Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar
Illustration by Olivia Prenderghast: https://liviprendergast.wordpress.com/
TW: sexual violence mention
The study of Indian literature in Western universities has always been disappointing. Even in the best of courses, Indian literature is still limited to the Salman Rushdie – Jhumpa Lahiri – Vikram Seth (if you’re lucky) trifecta that is as irresponsible as it is exhausting. While the works of second-generation and diasporic writers are important, to use their limited voices as representative of an entire subcontinent with hundreds of languages and cultures, hardly constitutes an education. The depiction of Indian women, in particular, from Slumdog Millionaire (2009) to The Satanic Verses (1988), are hardly more than one-dimensional stock caricatures of stereotypically oppressed “third world” women. Individuality, independence, rebellion, and cultural nuances, all vanish against this overwhelming backdrop of Bollywood tropes and toxic masculinity.
Lakshmi Holdström’s The Inner Courtyard (1990), by contrast, is refreshing in its diversity. As a collection of short stories by Indian women, both within India and from abroad, in English and in translation, it provides a glimpse into the multiplicity of female narratives during the twentieth century. From the fierce rebellion of Tatri, from seclusion to prostitution, in Lalitambika Antarjanam’s “Revenge Herself”, to the innocent commentaries of young girls only just beginning to understand the patriarchal constraints of their worlds, in stories by Kamala Das, Mrinal Pande, Qurratulain Hyder, and Vaidehi, this collection is unique in its attempt to capture the changing landscape of gender and femininity in pre and post-Independence India.
The stories in Holdström’s collection act as signposts, pointing to the larger concerns that occupied the women’s movement of the twentieth century. These involved colonial rule and its aftermath, the partition, exile and diaspora, and changing social orders and codes. Against these backgrounds are sensitive and personal explorations of motherhood, love, loneliness, sexuality, death, isolation, assault, and rebellion.
Mahasveta Devi’s “Draupadi”, for example, is the story of ‘Dopdi’, the tribal name for Draupadi, a Naxalite* rebel who has been captured by government forces. Though terrifying in its vicious exploration of political oppression, and physical and sexual assault, it is poignant in Draupadi’s final exposition of feminine power and resilience in the face of this overwhelming brutality. Devi’s adoption of the name Draupadi, from the Mahabharata, also acts as a commentary and questioning of the mythologies and texts revered by a conservative and Victorian-esque society. In contrast to the fierceness of Devi’s story, is Suniti Namjoshi’s “Dusty Distance”. It tells the story of a travelling, anxious-to-please Blue Donkey who dreams of being a poet, and whose queer love and idealism suffer blows in the face of heterosexual indifference and rejection. In contrast to the soft, almost dream-like quality of its style, the story’s thematic concerns are political and interrogative, and, much like the rest of Holdström’s collection, demands a measure of sensitivity and sympathy from its readers.
To me, finding The Inner Courtyard during a Gender Studies course in my undergraduate years was a sudden and unexpected relief. For years, I had been appreciative of the literature around me without ever allowing myself to believe that I could do more than relate to the emotional states of characters alone, rather than their experiences within the text. Finding glimpses of myself, and the world I knew, seemed impossible. Yet, within this collection, I not only managed to do this, but also came across perspectives that I had never considered and communities I had never met. For the first time, I became acutely aware of the complexity of my own existence within such a socio-politically diverse country. I therefore found myself rather disillusioned during my Masters in a Western university. Here, it was automatically assumed that I would be well versed in the socio-political and cultural environment of the expatriates of the Lost Generation, but tellingly, when studying Rushdie’s work, it was up to my fellow Indian classmates and I to slowly walk our peers through some of the most basic political structures of our country.
This inherent bias within academic study is also part of why The Inner Courtyard is a necessary inclusion within any course; through its very structure, it challenges a specific mind-set within academic study regarding the categorization of writing movements within the twentieth century. Whenever modernism and postmodernism are discussed, the implication is always that it is a white modernism and postmodernism, and that the experiences of the upper classes of two countries (the U.K. and the U.S.A.) can somehow be generalized to the experiences of the rest of the world. It also follows that all global literary and political (women’s and queer movements) trends must, in some way, be tied to this white experience. However, while the first wave of feminism in the U.S.A. was fighting for the right to vote, India was still furiously fighting for its freedom. Yet, the narrative surrounding women’s movements still encircles this period as a global first wave of feminism. On the other hand, India’s women’s movement in the twentieth century was directly linked to its women’s writing movement, particularly during the freedom struggle and the late twentieth century. This literature became a form by which existing social structures could be questioned, and rebellion within constrained societies (both before and after colonial rule) could find voice. By drawing from stories that span a wide geographical and cultural landscape, The Inner Courtyard approaches the twentieth century with a multidimensional and inclusive lens, providing alternate narratives to Western canonical categorizations of literary forms and trends.
The collection does have its limitations, particularly in its focus on writing originally in English, and from abroad (perhaps reflective of a national colonial hangover). Nevertheless, it provides a broader perspective of gendered power structures within specific communities, and the relationships between the women of these communities and their languages, traditions, and beliefs. Veering away from overdone and racially charged stereotypes of exoticisation and victimization, these stories are nuanced and three-dimensional in their interrogation of the “third world” woman. Consequently, their inclusion within any twentieth century, gender studies or post-colonial course is a necessity, particularly considering that most Western university courses have a tendency to summarize Indian literature through a single book during their ‘token brown weeks’. As a brown woman, if this token week is the most I can expect from my university, it ought, at the very least, to do its level best to encapsulate a multitude of perspectives and ideas that highlight Indian literature for what it is – extremely broad, diverse, and multifaceted.
* The Naxalite movement was an uprising against the landed peasantry and the oppression of tribal workers in West Bengal, in 1972, that started a chain of rebellions and uprisings (particularly by students) across the country that were, eventually, brutally crushed by the government.
Holdström, Lakshmi, editor. The Inner Courtyard: Stories by Indian Women. Virago
Press Ltd., 1990.
Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. Penguin Books Ltd., 1988.
Slumdog Millionaire. Directed by Danny Boyle, Fox Star Studios, 2009.
Rajagopalachari, C. Mahabharata. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1951.
About the author:
Avani Udgaonkar has a Masters degree in English literature. Her areas of interest include spoken word poetry, and gender and queer power dynamics within contemporary fiction and digital literature. She is currently working as an editorial and communications assistant in New Delhi.
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