Any discourse on gender studies is impossible without bifurcating gender into the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. The theory of masculinity describes the image of man as associated with strength, dominance, aggression and empowerment. On the other hand the image of woman is described as ‘other’ to masculinity, associating woman with meekness, submission and dependence. The terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. But in reality, the relation between the two sexes is not quite as that of two electrical poles. As Simone de Beauvoir stated, ‘Man represents both the positive and neutral’, whereas ‘woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity’. This division between masculinity and femininity becomes more severe in the context of Indian culture. India, often portrayed as the land of ‘devis’, is a country which is ironically unsafe for its women.
Time has been a constant spectator which has seen the oppression of women in India. Whether it was women in the past or in modern times, struggle walked hand in hand with them. Issues might have changed but struggles are still omnipresent. If a woman escapes female foeticide, then she has to struggle to attain education. If she becomes educated, then she always struggles to get a respected job. And when she is employed, she struggles to have more salary as compared to her male colleagues. This is an endless process.
But with change in time and ideology of Indian people, the image of women also underwent change. Dowry is a challenge but not one that causes women to take their lives. A woman knows how to fight the regular battles. She is not submissive and gentle anymore; she is Shakti, tough and strong. The kitchen is not her workplace anymore; she is stepping out and exploring the world for herself. Sari is not her choice now, she is comfortable wearing pants. She is the woman of today, carrying her dignity with grace.
Alexandra Sanchez Gavito, in her book A Woman’s Wheel of Life takes us by the hand on her personal ‘discovery’ of the Indian women as Shakti – the everlasting female energy, without which the world cannot find due order and balance. This book is more interesting because it not only invites readers to embark on a journey – a journey through the nadirs and zeniths women face every day – but through the eyes of a foreigner. It is often said that a ‘white’ writing about the ‘other’ tries to portray Indians as someone completely opposite to the Western ideal. Filthy, dirty and black are the terms usually associated with Indian people, but Sanchez Gavito breaks the stereotype and unveils the hidden and untouched lives of Indian women like Kamala Das, Amrita Pritam, Asha Bhansole, Anjolie Ela Menon, Simone Tata, Sonal Mansingh, and others. Each of these women has carved a niche for herself through perseverance and talent.
Sanchez Gavito enlivens the life of a legend, Kamala Suraiyya Das, who ruled the world of literature during her time. The world knows Kamala Das but no one understands her mind. The world didn’t like her conversion to Islam but no one got to know the real woman that she was. Sanchez Gavito familiarizes us with the love Kamala had in the autumn of her life, which made her follow her own instincts. No one knew that the poet approached a professional killer to end her life because as she said, ‘I can’t manage it’. But this suffering was only a storm which eventually cleared when Das came to life after the Muslim preacher, whom she fell in love with and converted to Islam for, left her. She discovered her independent spirit. She didn’t feel like a torn rag doll anymore, like the recurrent image she used in My Story. Das believed educated Indian women are not rag dolls. She said, ‘India needs honest women with courage. This will save not only women but will save mankind . . .’
Sanchez Gavito’s book is a gift to intellectuals and people associated with art. She not only provides glimpses of ladies who ruled the world of fiction and art, but also portrays their lives like a film playing before our eyes. From Kamala Das, she shifts the scene to the Punjabi fiction of Amrita Pritam. Pritam, well-remembered for her composition of ‘aj akhaan Varis Shah nu’ lived on her own terms. She shocked everyone when she started living in with renowned artist and writer Imroz. ‘Own yourself’, is what Pritam always said to Indian women. In her poems, and during her time as a member of parliament, Pritam denounced the humiliations and degradations women have to live with because they are economically tied to their husbands. She set an example by always trying to earn her own living, especially after the breakdown of her marriage.
Asha Bhonsle, the Indian Madonna, who gave her voice to many successful films, is described as a serene beauty. Dressed in a cotton sari she looks petite, motherly, warm and full of tenderness. Indian cinema always portrays the relationship of saas-bahu as full of conflicts, with one trying to dominate the other. But Sanchez Gavito in her book shows a completely different picture while talking about Asha Bhonsle. The queen of music, married at the age of fourteen, was left by her husband as he was unable to cope with her successful career. Bhonsle decided to live with her children and her mother-in-law. Gavito has beautifully described the sisterly relationship Bhonsle shared with her mother-in-law. Being a single mother during a time when women were thought of as insecure without a man-made Bhonsle much stronger in her life. She not only raised her children but also succeeded in establishing her identity as one of India’s most famous and skilled singers.
Sanchez Gavito also introduces us to the life of Nandita Das, the Bollywood actress, well remembered for her performance in Fire. Das is full of energy and belongs to the class of educated independent women who took up theatre and nukad natak to present the hardships faced by women. Since her graduation years, she took part in activism and became a voice for the Indian female victim. Nandita Das is very bold in her approach to life and cinema. She made herself a great example for women by taking part in films like Sandstrom. Das is known for saying,‘ Speak up (for yourself)’.
Today, on International Women’s Day, we would like to salute the spirits of ladies like these. They not only made their nation proud but made their race – womanhood – proud. Let the flag of their spirit continue to fly. We wish you a very happy International Women’s day.
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