I was struck by a piece by Anindita Sengupta that I read quite by accident today. (Digression: There are so many things that my RSS feed aggregates together that I’m always surprised I notice the things that I do). It is a well-composed response to a rather glib article by Gaurav Jain at Tehelka (who argues ridiculously that women should stop being offended at terms for sexual promiscuity; there’s actually a pretty smart response from a reader at Tehelka: “Going by Jain’s logic, we might as well tell Dalits not to complain about casteist remarks because they should not let the casteist person define their self-esteem”).
I found this bit of Sengupta’s rebuttal elegant:
But specific words are less significant than the attitudes they reflect. Rai’s tone is misogynistic, regressive and censoring, his contention that women must not write about the body so much is patronising and prescriptive. This can hardly be ignored considering his office.
The issue is reflective of a larger problem in the literary world, one that goes to the heart of what it means to be a woman writer – what little freedom one is allowed, and the silences which must be observed. It is cause for serious thought and, in this case, hopefully some action.
The whole row about the term “chhinal” (“adulteress” or “whore”, depending on context, in Hindi/Urdu) was sparked by a comment by Vibhuti Narain Rai, vice-chancellor at Mahatma Gandhi International Hindu University, who said in an interview to Naya Gyanodyay (one of the more prestigious literary magazines run by the Bharatiya Jnanpith) “Lekhikaon men hod lagi hai yeh sabit karne ki unse badi chhinal koi nahi hai” (roughly: there’s a contest among women writers [in Hindi] to prove that none is a bigger slut than she is). Rai was being interviewed about the entries in this years competition for the Jnanpith (one of India’s most prestigious literary prizes) and he apparently just couldn’t help himself. He went on to say: “feminist discourse has reduced [women’s writing] to a grand celebration of infidelity.”
Vibhuti Narain Rai can be accused for defaming every writer who has made unparallel journey on the road to equality. The words of his mouth are shocking. Mr. Vibhuti Narain Rai, the vice chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University, says that women writers of today are competing to prove themselves to become the leading prostitute. He again adds that if they want to write their autobiography then HOW MANY TIMES IN HOW MANY BEDS will be the appropriate title. It is the report in news.in.msn.com. At another place in the interview, he dubs the character of a famous story as “nymphomaniac kutiya”. When asked by The Sunday Express which women writers he was referring to, Rai laughed. And repeated what he had said: “It’s not fair to mention names, but you can see, this tendency to prove themselves the ‘sabse badi chhinal’ is growing among women writers. You can find the references of ‘kitne bistaron men kitani baar’ in their work.”
It’s rumored at any rate, that the Bharatiya Jnanpith’s board of directors may be sacking Rai (from his job on the selection committee for the Hindi prize, not from his job at MGIHU, though it turns out that there may be reasons for him to lose that job, too) and Ravindra Kalia (the editor of Naya Gyanodyay who praised Rai). Perhaps the controversy will invite some discussion about not only the persistence of some rather obscurantist notions and personalities in literary circles (the same people who probably also have no problem committing the erotic bits of Kalidasa to memory) but also about some of the more interesting new work from women writers in Hindi.
The whole thing has gotten me thinking about the long tradition of this kind of abuse against women writers from South Asia: the obscenity charges against Ismat Chughtai for “Lihaaf“; the attacks on Rashid Jahan after Angare; the continuing harassment of Taslima Nasreen. In the 1930s, when Angare was proscribed by the British for attacking conservative elements within South Asian Islam, there was an outcry among literary circles and it led to the formation of the All India Progressive Writers Association. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if this row led to the consolidation of a new generation of brave writing, too?