club—The Bombay Duck—which exists as a Utopian zone, where the rigid boundaries separating people on the basis of caste and race are supposedly blurred, except they aren’t actually.
Soldiers roped in for a war that is in truth being played out by pig-headed politicos in the interests of imperial greed with no expectations of anything but that of getting slaughtered find some respite when they watch Yasmine’s girls sing and dance, helping them forget their troubles, however briefly.
Yasmine’s motley family include her childhood friend, the gorgeous and talented Patience, as well as people from all walks of life and she looks out for them while running the business with an iron hand. She doesn’t expect to fall in love but naturally she allows herself to be swept off her feet by the much-married American Lieutenant Edward Lafaver. What follows is a tale of love, lust, and betrayal while World War II and famine rage all around them.
Ahmed dapples with burning issues such as discrimination on the basis of race, caste and gender but it mostly feels superficial and half-hearted, given the author’s preoccupation with the ultimately undercooked romance and a friendship gone awry. A horrendous incident of rape and its repercussions are dealt with in a particularly ham-fisted manner, existing mainly as an area of contention between the lovers.
Dust under Her Feet strives to be epic but succeeds only in being occasionally engaging.