The Fight of the Fiery Tongue: New Women’s Voices in Marathi

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Contemporary Marathi women writers are brewing up a literary storm, whose implications are not just limited to the realm of art.

Mumbai is that metaphorical smelting pot of the alchemists that will eventually produce gold. We don’t know how to get to the said gold yet, but we keep pottering around to unearth that melting pot of dreams. Rainbow or not, the resistance that this city offers to the death of desires is phenomenal. The migrants and the natives, the down-and-out and the up-and-about, the literates and the street-smarts, the men and the women, the pages and the stages – they all forge ahead in their ambitions and remake the city every day.

Literature then, becomes an indispensable way to document and navigate the changing contours of this colourful city. And Marathi becomes the language that reaches the hinterland; travelling from Mumbai to far corners of the State, taking the winds of dissent with it. The city has, over the decades, produced some of the most renowned Marathi women poets and writers including Hira Bansode, Shanta Gokhale, Jyoti Lanjewar and Kavita Mahajan (who studied at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Urmila Pawar, Pradnya Pawar, Chhaya Datar and Usha Mehta. These women, several of them writers for the Dalit cause, have not only pushed the envelope in terms of form, but substance as well.

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A long, meandering conversation with Shanta Gokhale at her quaint apartment in Dadar unravels several stories about these women, their writing, and their connection with the city. Gokhale, who is a Marathi novelist, playwright, theatre critic, bilingual columnist, and translator, has a quiet presence and talks in short, measured sentences that only a lover of words can conjure. When asked about her love for and life in the city she says, “Well, one can only write what one experiences, and this city is all that I know.” Both her novels – Rita Welinkar (1995) and Tya Varshi (2008) are set in Bombay and she uses the city as a backdrop, which gives context to the struggle and eventual transcendence of the protagonists. In Rita Welinkar, the protagonist is a young woman who is in a relationship with her much older, married boss. The story is narrated through the point of view of the ‘other woman’, hence humanizing her and her motivations. Tya Varshi follows the lives of several artists, painters, musicians and dancers while they try to live the ‘Bombay life’ and the struggles between modernity and tradition are constant threads in their stories. The city comes alive as a site of resistance through these characters. Resistance to dominant mores, to patriarchy, to institutions, and to the ‘right’ way of living life.

So do we look at women’s writing as a political statement or as a transgression?  “Well, I have formed this unfortunate impression over the years that women ‘writers’ aren’t really resistive. They assume a certain posturing against establishment, although it seems like a forced position. However, there are a few women writers that we really should look out for,” she says.

Kavita Mahajan is one of these. With two novels, and several collections of poetry to her credit, Mahajan is a woman who has taken Marathi literature to new heights. Her books Brrr and Bhinn transgress several age-old ideas of what a woman ought to write about. “Women are slowly breaking these invisible barriers that have formed around our writing. Initially it used to just be about relationships, their household lives, and writings from within the four walls of their existence, but we are shifting outside these boundaries,” says Mahajan. Brrr is a collection of stories about women sarpanch and their lives after the Panchayati Raj system was implemented. Bhinn speaks about the lives of those affected by HIV AIDS. Both books bring out the politics of representation at three levels – one of the institutions like the Panchayats, the corruption in the non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and the intricacies of human relationships. As opposed to the maternal, or the romantic, her enquiries are clearly directed towards the political, the social, and the economic.

Gokhale too, talks along these lines as she says, “Very few women write about ‘dealing with issues’. That’s why the upper-class woman is a dead cause for me. There is nothing exciting or new being produced there. All this relationship business, I find it tedious and boring.” In the same breath she praises Urmila Pawar for disrupting this pattern, who she calls ‘the militant Dalit’.

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Best known for her autobiographical work ‘The Weave of My Life,’ which traces the lives of three Dalit women including herself, Pawar writes, “My mother used to weave aaydans (a generic term in the Marathi language for all things made from bamboo). I find that her act of weaving and my act of writing are organically linked. The weave is similar. It is the weave of pain, suffering, and agony that links us.” Another writer caught in these tempestuous waters of resistance is Pradnya Lokhande. Daughter of famed Dalit leader and writer Daya Pawar, she has written five collections of poetry and several collections of short stories that include Antahstha, Utkat Jiwaghenya Dhagiwar, Mi Bhidawu Pahatey Samagrashi Dola, and Afawa Khari Tharavi Mhanun. These women are breaking free of every convention in the book to put their ideologies, politics, and identities out in the world. These works are not just transgressions of gender, but of caste and class identity and language as well.

While some women writers find that it helps to shout out loud from the rooftops of the city, others, mostly of the older generation, are bringing the revolution home more quietly. A striking example of this would be Usha Mehta, whose most recent translation of Dhiruben Patel’s ‘Kitchen Poems’ is winning hearts all around. About the collection Gokhale says, “She is not angry, or aggressive in her writing. The resistance comes from the fact that the protagonist of these kitchen poems has a complete and total awareness of what she is doing and why. Only when you know, can you transgress.” The craft of the narrator and the heart-warming ease with which the trials and tribulations of being a woman are told can be seen in this excerpt:

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In theatre too, though not traditionally a female domain, several Marathi women playwrights are making a name for themselves. These include Irawati Karnik, who is a household name and the more recent younger addition to the troupe, Manasvini. Her first play ‘Cigarettes’ was banned from being staged in Pune because of its allegedly explicit sexual content. The play was about how young people are trying to find new ways of exploring sex. Gokhale claims that a lot of young writers, poets, and playwrights are steering away from the conventional forms of art in response to the influences and pressures of globalisation and consumerism that we live with today.

Times are changing, so are our ways of writing in the regional language. The inherent resistance, however, remains. This city is home to all: the brash and the docile, the bold and the old, the sacred and the profane. There are all kinds of women, tongues, and writings. This is but a small story of a few women, writing in Marathi. The rebellions are far more than just these, and so are the challenges. The pallus shall prevail, nonetheless.

Photo & Design: Rajashree Gandhi & Fareeda Muhammed

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