When Maitreyi Devi encountered Sergui-al-Georghe, she had, in many ways, also encountered some unpleasant lies. As a naïve teenager, she had fallen in love with a Romanian man, Mircea Eliade, who painted an absolutely distorted picture of her and her homeland in his book La Nuit Bengali. Not only was the mutual respect that came with their past relationship totally absent in the book, but also Eliade often referred to Maitreyi using derogatory terms. Maitreyi refused to put up with this humiliation, so she decided to reclaim the narrative in which she had an equal part, in which she would be able to tell her own story. In her own words, “I am prepared to accept an unpleasant truth but why should I be the victim of an unpleasant lie?” (Na Hanyate)
The result was her award-winning novel Na Hanyate, through which the tradition of women writers claiming their own place in terms of representation got all the stronger. Maitreyi Devi’s act of challenging Eliade’s version of the tale was not merely a literary spat; her novel had indeed debunked many “oriental” myths even before Edward Said pointed out what Orientalism was. It presented in detail the tumultuous political situation of freedom-seeking India—details that Eliade had glossed over, or simply had not found important. Historically oppressed communities, including women, have been relegated to the back stage.
In light of quite a few recent books written by and about women, collected from the Ekushey Book Fair 2019, it is safe to say that this trend of women reclaiming their position in history and literature keeps on getting stronger from Maitreyi’s generation to the present one.
Nonfiction and history
The first step to reclaiming the right to one’s voice along the line of gender is to reclaim history, which has to be initiated by challenging women’s representation in history. Compared to women’s achievement in the spheres of literature and education, there is a dearth of recorded history on women’s struggle in all over South Asia. Very few books speak of their historic struggles and document their rise from the ashes. In a much-needed initiative to commemorate female revolutionary figures, under a unique series of pocketbooks called Kirtiman Bangali published by Prothoma, Maleka Begum, a women’s rights activist, has written about the lives of two illustrious women—Preetilata Waddedar and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Being the founding General Secretary of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, Maleka Begum has the credibility to present history with a unique vantage point. The books in the series are written in a way that can help readers, both young and old, get a thorough idea of the life and struggles of historically important pioneering women.
A similar endeavor, carried out on a bigger scale and in a more scholarly vein, is the resource-rich book of feminist history by Purabi Basu, Jokhon Bhanglo Duar, published by Panjeree Publications. Account of any collective struggle is an aggregate of historic “sparks”—moments that gradually lead up to a larger event. Purabi Basu’s book, written on the history of women’s liberation movement, pinpoints these important moments that have shaped women’s history or have added momentum to later historical events. The author has tackled these developments sector-wise—women’s education, their entry in the political sphere, relationship dynamics between men and women, women in the cultural arena and men who have contributed toward the cause etc.
Authors of these important books are well aware that the reclaiming of narratives begins with gaining a thorough knowledge of one’s history. However, there have not been enough initiatives to recognize the struggles of women in areas remote from the center. Adhunikotar Abhighat O Sribhumir Naree JagoronSahitya Prokash, is such an initiative by history researcher Dipankar Mohanta. Achievements of historically backward communities are often overshadowed by those of an urban, more privileged population. This unique book documents how women’s movement, their right to education and their right to a better life came to fruition in the greater Sylhet region.
In search of women’s voices, we move from the past to the present. Beginning with Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain, our women writers have debunked various myths about the idea of the “feminine”. Most Bangladeshi readers are familiar with the overly romanticized image of the naïve teenage girl in fiction. Draped in a saree at the age of sixteen, this girl has no ambition in life, no studies, no female role models to look up to. Her only purpose in life is to woo the male protagonist with her many womanly charms. Challenging these stereotypes that have been so deeply embedded in our literary culture, emerging female writers are writing about themselves, creating characters who have a role markedly different from all chauvinistic perceptions. Consider the following excerpt from Paromita Heem’s newly released novel—
“Aare what’s the hype about long hair anyway? Look at how Audrey Hepburn has short hair, is there a prettier girl than her in the world? ... Not only that, I’m not very fond of long hair myself. Shoulder-length hair makes you feel ticklish, it’s quite a hassle. Moreover, long hair takes much longer to dry. It hurts to comb it and detangle it. Even though I feel like letting my hair grow out now, I know for a fact that I’ll be fed up in no time. The kind of girls that boys fall in love with are different. I’m not like them.” (My translation)
Her novel, Uttam o Manoshir Rahasyamay PremKathaprokash, , triumphs in the creation of the “real girl”. Not all her characters are strong, empowered women. They have their weaknesses and flaws as characters, one in particular is stuck in a loveless relationship. However, they are all real women who would keep their hair short for convenience, rather than keeping it long to appear more desirable for men. We meet many other “real girls” in Ondho Kulongir Teekabhasshyo (Nagree, 2019), a short story collection by Monira Kayes, where the first story is a story of disillusionment. Women in popular novels and short stories are often seen devoting their life to someone who cares very little for them, and Monira Kayes’ unique protagonist does not, ultimately, make a wrong choice. The book, overall, speaks of bold themes such as infertility, and shows the idiosyncrasies of men through a distinctly female gaze.
The master of the female gaze and the feminine narrative is veteran literary figure Selina Hossain. Her writing is lucid, rich in lush descriptions of nature, creating an eerily beautiful plot in her new novel Shomoyer Phoole BishpipraKathaprokash, . The protagonist, though male, has a rare sensitivity that challenges conventional masculinity. He openly wails out of grief for the death of a child he has barely known. An emotional, empathetic male protagonist unlike any other, he challenges the police openly—
“I’ve never met Shukhpakhi. I’ve only met her dead body. This is all your fault.” (My translation)
Mahbub, alias Amit, makes a journey of self-discovery in the remote forest-village of Haringhata. Mahbub’s coexistence with nature reminds us of Bibhutibhushon Bandopadhyay’s Aranyak. The reader lovingly remembers another literary classic, Rabindranath Tagore’s short story, “Postmaster”, as Mahbub’s little friend Phoolmeher is an outspoken, more confident version of Tagore’s Ratan.
One may not consciously be aware of it, but many of our beloved fairytales contain skewed images of women as the epitome either of devil or of sacrifice. Characters such as Behula or Savitri in our mythology stand for an all-sacrificing “ideal” image of a woman as a mother, or wife, or sister, or a romantic partner. In Shagufta Sharmeen Tania’s one-of-a-kind collection of short stories, we see the rise of neo-fairytales. One look at Uttor Dokkhina: Punorojjibito RupkothaProthoma, reflects the author’s dedication and research in recreating popular fairytales, where women are not mere pawns in the hands of kings, where they are not mere prisoners in castles and not to be guarded by fire-breathing dragons as male property. The fairytales are written in the style of the original Thakumar Jhuli, but for a more mature audience. These tales make us question what we know of society, customs and human emotions, without taking on a didactic tone. Yet, it accomplishes the task of providing us some food for thought, especially in terms of how society evaluates women.
To simply write, a woman, as Virginia Woolf had famously said, needs “a room of one’s own”. Women have historically remained as articles of furniture in a man’s household, and a mirror that shows an enlarged, strengthened image of men. In today’s world when more and more women have the platform and the access to write, it is high time they reclaimed the right to tell their own stories, thus attaining their rightful place in history.
Qazi Mustabeen Noor is Staff Writer, Arts & letters.