Oh! the women who write: Geetanjali Shree on narrow gaze that derides female authors

International Booker Prize winner Geetanjali Shree says the relationship between writer and society shouldn’t be one of censorship but love and respect, freedom, hope and bonding.
Writer Geetanjali Shree
Writer Geetanjali Shree
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I am going to talk today about the writer's responsibility, but around it I am going to really raise questions about the writer in the society, the writer and the society, and the writer's responsibility to it, and also the responsibility of the society towards writers. I think too easily we talk about what the writer owes the society, and there obtains a very functional and taken-for-granted view of the writer’s role.

I am going to try and raise a few questions, and I am going to be deliberately provocative to make us all think anew about this subject. I am always very pleased when I see students in the audience. I think students are where real hope lies for tomorrow. This talk is going to be conversational, and I look forward to an interaction with all of you.

I am going to start by telling you a few anecdotes from my own writer's journey to introduce this subject of the writer in society. What is a writer in society? How does society, in general and in ordinary terms and in everyday terms, see the writer in their midst? Since these anecdotes are about me, these will also be about being a writer who writes in her mother tongue, that is Hindi in my case, and being a writer who happens to be a woman. Some of these anecdotes will sound a little frivolous to you, but I think they are very telling and carry some serious messages.

So, let me start with the first. I had been writing for some time already, and contrary to what a lot of people think about writers and artists, that they are living a very glamorous life, it’s actually a very boring life because much of the time you are just indoors by yourself, indoors or outdoors, but in solitude, alone, and you are writing, writing and writing.

So, it’s a very lonely life. And one day, I thought this won't do and let me try and glamourise this a bit. And I thought of writers like Tagore with his flowing beard and dramatic robes or our Hindi icon Krishna Sobti, wearing the most resplendent shararas and ghararas and a Himachali topi and a dramatic bandi, nice juttis. So, I thought, you know, a writer should be somebody who enters the room, and you immediately turn and you think, oh, somebody, some dramatic personality, has come in. So where do I begin? Well, I didn't have the courage to completely change my costume, but I thought let me start with reading glasses. So, I went to the spectacle shop and started hunting for frames, which would make my personality a little more dramatic and writerly. I started looking at these frames, and of course, the shopkeeper was there to help and to suggest and to encourage me to buy an expensive frame if possible. So, there were these very funny frames, some with hearts all over them, some with flowers, some with some dramatic lacy pattern, silver glitter. I kept trying them on and taking them off. I settled for one which looked not so bad. The upper portion was thick and dramatic red, but the lower portion was plain white. I put that on, and I thought maybe it will work, it's a halfway house. So, I turned to my husband and said “so how does it look? Am I looking like a writer?” The shopkeeper, to comfort me and convince me, jumped in with gusto and said, “not at all, madam.”

You get the point? The shopkeeper was convinced that I could not possibly want to look like a writer. If I had said, “am I looking like a film star or some top politician or top bureaucrat”, he would have said, “yes, of course, madam.” But looking like a writer? “No, not at all, madam”! That tells you how people think about writers. You know, nothing very much to covet out there.

Then, let me go on to another anecdote. Some books of mine had by then come out and also some interviews and reviews. A relative of mine, someone I'm very fond of, came home and said, “yes, yes, I saw your interviews, yes, I saw your reviews.” I gave him my books and autographed them. In the course of our conversation, he asked, “So what are you doing these days?” I was surprised, I said, “come on, we just talked about it, you have my book”. So, he said, “no, no, no, I know you write but what exactly do you do, what actually do you do?” So, again, note that writing is not considered by a lot of the ordinary people as being something, which is doing something. He saw it as something you do for pleasure, but actually what do you do?

The third story is about my mother tongue, my writing in the mother tongue. From the time that I have been writing and even today when I am better known, most people assume I must be writing in English. On learning that I am a Hindi writer, I am asked, “why do you write in Hindi? Why not in English?” They are surprised, even sorry for me, and invariably think it is a bad choice. This is such a strange question to ask a writer “why do you write in your mother tongue and not in a foreign language.” I know English is not a foreign language as it used to be but even then my mother tongue is my mother tongue. Why should my writing in my mother tongue surprise anybody? Nobody asks a French person, “why do you write in French and not in English?” This question is asked in India by educated people. It is assumed that education means that you work through English and not through your mother tongue. Again, there is a story for us to mull over, out there.

The final little anecdote I want to tell is about being a woman who is writing. Now I am a fairly lucky woman, a privileged woman, I have not had any obvious discrimination in my writing career. But I think there is no woman writer who escapes what we shall call systemic discrimination. A certain way of viewing women, what we often call the male gaze in patriarchal societies, which is very much prevalent, and which will be cast even on the most privileged and lucky women like me. Now, how does that happen? What do they do? It is just to not take your work in the same sort of way as you might take a male writer’s. Today it is rather different, and I told you I am lucky. But I am talking about the general run of women writers. They are seen either to be doing something which is limited, oh, women deal with family and home, they get too personal, they try to be bold and talk about sensuality and their bodies. They are seen in that way. Or it is said with great admiration, ”oh, she has written a book which is not about women – it is a, you know, a larger topic”. Like I have a book on communalism. It is said, “Geetanjali Shree has extended her work beyond women”. This shows a certain limited way in which we view subjects to do with women and the women's side of the story. The way we view home. It shows the limitation of the people who are saying that. The limited and narrow gaze of the people saying that, rather than the limited and narrow world of the women who are writing, because we all know that every grain of sand holds the world, every drop of water holds the ocean. There is nothing like home being limited or the story of something small being small. Small and big are not separated, and in any case, the divide between the home and the world is an artificial divide created by men, if I may say so.

I am just telling you these small anecdotes to point to you a certain casualness with which writers are taken in our society. Why is that? Think about that, what are the views people have about writers in society? If they are very kind to the writers, then they say “writers are innocent creatures, well-meaning entertainers. Indulge them up to a point”. Otherwise, they will say “writers are parasites who are wasting the resources of the society, wasting the time, we don't have to support them too much”, I mean, up to a point let them be, but no more than that. Of course, if the writers are trying to rake up controversial subjects, then they are pests. They should do their work quietly and not disturb anybody. Why are they doing things that are creating controversies in society? This is how, in general, writers are looked at. You can also see this borne out by something serious like the allocation of funds and resources, not just in India, but the world over, to subjects like literature and the arts. You will see what a skewed balance it is. Much less is given to arts and literature. Always, much more to subjects like science and technology.

Again, why is that so? What is it in our way of seeing literature and writers that makes us think that this is fair? Why do we feel that the writer is not really such a useful category after all? Let me tell you another little anecdote from an experience I had in Japan. In Japan, they had a movement called the Yamagishi, which  believed in equality and the absence of private property. They were like-minded people. They divided everything equally, participated in society equally, which meant that everyone had the same kind of houses and all facilities. Even children did not belong to individual parents. For two years, the children were with the parents and then sent to a commune and were looked after by everybody together. All the work was done by rotation by everybody.  No work was higher than the other, or no work was lower than the other.  Everyone, in turns, was milking the cows, sweeping the floors, doing agriculture, cleaning dishes, cooking. Everything was done together. When they had parties, there was a common collection of clothes, shoes, and jewellery, and they could go and borrow it for the time, wear those for the party, clean them up, and put them back.

This was, I think, a very idealistic experiment. Of course, I was very impressed looking at all that. But I was a young writer, and I worried for my vocation. I asked them, “Where is the place in your society for people like me? Because if you are going to keep me busy with all the chores that have to be done for the community, then, how will I write?  For writing, I need to be left alone. I need to be allowed to look like I am doing nothing. I need to be allowed to sit under the tree and stare at the sky and count the stars. But you will say this is useless activity”. The Yamagishi people said to me “you know, we have a policy that if somebody, some inmate, has a concern, then, we have a meeting and we decide jointly what to do about the new need”. My encounter with those people ended there. But it made me think again about why a writer who is under the tree and staring at the sky and counting stars is seen as being useless to society? Or seen as wasting time?

Before I say a little bit more about the usefulness of a writer to society, let me talk about this thing called literature and how it is made. I will speak in a few cliches, but I think cliches say certain important general things. What is literature? Literature is stories. It is the story of the world and of human beings. It is the story of you and me, of life. To tell this story, you have to sit in a place made of quiet and reflection, where you almost have to meditate. It is only then that you notice that you observe details, which you would not otherwise. Literature is what stops you in your tracks when you are rushing through the activities of life and the world. It stops you and makes you quiet and makes you think and notice all around you. When you do that, when you observe, you also start wondering about things. Then, you start raising questions, then you start having doubts, then you start rethinking many things you thought you already knew. This goes on and on, and this is a process which, in fact, takes forward knowledge and takes you forward in the search for truth and meaning. It is an important function.

I would say that literature is about dialoguing with yourself and with the world. Just think about it. It cannot be done in a hurry. If you are quiet and you are looking at the same things around you, they show up in greater detail. Let us say you are looking at the sunset, the sunset you see every day and just go past. But if it becomes your concern and your obsession to be still and look at the sunset, be patient as literature demands, to be patient and to be still, then, you start noticing that each sunset is different. Then, you start noticing colours in the sunset you had never seen before.

What does that do? That hones your sensitivities, hones your subtleties. All of which actually makes you more civilised, I would say. This material that now you have in front of you, the material of life that you are looking at quietly, becomes the material with which you sculpt. As you sculpt, you are searching for shapes and meanings and that is what literature is.

This, too, is important. Can we only look at the surface of the reality around us, describe only the surface, and be satisfied with it? That's never enough. Because behind the surface lie many other layers of reality. And that is what starts to show when you pause to concentrate and stare, observe, experiment, and explore. You start uncovering those layers in the world but also inside yourself. You go to the innermost recesses of yourself, to the dark interiors, and you begin to pull those out. So, a writer is not just pulling out what they are consciously knowing. A writer is also interested in what lies buried in the subconscious and the unconscious. It's almost like pulling out your entrails and viewing them in public. That is, of course, painful. It can also be shocking, for both the writer and the reader. It may not always be a view that everyone can accept. But, then, a writer is never somebody who represents only herself, I am part of humanity, I am part of my society. My entrails actually are also the entrails of society. What Jung calls the collective unconscious, that is what I am able to bring forth.

This is something the worth of which people don't easily understand. If you think of writers like Kafka and the absolutely dark world around him, that he described. Or closer home, if you think of writers like Tagore and his worry about enthusing the mobs that Gandhi was doing or whipping up nationalist hysteria that was happening in that time. Tagore foresaw the dangers of mobocracy. When everyone worshipped nationalism, he saw its evil, its inherently divisive politics of identity. Both Kafka and Tagore were denounced by no less than the great leftist thinker Lukacs, who called Tagore an agent of the imperialist and called both these writers reactionary. But today we realise that both Kafka and Tagore were uncovering uncomfortable truths about us humans.

Literature shows you the world much better. You have to know what it is. When you know what it is, you start asking questions and only then you can move forward. Can this be a useless activity? It obviously is not.

But the question remains, why is literature not given its due? Why is a writer not seen as someone very important for the running of the society? Why is literature not turned to freedom and faith to understand how to conduct society better? I think the reason lies at least in two things. There may be others, but at the moment I will mention only two things. One is our past, which was a colonial past. And the second is our present, which is a completely confusing, carnivalesque circus playing around us.

The colonial past made literature something functional. It felt the impulse for literature in a completely different way, geared towards the purpose of nationalism and reform. It worked very well for that time. Social realism was the order of the day. The problem is it is a hangover that we carry even today. Our confusing present, which is full of such ferment, such changes and such a stormy pace, that we are very disturbed and we want instant answers.

And that is the point I am trying to get to. We have become seduced by this idea of instant everything, instant answers, and instant results. We don't have the time for meditations, ramblings, musings. We need to see immediately how a problem is being resolved.

So, we can understand and respect an engineer because he makes a bridge, and we can cross the river in spate. We can respect a scientist who goes into the lab and walks out with the Covid vaccine. We can understand the doctor and respect him because we see that he or she saves lives. But the writer, there is nothing to see. There is nothing so dramatic, there is nothing so instant.

Answers are not the protocol of writers. Clarity, offering clarity, is not the protocol of literature. Opaqueness and confounding is. In this storm raging around us, we expect writers to somehow be like doctors and engineers and scientists. But that cannot be. When we are surrounded by the storm, we cannot write about it in the way we need to. We need distance and detachment from the subject. We need to see our subject as a canvas out there to be able to describe it. So, what happens? People limit the notion of what literature is to something which is immediate, which gives them an instant report of something, which they can understand and put to immediate use.

Now I come to the worrying thing. They start putting pressure on the writer to be immediate. To respond to the pressures, immediate pressures around. Now this is related to the subject of responsibility of the writer, but also to, the bit that I am adding to the subject, the responsibility of the society to the writer. The times, society, the state, market, they all put pressure on authors and on literature to take care of the society in a particular way. But I am saying, a little provocatively, it has to be a two-way relationship. Society must also take care of literature and let it flourish and let it happen. How? By letting it be, letting it be itself. Ultimately, literature is about a literary act, which can even be autoreferential, which creates its own world, which only seeks ratification from that world.

Each genre must have its freedom in a civilised society. Literature is important as the carrier of culture. Literature preserves language, takes language forward. Language is not just a medium. Language is not just a tool. Language is a complete entity in itself.  Language represents a culture and a way of being and seeing and expressing. And literature takes that forward. Good literature enriches culture and must be allowed to do that.

This takes us to the subject of freedom. To discover, to go on the search, which is literature's purpose. It has to be free to play. It has to be free to get lost, go into the wilderness – the wilderness of the world around and within us – and find possible ways out. Literature is not just a means to an end, it is an end in itself. I think we have to think about these questions of the writer, literature, society, and responsibility. Not excluding the supreme question of what the writer owes literature.

I am many things. I am a citizen, I am a woman and I have many identities, which may impinge on each other and take and lend from each other, but they cannot be one on top of the other. As a citizen, I am in the middle of my society. As a writer, I want to be a little distant from that society.  As a citizen, my time is now. As a litterateur, my time is infinite. It is in that space of literature that I need to be, to be able to contribute what I can to my society. For this, I said I need freedom. It is a relationship with my medium that I need to be left to explore and play with. It is a relationship of love, and in the relationship of love many things happen. You tease each other, you have fun, but it all comes from the impulse of love, from the impulse of bonding, not from the intention of hostility or insult.

That is why literature will play around with things, topple them over, turn them upside down, in healthy humour and irreverence, which is only something to make us laugh and love together.  It is not something to divide us and create enmity between us.

I will give two small examples. I remember a story written by a writer in your state. A story, the title I've forgotten, but the writer is Paul Zacharia.

The story is about meeting God in the morning. A man was going with his son, cycling, and he saw God cycling towards him. So, there is already a smile when you read this story. And God had all kinds of tricks and possibilities and power up his sleeve. And he did all that to make the son happy. I can't remember this story very exactly, but when God heard a musical piece being whistled out, he was stumped. He could not get that right. And that upset, disturbed God, and he wanted to learn that piece of music. And it was music by Babukka (MS Baburaj), a great musician in your part of the country.

In front of Babukka, in front of music, and perhaps in front of art, God also bowed and wanted to sit at Babukka's feet to learn music. If you decide to be stupid, you will say this is irreverent, but it's not. It's done with a lot of healthy laughs and humour. The point is, in life and in art and literature, there is nothing sacrosanct in such a way that you can't touch it. Of course, you can play with these things. Like I said, literature and art are about binding people, creating hope and humanity, bringing them together with love, not about dividing and creating hostilities.

The other example is from a temple mural. It is a Hindu temple. This mural has many scenes of the gods painted, and there's one scene in which I think Ram and Sita, or Ram alone, are sitting in front of the sacred fire, and near them, on a slightly higher level, is Hanuman, and he's pissing. The stream of his piss is falling straight into the fire. If you want to start interpreting it in some horrible ways, then you're taking it completely in some other direction. There is great love between Ram and Hanuman. This is some kind of play between them, and it does not question that love at all. This is a space of freedom, which any genre has to be allowed. No genre can be conducted by prescribing or proscribing things, by the society, market, state, anybody.

Here, I am going to say another provocative thing. Fundamentalists are known to object to things and to tell writers and artists what they must do and what they must not. But I must say, even the progressives who mean very well also start proscribing and prescribing that a writer has to attend to this pressing evil of the society and work on that or even that a writer should, at the moment, write less and become more of an activist in the way they understand activism. And I beg to differ. You have to understand, first of all, my activism and my way of being political. My activism is between the two covers of a book. My activism takes a different set of time. Of course, there will be moments when the citizen in me may want to jump out on the street and want to join all of you in some movement. But I will still hanker for and demand and request that my space and solitude be given to me, where, in a sense, the personal and political can be kept separate, and I can do my work. Just as you have to leave a scientist and an engineer alone to do their work, you have to leave a writer alone to do her work. If she does her work well in that solitude, she is fulfilling her responsibility towards society. That is important. I must have that freedom.

But people will demur. What do you mean? How far are you going to take that freedom? How free can that freedom be? To that I would say, the curbs on freedom must not come from anywhere else. The curb on freedom, if any, must come from within. People have to be made more and more aware through dialogue, through debate, through agreement and disagreement and carrying the conversations forward, about what is advisable and what is not. So, what we have to do is to have a cultured society where people become more sensitive towards each other. But this cannot happen with curbs imposed from elsewhere. That sensitivity has to come from within you.

In Hindi, as in many other Indian languages, we use the word “vivek”. We should have the “vivek” to distinguish between what falls on this side and what falls on that side. Of good and bad. Let me give just a small example. We have mostly been a patriarchal society the world over. (It is the last bit of my lecture by the way) This society has been male-dominated. Language has been male-dominated as well. There are certain expressions which have come into language via that route. I don't know whether you have those in Malayalam, but in Hindi we do. People use those expressions very innocently. They say, (you must have seen it in films sometimes) if somebody is behaving cowardly and scared, they say, you are no fighter, go home, wear bangles. Or a parent can scold her or his son, a small boy, and say stop crying like a girl. Or, as you know, in films we have these songs where the woman will be talked about as if she is some snack to be consumed, some coca-cola to be drunk. These, as a woman, hurt me. As a woman, I would like men to become aware about their language and become sensitive and tailor their language better, which slowly they are doing and they will do. But it has to come with an ongoing dialogue between us, not by violence and punishment.

So, what I am saying is that freedom encourages creativity, sensitivity, and confidence. Censorship crushes the soul and limits knowledge and makes dwarfs of us.

Finally, I can only reiterate a few points. What do I say, except that for writers writing is like breathing, it is as natural as breathing. How can I not breathe? I have to breathe. If the atmosphere is conducive to good breathing, the oxygen is plentiful in the air, like in forest-covered areas of Kerala, then, I am lucky, I breathe easily. If it is like the polluted air of Delhi, even then, I have to breathe. I have to find strategies for doing it. The point is the writer has to write, whether in fear, whether in stealth, whether in happiness and friendliness. The writer has to write, or else, it is death for her, her breath gone. It will be murder, or suicide, whatever!

This is what we all need to think about jointly when we think of the responsibility of the writer and of society – their relationship based on love and respect and full of fun, freedom and hope and bonding.

A relationship guided by sensitivity, not censorship.

Thank you.

This is the full text of the talk A Writer’s Responsibility delivered by Booker prize-winning author Geetanjali Shree for the inaugural edition of the MR Narayana Kurup Memorial Annual Lecture at Government College, Madappally, Kerala, on December 19, 2022. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. You can listen to the speech here.

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