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Spotlight on women writers

A signature and a girl’s female friend. The dual connotation of the word shoi in Bengali found complete embodiment in and at the Soi Mela. The festival of women’s literature in India brought together friends and colleagues from across the country as well as their writings in the form of a book fair being held at ICCR till Tuesday.

“Soi Mela is a forum for creative women in India. We highlight women’s writing, especially in regional languages, as well as other forms of creativity like photography, painting and sculpture,” said Nabaneeta Dev Sen, president of Soi, before the inauguration on Sunday.

At her call, writers flocked from across the country. Mridula Garg, who has liberated Hindi writing from the shackles of romance and introduced irony and wry humour, came from Delhi. From the south came Kannada writer Janaki Srinivasan Murthy who goes by the penname of Vaidehi and poet Mamta Sagar. From neighbouring Odisha came Jnanpith awardee Pratibha Ray, a strident voice against social injustice and corruption. Representing the Northeast were Arupa Patangia Kalita who writes of the downtrodden in Assamese, Thounaojam Chanu Ibemhal writing in Manipuri as Memchoubi and Krairi Mog Choudhury of Tripura, who writes in her mother tongue Mog other than in Bengali and English.

In the 13th year of the women writers’ association and at the third Soi Mela, Dev Sen fulfilled what she said was a dream of hers – hand over Soi Samman, carrying a prize value of Rs 1 lakh. “It took us a while to get the money but when we did there was enough to felicitate two.” The inaugural awards went to Shashi Deshpande and Urmila Pawar.

Explaining the choice, Dev Sen said that unlike other Indians writing in English with an eye on the West, the Karnataka-born Deshpande wrote in English for Indians. Indeed, the lady would later joke, “I don’t earn in dollars and pounds.” Praising the Soi logo of a woman reading a book, she pointed out that in reading others’ works started the process of writing. “The faint voice of Indian women is becoming distinct over the past few decades. For years we were seen as outsiders,” said the author of That Long Silence. “A society needs to listen to its writers because we have something to say,” she added.

Introducing the Marathi author of the poignant autobiography The Weave of My Life, Dev Sen pointed out: “While the rest of us found support in our formative years, Urmila came up from a place where society was trying to put her and her people down.”

Pawar’s words, simple yet strident, held the mirror up to what it meant to be a Dalit. “Women of our earlier generations have survived by picking up undigested seeds from cowdung and making rotis of them. One found a human tooth amid the food she collected from the leftover dumped at the streetside. Yet hunger made her carry on eating. My father made my mother promise that she would educate her five children even if he died. She kept her promise by weaving baskets which I sold door to door. She could not fight the insults hurled at her, so she wept to let people know what happened. Her tears were her weapon.” One had to be a Dalit to know of the kind of sexual innuendoes that a woman would have to endure. “I started writing pushed by this compulsion to protest the injustices I have seen and felt.”

Hearing her on stage was a grand old lady who has been fighting for a down-trodden tribe herself, “head soi” Mahasveta Devi. “I can’t afford to think only of women. I go to remote areas plagued by poverty and illiteracy. When you see children going without food, your views change,” said the octogenarian. Keeping her company on stage was 95-year-old dancer Amala Shankar.

The three-day event features author interactions, play reading, poetry performances and storytelling — all by women.