A Confluence of
Feminism, History and
Iris CF Gomes
When we look back on history, we are able to perceive the effect a particular era has had on the people living in that period to the extent of colouring the character and thought of individuals. Women are singular in the bearing history has had on their lives and the lack of acknowledgement of their recordings of their times.
Women have written from the earliest years, but they have received no place in a male dominated world. Despite the presence of the Buddhist theris’ literary works thousands of years ago, they became accessible only in the 20th century.
The Bhakti poets Mirabai, Bahinabai and Janabhai were stylistically unique but they wrote in the vernacular about the everyday routine of life and their devotion. For example, Bahinabai recounts having a low caste mentor in Tukaram, while she came from a Brahmin family, and the repercussions of the situation.
Dalit Marathi poet Hira Bansode’s poem in the late 20th century, Yashodhara, brings back before us the travails of the abandoned and forgotten spouse of the man who would become the Buddha. We witness women’s lives recorded against the backdrop of history through all these works. ‘So history and memory have become increasingly significant to how women record their lives. This is one of the facets of modernism,’ says Vrinda Nabar.
Vrinda Nabar is an academic and author who is conducting the course The Gender of Literatures and the Literatures of Gender at Goa University. She is a visiting research professor of the Kavivarya Bakibaab Borkar Chair in Comparative Literature. She speaks of two significant contemporary texts that follow in the vein of revealing the lives of women in the context of the historical period they lived through. One being Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and the other is Maria Aurora Couto’s Filomena’s Journeys.
Azar Nafisi talks about being a woman in Tehran, Iran, with its religious fundamentalist driven restrictions. She gave up her job at the University of Tehran and started a small reading group there with her female pupils perusing forbidden Western classics. The memoir was written in the US several years later and was reconstructed through memory. Along with memory came the history integral to it.
Filomena’s Journeys recounts the life of the author mirrored through her mother, showing us that the daughter’s life complements the mother’s. In Filomena’s Journeys we have glimpses of Goan-Portuguese and Indian history and the socio-political scene of the day.
A third book, Family Fables and Hidden Heresies, written by Vrinda Nabar, is significant in its revelations about Prof Nabar’s mother and grandmother. The memoir amalgamates history, politics, culture, literature and feminism, although Prof Nabar states that she did not intentionally set out to introduce the theme of feminism in the book.
Prof Nabar tells us of her desire to write a memoir with her mother’s aid. Unfortunately, her mother passed away before this could happen. As Prof Nabar was going through her mother’s possessions, she came across intimate letters between her mother Mira and Prof Nabar’s father Govind, and a journal Mira kept from 1930 to 1939. Reading the contents was traumatic in the sense that she felt she was intruding on the privacy of the individuals mentioned in it. Writing the memoir was a means of obtaining closure.
In Mira’s journal, there are mentions of historical events as well as her personal life, student protests, and breaking of a police barricade. Instances of the Second World War and the freedom struggle in India enter into her epistolary conversations with her husband. At one point Mira talks about keeping her maiden name and combining it with her married name, but then thinks the better of it as she does not want to invite ridicule in an orthodox and patriarchal society. Prof Nabar has maintained her maiden name and identifies with her mother’s desire, which echoes the feminism of the modern era. Mira’s career was stalled when she had to come back from the UK before finishing her FRCA (Fellow of the Royal College of Anaesthetists) examinations because the Second World War broke out. Mira’s mother Sundiamma did not want to lose her daughter to the war after she had become a widow at 19 during the First World War. Sundiamma’s husband had been a doctor in the Indian Navy during the British rule.
Sundiamma was a model for feminism well before its official appearance. As a widow, she chose to live in Bombay alone with her children, raising them on her husband’s pension. She took part in a demonstration on Chowpatty beach in Bombay to break the salt law, keeping faith with Gandhi’s movement. Sundiamma did this along with Mira, who was a child at the time. Prof Nabar expresses the powerful impact this had on her. Sundiamma, who had been encouraged by her husband to study, and had taught herself a number of languages, refused to have her head tonsured as a mark of her widowhood after her husband’s passing away. Sundiamma’s battle with her own mother about the tonsuring portrays the battle between progressive liberalism and orthodoxy.
‘History weaves itself into the lives of these women,’ says Prof Nabar. Sundiamma’s recollection of history was influenced by the fact that she was a woman during the tumultuous phase of the freedom struggle. She told the story of the Rani of Jhansi to show the unfairness of the annexation and how it affected a woman’s life. She related that the Rani of Jhansi had written to Queen Victoria, appealing to her sensibility as a woman, but had received no response from her.
Prof Nabar traces the changes in the socio-cultural sphere from her grandmother’s time to her own to address the transformation in her gender’s access to certain choices, the struggles her grandmother and mother underwent and shadow of history shaping their lives.