It was feminist writer, educator, and activist Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s 140th birth anniversary on the 9th of December. In celebration of her feminist spirit and empowering legacy, let’s take a look at some works of feminist fiction by her and other Indian authors that you need to read!
Stories not only allow us to explore such things as feminism with greater freedom, they also allow those of us who find it difficult to get through non-fiction, an engaging opportunity to acquaint ourselves with diverse narratives and feminist perspectives.
Winters are the perfect time to get under a blanket with a hot cup of coffee or chai, and read endlessly! So, here are a few Indian feminist fiction books to read this month!
Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
Published in 1905, Sultana’s Dream is one of the first works of feminist fiction by an Indian writer.
The science fiction novella is an unprecedented feminist attempt at imagining a feminist utopia, called ‘Ladyland’. The “utopia” is one where women run the world aided by fantastical technology, like flying cars and labourless farming. The women scientists ensure progress in a technologically advanced world, and the men are locked away.
The mirror-image of the traditional purdah system in Sultana’s Dream is inspired by Rokeya Begum’s own traditional upbringing in a Muslim family that secluded the women behind the purdah.
Through the ‘Ladyland’ in the novella, she explores not so much an idealistic future, as she does a restrictive reality in the present. Sultana, the protagonist, cannot believe a space that isn’t dominated by men exists. Her first experience of freedom is in this ‘ladyland’, where she doesn’t have to worry about the male gaze, and is not restricted by male surveillance.
The novella is a pioneering work of Indian feminist fiction, by a pioneering woman.
The Inner Courtyard: Stories by Indian Women, edited by Lakshmi Holdström
The book is a collection of short stories by a diverse group of Indian women. It is an anthology of stories that emerged and existed amidst changing social orders and gender norms, diaspora and exile, and imperialism and its aftermath.
The readers are given a platter of 17 female narratives, from the musings of young girls, to the trials of motherhood, to the anger of a Naxalite rebel and stories of prostitution. The glimpse into the diverse narratives captures the ever-evolving landscape of what it meant and means to be a woman in pre and post-Independence India.
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Chandrabati, a poet in the 16th century, is considered to be the first female poet of Bengal. She is also one of the first writers, way before the likes of Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni, to present the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view. Translator Nabaneeta Dev Sen found Chandrabati’s work when researching on village women’s folk songs. In Chandrabati’s folklore version of the epic, the characters are removed from the trappings of heroes and villains, and gods and goddesses, and treated as humans.
Sita is given space to be an autonomous body and lament about the injustices that haunt her, instead of simply being the symbol of chastity, obedience and the ideal wife.
Chandrabati transforms Sita from a glorified, unattainable, and regressive mould of womanhood, to a real human.
That Long Silence by Shashi Deshpande
Deshpande explores the story of a woman exploring the idea of a life beyond the subservience and stifling of individual expression, that she’s conformed herself to through the years. Stuck in a marriage that lacks intimacy or emotion, but is filled with sexist ideas of wifely duties, Jaya’s dissatisfaction with her life bubbles over after her husband loses his job. As she muses over her frustrations, failed dreams, and husband’s disapprovals, after 17 years of marriage, and an even longer period of confining herself to a “long silence”, Jaya begins to work towards finding herself. The book follows her journey of self-discovery, and explores the inner conflicts of a woman attempting to find herself and remove herself from male control.
Lifting The Veil by Ismat Chughtai
Lifting The Veil is a collection of fictional stories and two essays by Ismat Chughtai. Written during a period when writings by, let alone about, women was rare, Chughtai explored femininity, sexuality, and politics.
Using her words as tools to explore the social and political structures around her, Chughtai provides a rare insight into the private and public lives of women. Her sly black humour and unabashed honesty explore everything from homoeroticism to the lives of widows.
We hope you’re intrigued by and want to pick up at least one (if not all) of these books, as another step in your feminist journey. Happy reading!
Do you have a favourite work of feminist fiction that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments!
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