Monday, December 10, 2012

Notes on Suniti Namjoshi and The Fabulous Feminist

In her short Introduction to a section of the just-published The Fabulous Feminist: A Suniti Namjoshi Reader, Namjoshi writes:
It’s true the fable is a didactic form, but I don’t sit down and say, “I am now going to write a fable making this point or pointing to that moral.” More often than not – for me anyway – a fable starts with an image. The creature looking out is so eloquent that the fable begins to write itself. And once the creature starts to speak, the fable develops its own logic. The conventions of the traditional storytelling form and its powerful rhythm generate a momentum...
For a good example of what she means, consider her little story “Lost Species”, which was inspired by a Henri Rousseau painting of two unidentifiable beasts peering out of a jungle. They must be poets, Namjoshi thought when she saw the painting, and went on to write her piece about a naturalist coming across a tribe of exotic creatures (“they looked a bit like rabbits and a bit like piglets, but they might have been apes or possibly hyenas”) and wondering what they were good for. “Is your flesh good to eat?” he asks them, and “Is your fur warm?” and other such questions. Eventually they tell him that they are poets and do nothing useful, so he returns disappointed.

Not having read Namjoshi before, this collection has been a good introduction to her work, and I’ve particularly being enjoying the extracts from her 1981 book Feminist Fables and from Saint Suniti and the Dragon. These fables (most of them under a page long) are sharp inversions or re-workings of folktales and myths, done to emphasise the workings of social dominance and to sometimes facilitate small victories for underdogs. Inevitably, then, much of their content is didactic, but it is also very entertaining – Namjoshi compresses a lot of irony or sarcasm into a few pithy lines. In one fable a Brahmin who wanted a son is given a daughter instead. “Though only a woman, she was a Brahmin, so she learned very fast, and then they both sat down and meditated hard.” (Of course, the father’s purpose in meditating is to ask again for a son, and Vishnu grants him this wish but not quite in the way he had expected.) In another story a woman who is all Heart spends her life serving others wholeheartedly but when she goes to the government to ask for a pension she doesn’t get it. (“The problem was that she had no head and couldn’t ask.”) In a Beauty and the Beast retelling, the lovelorn Beast is not a nobleman but a lesbian; since the books she reads make it clear that men love women and women love men, she decides that she can’t be human. Questions of what is socially permissible are discussed elsewhere too. “A plant with feet is not natural,” says the mother of a plant (or a human girl?) that has had the temerity to pull out its roots and prance about, instead of remaining a docile little shrub.

Namjoshi’s original manuscript title for Feminist Fables was “The Monkey and the Crocodiles”, and I can see why; the story by that name is one of her most representative works. In it, a monkey who has grown up with two crocodile friends near a riverbank decides she wants to explore the world, or at least to follow the river to its source. The crocs try to warn her of malignant beasts that are “long and narrow with scaly hides and powerful jaws”, but the monkey goes anyway and returns years later, having lost her tail, six teeth and an eye. “Did you encounter the beasts?” her friends ask, “What did they look like?”
“They looked like you,” she answered slowly. “When you warned me long ago, did you know that?”

“Yes,” said her friends, and avoided her eye.
The story can be seen as a straightforward allegory for parents warning a daughter of a world populated by other humans who could turn out to be predators. (When the crocodiles describe the “dangerous beasts”, the monkey is bemused – understandably, for the only creatures she knows who look like that are her friends; to her there is nothing intrinsically threatening about the description.) But as Namjoshi has pointed out herself, most of her fables can be read not just as being about gender discrimination but in terms of any power imbalance. “It’s not possible to grow up in India without seeing the different kinds of disparities in power all around unless, of course, we choose to blind ourselves deliberately... But to vie with one another about which kind of oppression is the most oppressive is, in my opinion, a bad mistake.”

Incidentally the one-eyed monkey, having survived the world, reappears in some of Namjoshi’s subsequent writings, such as “The One-Eyed Monkey Goes into Print”, a droll account of her own experience of getting published. The monkey is variously told by publishers that her book needs more human interest, that it is lacking in clarity ("the vision is monocular") and could she help pay for the printing?

In the end the book achieved a moderate success under the title The Amorous Adventures of a One-Eyed Minx. “Is it autobiographical?” the reviewers wondered. “No,” declared the monkey quite truthfully, “I do not recognise myself in it.” But her publishers beamed. They patted her back. “Art transforms,” they murmured kindly.
Now doesn't that sound like a fable about the encouragement of bland homogeneity in a process that should open windows to new worlds?

(More on The Fabulous Feminist soon. Meanwhile do look out for the book, especially since much of Namjoshi’s earlier work appears to be out of print these days)

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for writing about this, will surely look this up. The excerpts that you mentioned are very interesting and layered.

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  2. looks like very interesting work and a good author. how many indian writers, i am totally unaware of. one thing, which amazes me though is most of them have written about India while being away in the West. It must have been tough to remember details etc. Wonder, how they do it. In fact, writers say that its better to have a distance to be more objective.

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  3. Thanks so much for this. Suniti Namjoshi was my teacher one summer for an English literature course. I loved her. I still have not had the opportunity to read her works. They haven't been easy to get, but I'm certainly going to keep a lookout for them.

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  4. I was absolutely shaken when i read her words.. thanks for highlighting those words that evoked a visceral response..

    never heard of the writer, (never heard of you, for that matter) but i'm sort of taken into an alternate plane of existence, while i spend time on your blog.

    thank you for the blog.

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  5. I love this beautiful writer to bits. Uniquely layered and simple. and so relatable. Thanks for this post.

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  6. I am reading the book now and I found it so wonderful. I wonder why I never picked it up before.

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