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Literature and Gender: Essays for Jasodhara Bagchi Edited by Supriya Chaudhuri and Sajni Mukherjee, Orient Longman, Rs 575

This collection of essays, in honour of the eminent feminist academic, Jasodhara Bagchi, explores representations of gender in literary texts. Going beyond mere genre and style, these essays concentrate on issues of “autonomy” and “agency”, both in the representations of women in literature, as well as in writings by women.

In most texts, women are stereotypically shown to take a backseat in public affairs, while men take centre stage. Traditional male histories show women as confined within the limits laid down by patriarchy. A woman’s participation in the economic sphere and her autonomy are severely restricted partly because she lacks personal resources — something that also makes her dependent on the support and pleasure of her husband.

Feminists, on the other hand, have attempted to read these same texts “in a new way…to read them not for the moments in which they collude with or reinforce dominant ideologies of gender, class, notion of empire but for the gestures of defiances or subversions implicit in them”, as Susie Tharu says in the introduction to Women’s Writings in Ancient India.

This collection of essays attempts precisely such a re-reading of texts in order to locate issues of authority, empowerment and formation of a “self”. The subject matter of the fourteen essays in this collection is diverse, ranging from medieval Europe to nineteenth century politics and literature, from women’s education in Bengal to the role of women in the Tebhaga movement and representations of women in modern Indian films. Notwithstanding this multiplicity of themes, every essay in this volume “open[s] …questions of authority or, more precisely, authorisation”.

In doing so, the contributors in this festschrift do not stick to any one school of feminist thought; instead, they make use of a wide variety of methodological frameworks. What enriches this collection is a certain flexibility of approach rather than a rigid adherence to theoretical assumptions.

The object, in these essays, is to articulate and also to create a space for those voices that have been hitherto marginalized and subordinated. But this volume is not merely a chronicle of the “subaltern”, it also goes into critical questions of ideology, identity and selfhood.

This volume of essays shows that even if we perceive most textual traditions as essentially male constructs, we cannot summarily reject the questions they raise about autonomy, the availability of spaces for women and societal hierarchy.

Rajeswari Sunder Rajan’s essay locates three problem areas in Women’s Writings in Ancient India, edited by Tharu and K. Lalita. One, the category of experience; two, the legitimacy of the subaltern/feminist historian/critic; and three, “the invention of a tradition”. There is a privileging of something designated as “women’s experience”, an experience of ideology in opposition to the “other” of male history, literary tradition, form and ideology. The experience from the “margins” would make women’s writing resistant to patriarchal pigeon-holing by definition.

While “the category of experience” is inaccessible, material culture and histories can help to recreate or “invent a tradition”. This “invention” does not occur in a neutral space but has a direct bearing on our desires and depends on our political beliefs. This raises the problem of the historian’s self-assigned role as one who undertakes “to give the subaltern a voice in history”. “Authenticity” is indeed a difficult realm to investigate.

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