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Voice of the Gendered Subaltern

Feminist Vision or Treason Against Men? Kashibai Kanitkar and the Engendering of Marathi Literature by Meera Kosambi

january 24, 2009 EPW Economic & Political Weekly30book reviewVoice of the Gendered Subaltern Maya Pandit Feminist Vision or Treason Against Men? Kashibai Kanitkar and the Engendering of Marathi Literature by Meera Kosambi (Ranikhet: Permanent Black), 2008; pp xii + 339, Rs 595. Feminist studies seek to recover the voice of subaltern women from speci-fic historical formations. Traditional literary approaches believe that literature is a celebration of universal human expe-rience, defined in terms of the dominant caste/class male values, and study it as an aesthetic artefact, independent of its context. Feminist critics reject both these assump-tions and engage with issues of visibility and invisibility, hegemony and marginali-sation and articulation and silence as they get constructed in cultural productions at specific times in history. The recovery of the speaking woman’s voice is therefore a major task. “What does it mean to be a woman in a particular historical forma-tion?”, they ask in order to figure out the strategies women writers use to resist and revolt, confront and counter the forces that change their lives. The lack of translations of women’s writing in regional languages often poses a problem. Though many translations of texts in regional languages like Malayalam, Bengali, Telugu, Hindi, etc, have come out, the voice of the writing woman in Maharashtra has been unavailable to out-siders. Maharashtra witnessed great deve-lopments in print culture in the 19th century and the emergence of many writers, men and women, but their works have remained unavailable to non-Marathi readers because of lack of informed translations. Until G P Deshpande’s (edited) work on Mahatma Phule arrived in 2002, non-Marathi speakers had no access to Phule’s writings. Writers who shaped modern Maharashtra, like Lokahitawadi Vishnubuwa Brahmachari, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, Lokmanya Tilak and many others, remain untranslated into other languages. In such a cultural vacuum, the sense of history is irrecoverably lost. This becomes more dangerous especially in the context of globalisation when cul-tural diversities and histories of resistance get bulldozed under an overarching cate-gory of global culture. Marathi women writers have been ignored even in Marathi cultural accounts. In an age when women had little agency, Maharashtra saw women emerge as au-thors, thinkers and social activists who challenged the existing ideologies and changed ways of seeing women. Except for Pandita Ramabai, Ramabai Ranade and Tarabai Shinde, little is known about these essayists, playwrights, novelists andpoets. With Meera Kosambi’s Feminist Vision or Treason Against Men? Kashibai Kanitkar and the Engendering of Marathi Literaturea door has opened on the dark corner of women’s writing in 19th century Maharashtra. The book provides transla-tions of Kanitkar’s major works, with an insightful critique of the cultural context. It also raises some interesting issues with respect to Kashibai’s contribution to the formation of modern Marathi literature. Gendered Subjectivities The 19th century, an important period in Maharashtra, witnessed a tremendous transformation in the economic, cultural and political spheres. Woman became an embattled site on which ideologies of class and caste, nation and empire, old and new forms of patriarchal controls clashed and colluded in the shaping of the personal and social lives. Woman was the central plank of debates on family, marriage, law and education. Yet she was rarely allowed any agency. Except for Mahatma Phule, the reformists expected women to passively accept the paths they charted out for them. Kashibai was a reformist thinker, educa-tionist, political activist and a writer/critic of the dominant ideologies of her time, and even a political activist. Yet her work has been ignored in hegemonic Marathi cultural accounts. Kosambi presents, along with transla-tions of her major works, an informed in-sider’s critique of the writer and her times. The first chapter of the book presents a sketch of Kashibai’s personal life, of the relationship that obtained between Brahmin women’s subjectivities and the ideologies of caste, reform, nationalism and feminism. She reviews Kashibai’s literary trajectory and contends that she engendered the modern Marathi novel. The remaining fivechapters present chronologically the translations of Kanitkar’s works, spanning a period of 40 years from 1889 to 1928. These include: an undated personal ac-count “My Education”, extracts from The Life of the Late Dr Mrs Anadibai Joshee (June 1889), her review of Pandita Rama-bai’s treatiseThe People of the United States (December 1889), an abridged translation of the novel Rangrao (1887-1928), transla-tion of her essay “The Progress of Women’s Education under Imperial Rule (1911)” and a translation of her “eutopia” The Palanquin Tassel (1889-1928). Personal Life Kosambi’s account of the personal life of Kashibai works out the tensions and col-lusions between orthodox Brahmanism andreformist patriarchy. An unwelcome fourth girl born into a very orthodox patri-archal Brahmin family, Kashibai devel-opedastrong resistance to her subordinate status. She was married off at the “late” age of nine to an educated boy, who described her as “an iguana around his neck”because she was plain and un-educated. Kashibai’s decision to educate herself showed her beliefinthereformist agendathateducation was the key to solve women’s problems. Her decision to write was an attempt to win her husband’s fa-vour and assert her independent spirit in the face of opposition from the family. Writing became a historical act, signifying the urge to protest against orthodox patri-archy’s ideal of an illiterate, submissive wife and the need to accept the “modern” ideals of a companionate marriage. There is a remarkable similarity in this respect betweenKashibaiand Ramabai Ranade,
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW january 24, 200931which Kosambi could havebroughtout. Both had to carve out an identityfor themselves and negotiate thedifficultpath betweentheexpectations of their orthodox families and of their “modern” husbands. Education acquires an almost iconic status in the process.Prose and Literary Writings Kosambi’s book brings out the range of Kashibai’s writing: journalistic pieces, re-views, diary notes, biographical and auto-biographical works, and two novels, many of which were firsts for women. They represent her spirit of experimentation and feminist revolt. Kashibai, Kosambi claims, is the first woman writer to assume asubjectposition in her autobiographical writing unlike others like Ramabai Ranade, Baya Karve, Parvatibai Athawale and LaxmibaiTilak. Their autobiographies are organised around their husbands,exhibit a low self-worth and are normatively in-strumental. Though a generallysound observation, it might be difficult to sustain this in the case of Laxmibai Tilak. Her autobiography, Smritichitre, was profess-edly written to provide details about her poet husband Narayanrao Tilak’s life, but it comes across as a landmark in auto-biographical writing, with its nuanced presentation of the processes through whichshe acquired a strong sense of agency and selfhood. Her documentation ofthesocialchange brought about by the complex weave of thedominantfamilial, religious and social ideologies and her husband’s conversion to Christianity re-mains unparalleled to date. Kosambi’s claim about Kashibai engender-ing Marathi literary tradition and creating the “paradigm of woman-authored liter-ary articulations” is radical. Yet this also is a weak claim. The first fictional narratives emerged under the influence of popular English romances and tales of intrigue, modelled on the “penny periodicals” by writers like Reynolds, Marie Corelli and Lord Lytton. Salubai Tambweka had written a work of fiction, Chandraprabha-Viraha-Varnana, in this populist tradition. At the same time, realist narratives were also being published. The first was Yamuna Paryatan, written in 1858 by Baba Padmanji, a converted Christian, describing the plight of Brahmin widows. Significantly, it was feminist thinking that provided its foundational frame. These were the two models then for writers. Since Padmanji’s work predates Kashibai’s, it is difficult to accept her as the first realist writer. What is interesting, however, is that Kashibairefused to model her narratives on the tales of wonder and intrigue though probably she was exposed to them as a newly literate reader. She aligned herself with Baba Padmanji’srealistnarrative. Her novels represent a reformist vision of a world based on gender equality with opportunities to allow humans to grow and develop in varied spheres in the public and private domains. The construction of a woman-centric world in her narratives is a metaphor for the new nation she dreamsabout. Her fictional narratives like Rangraoand ThePalanquin Tassel, based on her own experience, provide a caustic criticism of the oppressive domesticity andromantic idealism. Kosambi insight-fully demonstrates how this tendency is shared by her contemporary writers like Mirza Mohammad Hadi Ruswa and places Kashibai into the national context of feminist writing. The plots and subplots, andher nuanced characterisation, are held together by ideologies of national-ismandanti-colonialism, a trend which seems to have continued through latter-day Maharashtrian women writers like Venu Chitale, who wrote fiction in English (In Transit, 1948).In this respect, she may be considered a trendsetter. Kosambi’s critique of Kashibai’s novel The Palanquin Tassel, a feminist “eutopia”, and a pioneering work in Marathi is insightful. Kosambi points out that the creditfor writing the first “eutopia” work in Marathi has been conventionally given toKusumagraj, a famous Marathi writer of the 1960s, and goes on to effectively demolish this myth created by the hege-monic Marathi critical canon. The Palanquin Tassel in the title is the name of a princely town, of a women’s kingdom, run by women for women, in which men are almost banished from all positions of power.Using the technique ofdiscovering the manuscript written by a woman, a device used by H N Apte in his classic Pan Lakshat Kon Gheto (ButWho Pays Heed), Kashibai goes on to narrate astoryofa young woman forcibly married to a mad prince by her parents deceived by the glamour of gold and power. Later on she undertakes to end the patriarchal control of women’s lives by men, promotes women’s education, including vocational training, abolishes child marriages and establishes equality between men and women. Kosambi compares the utopian, reformist vision of Kashibai, with Rokeya Hossain’s utopiaSultana’s Dream (1925). Locating her discussion in the feminist tradition of “eutopia” starting from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’sHerland (1915), she places Kashibai in the inter-national feminist tradition and argues that what links these three writers is the way they have exploited the genre of eu-topia. Their belief in the superiority of feminine virtues to masculine values, faith in education as the major tool of social transformation and their view of fiction as a legitimate mode of discourse constitute the foundation of their vision. Though Kashibai’s eutopia is much sim-pler than the feminist vision of Rokeya Hossain and Gilman that does not dimin-ish the significance of her work. It is true, as Kosambi argues, that Kashibai’s rebellious term “treason against men” sits uncomfortably with her con-formity with convention. Yet, therein lies the complex dilemma of the writing wom-an in the 19th century. In fact, she is quite similar to Tarabai Shinde, the caustic critic of patriarchy in the 19th century, in this respect. Both prescribe the model of a pativrata dharma for women. Pandita Ramabai too is no exception as her Stree Dharama Neeti demonstrates. Kosambi does not choose to develop this argu-ment. But it would be interesting to see how women writers consolidated the new protocols of power emerging in their public and private lives and articulated their visions in consonance with the new patriarchies that were emerging during the period. Issue of TranslationKosambi’s translations raise interesting theoretical problems. The Marathi prose of the 19th century does not lend itself easily to translation. Marathi has had a long tradition of poetic compositions but the pre-19th century prose tradition was sporadic. Modern Marathi prose was formed in this
BOOK REVIEWjanuary 24, 2009 EPW Economic & Political Weekly32period, under the influence of Englishmen like Major Candy and the Duxiana Prize Committee. The new prose was a challenge to women writers. In fact writing itself was a challenge as they had to switch from the oral forms of articulation to the written, which was considered to be a privileged domain of masculine creativity. Naturally, their language itself was in a constant flux of experimentation. This in itself is a chal-lenge for a translator. Should the transla-tion be smooth, fluent and “non-violent”? Or should it maintain the “rough cut” of the original production? Onewondersat the possible distance betweenthepolish and finesse of Kosambi’s English translation and the rough hewn style of the Marathi original. This is a dilemma for any translator working on the 19th century texts. The translations,ofcourse, read well and bring home the angst of the original writing,yet lose out on the raw edge of experimenta-tion in the original. Another issue is with respect to the “ex-tensive editing” of the narratives, which are abridged greatly because of their loose structure and repetitive content. Does one maintain the original structure in the trans-lation or provide a well-organised, edited, neat narrative? The first alternative would have documented Kashibai’s formal and linguistic experimentation with narrative fiction, as the actual production of each of these was spread over some decades. The constraints of the publishing industry and readership have compelled Kosambi to extensively edit the novels. Yet one wonders about the loss again in docu-menting women’s formal experimenta-tion. That might open up another fertile area of research. Grey Areas There are some unexplored areas in Kosambi’s work. What was Kashibai’s rela-tionship with contemporary women writers? Did they have a sense of solidarity, and tradition? Kashibai was associated with Pandita Ramabai’s Sharada Sadan. Did her relationship with Pandita Ramabai remain the same after latter converted to Christi-anity? Kashibai’s legendary friendship with H N Apte, the famous Marathi writer who provided her with a great deal of intellectual support also remains un-explored. There were many women writers then who were writing in newspapers and journals; they were writing stories, plays, poems and producing informative booklets on subjects like knitting and cooking. Was there an awareness of this female culture in Kashibai? Similarly, how did she perceive and react to women writers who came after her, like Indirabai Sahasrabuddhe? What was her attitude to radical non-Brahmin educationists like Phule and Savitribai, or writers like Tarabai Shinde? This is a fairly representative area of difficulty in our cul-tural history. The very fact that the book encourages the readers to formulate these questions itself is a good sign.On the whole, the book is a significant contribution to feminist research on women’s writing in India. It has opened thedoortoa great but neglected heritage of Marathi literature. Email: mayapandit@gmail.comSage

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