Early South Asian literature has been dominated largely by male writers people like R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Nirad Chaudhuri and, more recently, V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. Early women writers include Anita Desai, Nayantara Sahgal, Attia Hosain, and the emigré, Ruth Prawar Jhabvala. Since the 1980s a number of new writers have come up, who are often included, for example, in publications like the New Yorker special issue or in Rushdie's recent anthology.More recent women writers from South Asia have been put into two kinds of "camps," if one can call it that: one, "indigenous" writers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and two, South Asian-American writers, immigrant writers, of whom Bharati Mukherjee and Chitra Divakaruni, who has published a collection of stories called Arranged Marriage, are the best known. Of course, currently the best-known Indian woman writer is Arundhati Roy, whose book The God of Small Things received the Booker Prize in 1997.This and also Sara Suleri's Meatless Days, pose extremely important questions. Both are also good teaching texts, linguistically brilliant and very innovative, with wonderful prose, and I will discuss both of them a little later. There are many, many others. There are also, of course, many second- and third-generation South Asian women writers from Britain such as Meera Syal. So what we have is not only a national phenomenon, but also a diasporic phenomenon. What comes out of all this, then, is a combination of concerns that have to do with postcolonialism and the history of colonization, but also its consequences, migration and diaspora.
One of the questions is: how is it that women writers, or even male writers approach feminism or express an ambivalent kind of feminism? We can talk about gender with regard to male writers, too, most certainly, but with women writers, a whole different set of concerns emerges. With regard to feminism and nationalism, one of the classic problems is that for women writers, and for feminists as well, if you criticize traditional forms of cultural practice, including patriarchal societies, or religious and ethnic groupings, you are often attacked for not fitting into the colonial nationalist project. This is something Arundhati Roy takes up in her book. But the whole question of setting up a gender critique of patriarchal systems is something that becomes very problematic for women writers, particularly when they are seen as allying themselves with so-called white feminism. This has certainly been the problem for African women writers too.
Recently, in the work of postcolonial critics like Lata Mani and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, a new or at least a slightly different issue that comes up is the question of colonial legacies for women in postcolonial national discourse. Take the example of sati: how is to be understood in a postcolonial context? How is it a consequence of a kind of postcolonial resurgence of traditionalism, or what is constructed as traditionalism? In what ways are women used as icons within this neo- nationalist, often very fundamentalist project? So the role of women in nationalism becomes a really big question. The critic Ann McClintock, for example, in her book Imperial Leather, talks about how nationalism itself is gendered and gendered in all kinds of ways and also how women in different class positions, as well as racial formations, are positioned differently, with regard to feminism and nationalism. So she, for example, in talking about South Africa and the Afrikaans project, speaks of how white women in South Africa were positioned very differently from black women, who also were first seen as only mothers, and who then used that positioning of maternity as a kind of political tool. These are the sorts of questions that come out of the larger question of feminism and its relationship to nationalism, especially for indigenous women writers.
With regard to diasporic literature, a whole new set of questions arises. The diasporic writers we're looking at often describe very new problems and circumstances. They often talk about how enabling it can be for women to be in a different kind of community. For example, Bharati Mukherjee describes women emigrating to the U.S. or Canada and being able to construct a new self self-invention. But at the same time, that separation from community can also be very disabling, so that's another dynamic that gets played out. There are a couple of very good recent films that are good to talk about and to teach. One of them, which is very much concerned with diasporic issues, is Bhaji on the Beach. It's a British film about second-generation South Asian women in Britain, and it very skillfully dramatizes these questions of identity and cultural belonging.
A third big issue in this area is the question of transnationalism, which is becoming an increasingly important project for many feminists. It has to do with the problem of making cross-cultural comparisons between woman writers, from, say, South Africa or Africa or India, or different parts of the world, without erasing the specificities of history and geographic location. How do you do that without falling into essentialisms and, at the same time, how do you actually make useful comparisons? I think a big issue that begins to emerge in all these writings, especially more recently, is the question of sexuality. Sexuality, that is, not so much in terms of thinking of gender as a category, but sexuality as questioning heteronormative frameworks of thinking about gender, either within patriarchies or not. Another recent film, Fire, by Deepa Mehta, deals very directly with that issue.It's about lesbian sexuality developing in a middle-class family in Delhi. Arundhati Roy also deals with this issue, and so does Sara Suleri and, to some extent writers like Suniti Namjoshi and Kamala Das.
Pakistani Literature in American context
Sara Suleri's Meatless Days, Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things, and Chitra Divakaruni's Arranged Marriage. Meatless Days is an autobiography, and yet it's quite bizarre, in that, as a memoir, it remains extremely impersonal; the subject of the writing is completely absent in some sense. Yet it's very exquisitely crafted and it takes on issues such as the question of history and revision how is it that women can rewrite history, particularly nationalist history? In Meatless Days Suleri talks about her father, who was a journalist in Pakistan and very involved in the creation of the nation in 1947, and about her gradually developing understanding that history does not have to be only a father's history, but is also the history of several women, women in her family intertwined with the history of the nation. The problem in teaching a text like that is, How does one position such a text in an American context? Actually, Suleri takes that up in the memoir, in talking about being the so-called horse's mouth, or the "Otherness Machine," as she calls it. That is, how does the subaltern speak? How is it possible to present an autobiography without becoming the icon of the Other? I think it is a very useful text and a very rich text to teach in all kinds of courses, because it works simultaneously as a way of questioning history, a way of thinking about gender, and a way of thinking about autobiography what is autobiography, how can one think about autobiography as the story of the self, as opposed to communal histories, and so on.
Sara Suleri, Salman Rushdie, and Post-Colonialism