The Epic Other Women…..

Karen is always at the forefront of some amazing reading events and all of them have helped me read books out of my comfort zone, open my mind to new ideas and generally learn more. The #readindies event that she hosts along with Lizzy, every year with is one such event. Often in the media blitz of the bigger publishing houses and colossal corporates like Amazon, the Independent publishers and bookstores get lost and with them we lose on unique distinctive narratives that move away from mainstream or popular culture and speak of things not common. Reading fundamentally, more than just being one of the best entertainments, is about living many lives, exploring uncharted places and making you face things, away from your home ground. It is essential for an enriched soul and a thinking mind and a sensitive heart and these aims are fulfilled when we read what is popular but also what is different, and subaltern or alternative. And reading independent publishers who give voice to this section of the society, atleast in my part of world, therefore becomes even more critical.

This brings me to the independent publishing house of Westland Publications and I want to talk about them a bit before I get into the book I read. Westland Publications was one the first and premier Indian publishing houses of independent India wholly owned and run by Indians. It started way back in 1962 as distributer of books before branching into publishing garnering great reputation among Indian authors and Indian readers for several years. In 2013 it was bought by the Tata Group and in 2017 it was sold off to Amazon. While it became part of larger conglomerate, the spirit of being the voice of India continued unstintingly; they kept catering to what was often not part of the popular culture under the prolific and far sighted leadership of Gautam Padmanabhan, son of the founder, KS Padmanabhan, both icons of Indian literary world. However on Friday, February 1, Amazon announced it will be shutting down Westland Publications. I am sure Amazon can back up with data and numbers as to why it makes sense to shut down Westland, and I am sure they all make perfect business sense. But for Indian readers and authors and the literary world, this is a heavy blow. Westland was a unique agency of bringing forth the nascent world of Indian English literature and powering the publication of books in other native languages. While Penguin and other such giants continue to publish the bigger names of Indian authors, for the marginalized, a strong platform has disappeared taking along with it, many unheard voices and stories. I chose Westland because in essence it has always been #indie in every sense of the term and it’s recent ill fortunes make it even more important, that her books be read and her voice continues to be heard, whether they are physically available on shelves or not.

Now back to regular programing!

Ramayan along with Mahabharat are two of the epics of Indian subcontinent and East Asia. They are the Iliad and Odyssey of the East and every household has atleast one copy of each. They provide religious counsel, philosophy, political insight and entertainment. They have been translated in innumerable languages and been made into films and series and even animation. However what usually get’s narrated is the one of the standing theme of the epics, the battles, and often the other stories which actually give a far more comprehensive picture of the life and times and the philosophy of life, gets left out, providing a very skewed narrative. Ramayan is ostensibly a linear tale of a great virtuous Prince, Ram, who is exiled from his kingdom due to family politics; his stepmother wants her son to be the crown prince and the new ruler of Ayodhya. Ram goes into exile with his beautiful and loyal wife Sita and his youngest half brother Lakshman. In the jungle, a female “giant” becomes enamored of the two Princes and proposes to first Ram and when he spurns her, to Lakshman. Lakshman, the angry young man, is affronted at the audacity of this female giant in making such a suggestion, and chops off her eyes and ears ( A simple No would have sufficed!) The insulted woman, goes back to her brother, who is the King of the powerful state of Lanka, Ravan, who promises to seek revenge. He then plots to get Ram and Lakshman away from their cottage and kidnaps Sita. A battle ensures between the two forces and naturally the “good” forces , i.e. Ram and friends win and return to Ayodhya to take their rightful place. This is the broad outline of the mainstay of the epic , but there are several other associate stories that led to this final plot development, many other voices and several other characters, who were pivotal to this story. And this is what Anand Neelkantan tries to do, in his book Valmiki’s Women.

Valmiki was a dacoit and an anti social element, who had a change of heart and became a hermit. One day, he decided to write an epic that would become Ramayan. Mr. Neelkanthan’ first story reimagines the circumstances that led to Valmiki writing this epic, with the running themes of women, land and sacrifice. His next story explores the life of Shanta, the little known and often ignored older sister to Ram and his brothers. Their father King Dashratha is obsessed with the idea of having a son and in that quest, he ignores his only child, his daughter Shanta. The story traces Shanta’s life, highlighting her relationships with her father, her step mother Kaykei, who trains her to be a warrior princess and the final act of obedience, that she is called on to display, to help her father realize his ambitions. The second story focuses on the life of Manthara, lady in waiting to the second Queen of Ayodhya, Kaykei. It is said that it was the constant brain washing by Manthara, that led to Kaykei, demanding that King Dashratha keep his long given blank promised to her, to give her whatever she wants, that led to exile of Ram. In this re-telling, the reader gets an insight into the distressing circumstances Manthara was born into; she was a hunchback and that has traditionally been a subject of derision or suspicion alternatively. The story follows as Manathara is selected to become a governess cum lady in waiting for the young princess, Kaykei and her life as she follows the princess to her married home, the exile of Ram and her last years. The third story is told from the point of view of another “giant” Maricha, who narrates the story of his mother, Tataka, a “giant” princess who had married a man of the forest and with the advance of the Aryan or Ram’s civilization into the natural habitat of northern India, died protecting the flora and fauna. The story follows Maricha’s plan of avenging the death of his parents and how his “disguise” lured first Ram and the Lakshman from their cottage, leaving Sita alone to be kidnapped. The book closes with the final story of Meenakshi, the female “giant” who was besotted by Ram and had to pay the price by becoming disfigured. The story follows her life as she meets Sita who is now about to be exiled alone ( This is the epilogue of Ramayan; where local gossip imputes that Sita was not loyal to Ram when kidnapped, though it is beyond question that she has been so. Embarrassed Ram disowns her and sends her to exile where she bears him two sons and would ultimately be called back. Only she refuses and instead is “gives herself to be enfolded in the earth.”) This interaction between Meenakshi and Sita and a woman from one of Indian tribes closes the narrative, again bringing it back to the theme of land, women and sacrifice.

This is already a long post so I do not want to eulogies on how well written this book was. While there has been a recent trend of re-telling of Indian mythologies and epic, most are sensationalist without any real insight to offer. Mr. Neelkantan does a fabulous job in managing to narrate complex tales in lucid and sparse prose, while making it gripping and wholly absorbing. He is not afraid to break away from the mainstream narrative and give voices and provide perspectives to the marginalized and often demonized characters of the epic. He subtly makes the political point on how Aryans coming from North, i.e. Iran would have viewed the indigenous population of India and branded them as monsters and giants. (India had a flourishing civilization, called the Indus Valley Civilization circa. 5000 BCE. Aryans were actually Iranians came in hordes to India and settled here around 1500 BCE and from them emerged the two epics) He beautifully illustrates the conflict of two different civilizations, without losing his grip on the main story. Most importantly, his compassion for all the overlooked elements of the society, that continues to live on its fringes even in the present day, through the iteration of an age old epic, makes the reader aware of how much still needs to be done for their fellow humans. Simple yet gorgeous, this book is must for anyone interested in India.

The Unspoken Voices of Partition……

One of the often-overlooked aspects especially by the Western Historians and even some India scholars is the Partition of India. With the exception of Israel, no other state in modern history was created on religious grounds and there is no precedent in history to such mass scale killing, migration of population and loss of property that happened with the announcement of division of India in 1947, into two nations, Pakistan (created for the Muslims) and India. This artificial drawing of boundaries separating peoples and communities that have resided in the same way for a thousand years led to not only economic and political upheaval, but also lives lost, including rapes and abductions marred the joy of India finally “gaining” its freedom from British rule on August of 1947 and continues to echo till date.

Lately there have been some scholars from the subcontinent who have started looking at this epoch moment of history, The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan and Partition, The Story of India’s Independence and Creation of Pakistan in 1947 by Barney White – Spunner to name a few; most of these books focused on “what happened” at the political level that led to division of India in two parts. While it is important to understand these politico-economics dynamics, it is also critical to understand people’s history and the story of the common folks who had to leave everything they knew as a way of life and with nothing except the clothes on their back and start a journey of 100 miles to a new unknown but apparently safe future. Among these narratives, however there are certain voices missing, like those of the partition Women, who were perhaps the biggest victims of the mass rioting that broke out in Punjab and Bengal, the two impacted states of the partition; losing not only family, but also subjected to some of the most brutal violence and heinous sex crimes in the recent history and then silenced either through death or forced conversion and marriage.

Urvashi Butalia, now one of the most respected scholars and publishers of India, began her work by trying to fill this gap by writing about these silenced voices, in her brilliant book, The Other Side of Silence – Voices of Partition of India published 1998. In 8 chapters, Ms. Butalia captures some of the most intense oral histories of men, woman, children to bring together a people’s history of what partition did to everyday men and women. She begins the book with by sharing how while helping some friends film a documentary about Partition, she became interested in the subject. This subject became even more personal as she takes us into her own family and how it split her mother’s family in two – her mother and her siblings choosing to make a dangerous journey to India on the eve of some of the worst violence and her mother’s younger brother who chose to stay back in Pakistan, convert and marry and settle there. In subsequent chapters, she explores narratives of women – women who tried to commit suicide rather than be raped and violated or “honour” killings, where girls and women were killed by the families to prevent them from being abducted and sexually exploited by fathers and brothers. She also talks about the children of the partition, those orphans of the conflict or those who were product of rape and kidnappings. Finally, she looks at the “Untouchables” the lowest in the Hindu Caste system and their stories during this time of history.

Ms. Butalia manages the remarkable feet of keeping the narrative empathetic and soulful, while remaining factual and scientific in her approach ensures that her book never descends into high drama story telling. Her voice is clear and concise and her honesty in acknowledging her own emotional turmoil, especially the story of her family adds another layer of depth to the book. Non judgemental and deeply human, she never blames any religion or the people, instead she subtly directs the readers to think about the political mechanizations that went on that time and the “leaders” who were could be seen as “responsible” for this catastrophe. She is not afraid of calling spade a spade, but instead she focuses on the main principals of the books, the overlooked others. Her nuanced and sensitive story telling picks on so many unspoken actions that speak not only of Partition but all marginalized groups across history. She speaks about how women who survived Partition were never allowed to speak to her alone and was always surrounded by family, to the extent, that at times even answers were given by family members who may not have actually witnessed the conflict. She gives voices to things left unsaid, the old man, who does not mention his mother, because she could commit suicide  ( the wells were filled up and women could not drown anymore) and of the lack of choices for the woman – when they were honour killed  or abducted and forced to marry or when after being settled with the new family for more than 10 years, they were forced to go back to their old families where they were disrespected on account of having lost their “purity” by the flick of signatures of the governments of two countries that embarked on a repatriation program. She speaks of little acknowledged facts of history  – of the amazing middle class women who came together to set up camps and provide shelter and occupation for their lesser fortunate sisters and their children; these women from well to do families had their own griefs to deal with of lost and murdered families but they put their own personal tragedies aside for greater good and till date remain the unsung heroes of the country. She speaks about the “Untouchables” who were stranded in Sindh and Pakistan would not let them go to India because they formed the complete sanitation workforce and, in their absence, the already struggling hygiene of the city would totally breakdown and the lack of initiative by the political leaders of India which allowed this population to be lost in annals of history. The book is not a complete history of the “other” voices, the author herself acknowledges, that she has not captured the stories of Bengal focusing instead of the impact of Partition of Punjab. But in her limited scope, she is able to convey many things and provide a profoundly deep and disturbing chapter in the tumultuous history of this 5000-year-old nation.

This is a difficult book to read but it is an important book to read. The stories of what women were subjected to is harrowing and heart-breaking. The fates of the abandoned children are beyond distressing. But it is book that needs to be read so that we do not forget and we do not repeat!