Literature that adds to reality
Mahasweta Devi’s work is powerful for a dozen different reasons, but principally, she tells stories that indict people in positions of power and authority
The study of literature is the study of the human spirit. The stories or poems we ‘study’ are stories that we are willing to reflect upon. A university syllabus indicates a consensus about what ideas and experiences are worth discussing.
Mahasweta Devi’s work is powerful for a dozen different reasons, but principally, she tells stories that indict people in positions of power and authority. This is something she has in common with Bama and Sukirtharani. Their works force the reader to interrogate power and entrenched beliefs about who we are.
The reader whose life is ‘safe’ from the dangers faced by the narrators and protagonists of these texts, might be forced to confront the fact that power works for the powerful, that it can also destroy lives in the name of protection or public interest.
Pandita Ramabai Saraswati’s work had already been part of the DU syllabus in previous years. ‘The High Caste Hindu Woman’ certainly is worth studying too. However, as the title suggests, it describes the lives of only upper caste women in nineteenth century India. It needs to be read within a certain historical framework.
For instance, her beliefs about Muslims and their cultural influence are not necessarily rooted in fact, and her lack of access to non-Brahmin social mores means that her experience is only part of the story. She should be read alongside Adivasi, Dalit, Muslim, Bahujan women, not instead of them.
The ancient Indian classics are mainly Sanskrit texts (not Sangam era Tamil or Pali). Some medieval and early modern Indian texts were represented under ‘Pre-colonial Indian literatures’. This included Chandravati’s Ramayana, but they have replaced it by the Tulsidas’s Ramayana.
There was a paper on Literature and Caste, which included Dr Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste, O.P. Valmiki’s Joothan and P. Sivakami’s The Grip of Change, as well as writers like Ajay Navaria, Meena Kandasamy and Namdeo Dhasal. If this paper remains on the new syllabus, it is a good list.
There were books on Babasaheb Ambedkar’s life and journey included under a ‘Graphic Narratives’ list. Although the ‘Indian Writing in English’ list did not include many Dalit or Adivasi authors, Perumal Murugan’s The Well was included under ‘Indian Literature in Translation’. The lists for papers like ‘Women and Empowerment’ and ‘Language, Literature and Culture’ are fairly diverse, given that era, region, caste all have to be considered for inclusion.
Some changes in syllabus are relevant and necessary. However, if changes lean towards disallowing a particular sort of story on the grounds of ‘offense’, then the question must be asked: what it is offending? Our sense of justice? Is the text making us uncomfortable because we don't want to deal with the suffering it confronts us with?
If I had to recommend more women writers, I’d definitely include the Therigatha, one of the oldest pieces of Indian literature available to us and remarkably resonant for contemporary readers. I’d include Irawati Karve’s Yuganta. It is a slender, accessible text that serves as a creative interrogation of the Mahabharata, which is already on the syllabus.
I’d also include Suniti Namjoshi’s Feminist Fables for similar reasons; her work examines myth and folklore from the lens of gender as well as narrative justice. Nabaneeta Deb Sen’s On a Truck Aloneto McMahon is a sparkling travel-memoir.
There’s also a collection of Telugu courtesan songs, When God is a Customer that’s worth studying. I’d include at least one prison memoir, perhaps Joya Mitra’s Killing Days, alongside a Partition era memoir like In Freedom’s Shade by Anis Kidwai.
(Annie Zaidi is award winning author. Her novel, 'Prelude to A Riot', won the Tata Literature Live Book of the Year 2020)