An interview with Professor. H. Kalpana Rao, Head of the English Department at Pondicherry University regarding Indian feminism.

By Peter Graarup Westergaard

– It is a big problem in India that feminists feel bogged down by the fact that so many things are working against us, that many of us feel so drained that we begin to think, “All right, let us just go with the flow, not bother about it”, says Kalpana Rao.

Dr H. Kalpana Rao is a professor, specialized in women’s writing, feminist and gender studies, besides heading the English Department at the highly esteemed Pondicherry University in Southern Indian. I have asked for an interview at the university. I want to ask her about the contemporary status of feminism in India and especially what feminist writers of India one should read? 

Professor Kalpana Rao has lived and taught in Pondicherry for more than 20 years. For those who do not know the famous megacity, Pondicherry is the Indian setting of the novel and movie “Life of Pi”, and when going for a walk in the city, one recognizes many of the picturesque sights of the city from the movie, for example, “the Zoo”, which in reality is a huge park and not a zoo as fictionalised.

The Union District of Pondicherry was a French colony until 1962. You can literally feel like you are in France exotique, when you are strolling through the streets of Pondicherry city with French names, such as Rue Dumas, Rue Romain Rolland or Rue Francois Martin with fancy street cafes and inviting shops in the style comme les français. Yet, the illusion is quickly disturbed by the Tamil explosions of colours and sounds which are always wonderfully and excessively present too.  

Pondicherry University, rank 58 in India. Photo: Peter G. Westergaard

The History of Feminism
Tracing the history of feminism in Indian English literature, Dr Rao states that women writers from the 1960s began to make an impact because they started talking about something that had not been discussed in Indian writing before: the problem of being a woman. The domestic became a prevalent theme, and it displayed how the domestic created a problematic space for women. This theme got carried from the 1960s or the 1970s and, to some extent, into the 1980s.

– Writers like Kamala Markandaya (1924-2004) or Anita Desai (b. 1937) or Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013) started talking about women’s issues. However, these writers were mostly situated in the West where new ideas had occurred during the 1960s with the women’s liberation movement. These writers described how the eastern and the western culture had a problem in meeting, and how Indian women undergo problems with identity during this process, says Kalpana Rao.

Assertive Women

Professor Kalpana Rao highlights emphasizes the work of Anita Desai because of her ability to comprehend the domestic life of Indian women, using a lucid imagery and symbolism. Her most notable works are Fire on the Mountain (1977), Clear Light of Day (1980). She also wrote short stories which could be used in teaching in high schools, for example, the collection Games at Twilight, and Other Stories (1978).  

 – Anita Desai begins her writing by looking at the plight or the predicament of a woman who is caught in a social structure. Repeatedly, novel after novel, Desai describes the role of the Indian woman, her position, status and role within the family as well as in society. Besides, she ably portrays how the woman negotiates her position within these circumstances. A similar aspect is seen in the works of Shashi Deshpande who in her short fiction and novels delineates strong, independent, assertive women, says Dr Rao.

However, many contemporary Indian feminists were, as Kalpana Rao points out, not a part of the Western feminist movement from the beginning. The reason for this ignorance regarding women’s rights and active feminism was due to the Indian constitution which had endowed Indian women with the same rights as men.

– Women did not have to fight for voting rights. In 1947, we literally got anything we wanted, no woman was denied anything. The general opinion in India was, we do not need feminism at all because this has nothing to do with us. It is only in Western countries where there are no voting rights, no rights for women and wage disparities. Inequality is not something happening in our country, says Dr Kalpana Rao.

However, in 1971, the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI), conducted a study on the conditions for women in India, and this report revealed, states Dr Rao, a big gender inequity present in the country.

Yet with the works of Anita Desai, Kamala Markandaya or Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, women intellectuals in India had become aware of the issues, and they found out that they were not as happy as they had thought to be, explains Kalpana Rao.

– And these writers did not stop just with the factor of marriage. They also looked at other problems such as the motif of violence and its consequences and even possibility of marital rape — illustrated in Shashi Deshpande’s Binding Vine (2002) and The Intrusion and Other Stories (1993) — they brought up domestic issues and abuses that happen towards women. How women most often, because of the sense of shame or guilt, did not tell people and kept the violence secret. But generally, the Indian feminist agenda concerned the domestic arena rather than, for example, wages or equal right etc., says Kalpana Rao.  

The Breast Giver

Professor Kalpana Rao also mentions a writer like Mahasweta Devi (1926-2016). In a series of short stories, for example, The Breast Giver and Other Stories (1997), she is also concerned about the social structures women are forced into.

– She describes how women can become quite radical as they just do not want to be in these structures. They hit out against many of the norms, and they just do what they think is right for them. Mahasweta Devi also brings in the politics of the body, which questions how women deal with their bodies, especially in Indian circumstances where the woman’s dignity is dependent on her body. In Mahasweta Devi’s writings, you find women who just do not care about their bodies, but who use it for various purposes, tells Kalpana Rao.

The Feminism of the 1990s

Later on, by the time around the 1980s, the Indian writers had become quite established and almost all the newspapers abroad, especially The Times, The Guardian, The New York Times and The New Yorker had made profile pictures of many of the Indian writers, and reviewed their books.

Disappointingly, states Dr Rao, most of the highlighted writers were men such as Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Upamanyu Chaterjee. The work, that foregrounded women’s diversity and subversive techniques was Women’s Writing in India (1991) Vol 1 and 2, edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha. Not only did it map feminist concerns, the work carried in translation women’s writing from 600 BC to present.

– Also during the 1990s, an author like Arundhati Roy (b. 1961) occurred, and I do think she did write about something that was very, very important and ground-breaking in literature and society.

Arundhati Roy published her first novel The God of Small Things in 1997. Set mainly in Kerala, it tells the story of the women in a multi-generational family, especially of Ammu and her two twins Rahel and Esthappen. The novel deals with sexual abuse, caste relations, forbidden love, social discrimination and women’s rights. The God of Small Things describes how patriarchal norms rule and wreck women’s lives.

The God of Small Things reveals how caste, politics and religion intermingle to thwart women and how women develop strategies to resist such oppression. A key factor is how patriarchal roles are subsumed by women. Through characters such as Mammachi and Baby Kochamma, Arundhati Roy portrays how women also become very power-centric and patriarchal. I think it is a novel that is extremely good in terms of discussing the nuances of what I would call an extremely radical feminist perspective which had not been brought in by any other writer before, says Kalpana Rao.

Another unavoidable and very interesting writer, although she writes in the Malayalam language, would be K. R. Meera, Dr Rao mentions. But she is translated into English.

– K. R. Meera is considered a radical writer, and she wants to discuss the background for the violence against women, and she is not going to keep quiet about it, states Dr Kalpana Rao.

Twice the winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award, K. R. Meera (b. 1970) is a highly recognized writer from Kerala. Her first novel is called Ave Maria, and the second is called Aarachaar (2012) and has been translated into English as Hangwoman:  Everyone Loves a Good Hanging (2014). This novel tells the story of a family of executioners, and the protagonist of the novel is Chetna, a woman who wants to continue this dubious family tradition.  

Furthermore, K.R. Meera has worked at the Malayala Manorama newspaper as a very active columnist where she writes critique whenever anything is happening against women. For example, the discrimination against women that occurred when the Saranam Ayyappa temple in Kerala did not allow women of the menstruating age inside. As Kalpana Rao comments:

– She was among the first few writers who stood up and said: why is it that women have to be denied access to the temple?

Ms. Militancy
A very recent writer, Dr Kalpana Rao would like to recommend, is Meena Kandasamy (b. 1984), who has written the novels The Gypsy Goddess (2014), and When I Hit You, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (2017) and she has also written a poetry collection called Ms. Militancy (2010).

– These are very disturbing works because they talk about abuse. Meena Kandasamy is one of the writers who people have been noticing in recent years, in particular, because she uses a lot of Dalit feminism, plus also the notion of hitting back against roles such as being a wife and other such stereotypes, says Kalpana Rao.

Meena Kandasamy is an Indian activist writer. Much of her writing is also considered extremely radical in India, yet she talks about violent issues in a very realistic way, according to Kalpana Rao. And she is on her way to be considered a literary classic, because she is empowering women with a strong rebellious voice.

If one wants to study Indian feminism further, other notable literary works also depict a Dalit consciousness. Dr Rao mentions, for example, Bama’s Karukku (1992) and Sangati (1994), Gogu Shyamala’s Father May Be an Elephant and Mother Only a Small Basket, But… (2012) and P. Sivakami’s In the Grip of Change (2006). These works are all available in English.

Caste System and Feminism
Many western readers have probably heard about the social problems connected to the famous Indian caste system where society is divided into very fixed castes of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras – and then, of course, the caste-less, the Dalits.   

Does the caste system play any role in contemporary feminist agenda?
– There is not any big connection, I would say. Yet, the consciousness of one’s caste and one’s religion is so much interwoven within one’s identity it is quite difficult to escape the same. Basically, my understanding of the notion of feminism, at least in India, would be knowing one’s right and being assertive about it, says Kalpana Rao.

What is your own story regarding feminism? 

Grew Up Everywhere
Professor Kalpana Rao explains how she grew up in different locations all over India because she had a father who kept getting transferred every three or four years due to the nature of his job. Her father always thought that Kalpana and her brothers should not be staying in hostels or residential schools, and hence carried them to all the places, wherever he was posted. This provided her a broad outlook compared to many others.

– Moreover, I grew up in a very gender equity kind of situation, but interestingly enough, that shifted when I got married because I came into a household which was pretty conservative and which had a number of ideas concerning gender differences. There was a very clear-cut demarcation that women have to do this, and men have to do that. Not only that, the idea was that women should not be alone at any point of time, and they needed to be chaperoned by a male, even if the male was only a boy, tells Kalpana Rao, and continues:

– It was very stifling for me because I had never experienced this idea of women having to do certain chores, doing certain rites and rituals and getting into that was very, very difficult for me, and in the process, I do not know whether it was luck or not, but I have a husband who comes from a science background, and he understood, to a large extent, a number of these instances where I was very radical and said, “I don’t want you to do this particular rite or this ritual,” because coming from the scientific background, maybe he understood me better. I think that support, by which he stood by me, helped me a lot to get out of it. Otherwise, probably I would have been in a nervous breakdown, tells Kalpana Rao.

– He was the one who actually encouraged me if I wanted to study, he would never stand in my way, and in fact, the higher degree courses happened after my marriage, and throughout, I must say, he stood by and took care of our son whenever there was a necessity, tells Professor Kalpana Rao.

A quiet road in Pondicherry. Photo by Peter G. Westergaard

Copyright Peter Graarup Westergaard/ Anglo Files. Orginally plublished in Anglo Files, 198, 4, 2020.