Is there such a thing as a non-political novelist?

The 2014 Indian Lok Sabha election campaign is well underway, and every day is bringing a new set of surprises. It’s hard to keep up.

I take note when discussions of Hindi literature enter public debate, especially in the world of politics, so I was interested last month when Delhi’s ruling party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) proposed the name of Hindi novelist and short-story writer Maitreyi Pushpa to head the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW).


Maitreyi Pushpa’s 2009 Collected Short Stories

With the AAP’s sudden (though not unexpected) resignation in Delhi last week, and their entry into the national race , I don’t know the current status of Maitreyi Pushpa’s nomination. It came about through ugly and unfortunate circumstances. Last month, Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti made headlines when he donned his street thug persona and personally led a group on a late night raid targeting African women in Delhi whom he suspected of prostitution and drug trafficking.

Barkha Singh, previous chief of the DCW, summoned him before the commission, and rightly criticised this racist vigilantism. (ये आप और हम जैसे नहीं”, “they are not like you or me,” Bharti said of the women, who he called either Nigerian or Ugandan.) Bharti and then-Delhi-Chief-Minister Arvind Kejriwal accused Singh of politicising her role as chair of the DCW. They claimed she was an agent of the Congress Party.

The thought that the DCW should be above and separate from politics—especially in a city such as Delhi, which has suffered a horrid string of incidents of violence against women—is laughable. Women’s issues are the life-and-death issues that concern us all; they are exactly what politics is about. Nevertheless, Arvind Kejriwal announced that Singh was out as DCW chief, and would be replaced by the novelist Maitreyi Pushpa, whom he insisted had no previous connection with his own party. (Somnath Bharti suffered much criticism for his lawless behaviour, and was also ousted.)

I immediately ordered some of Pushpa’s works through interlibrary loan, and they just arrived from Canberra. Pushpa’s selection to head the DCW seems based on her decades-long commitment to writing on women women’s issues—both fiction and journal articles. Each of her novels and stories focuses on women and their struggles in family life or in society. She arranged her 2009 collection of stories—all 43 that she had written by that point—into sections that highlight these struggles: childhood, relationships, society, land, to name a few.

Her story “बेटी” (“Daughter”) presents a multi-generational portrait of women in a farming community. The narrator attends school, while her best friend does not. Neither can escape the system into which they are born. “हम बच्चों की कहानी” (“The story of we the children”) takes these themes even further. And “1857: एक प्रेमकथा” (“1857: A love story”) connects these struggles with those of the past. After listening to Narendra Modi’s historically-questionable remarks on the 1857 Seepoy Rebellion at a recent rally in Merut (the rebellion’s starting point), I would love to hear his take on Pushpa’s love story.

Each of Pushpa’s stories is informed by her resistance to masculine orthodoxy, which she remarkably describes in the introduction to the collection. It is worth quoting one paragraph in particular:

‘रामायण और ‘महाभारत’ हमारे गौरव ग्रंथ, जिनसे चुने हुए पात्रों के उदाहरण अच्छे और बुरे मनुष्यों के रूप में दिए जाते हैं । मैं अकसर ही सोचती रही हूँ कि क्या कैकेयी वास्तव में ही कुमाता और खलनायिका है ? क्या उसी के कारण राजवंश पर सारे संकट आए ? वह इंसाफ माँगने वाली स्वतंत्र दृष्टि की स्त्री राजा दशरथ को अपना वादा ही तो याद दिला रही थी और मंथरा इस साहसपूर्ण अभियान की उद्बोधक थी । क्या अपना हक माँगना अपराध होता है ? सीता स्त्रियों के लिए आदर्श हैं, लेकिन उनका लक्ष्मणरेखा लाँघ जाना स्त्रियों के लिए बुरा क्यों माना गया ? लक्ष्मणरेखा लाँघना और रावण का चित्र अकुंठ भाव से बना देना ही तो सीता का सत्य स्वभाव है । ऐसी स्त्री ही अपनी नस्ल का भयानक ह्रास होने से बचा सकती है । क्यों नहीं हम सीता के ऐसे साहसपूर्ण उत्साह को अपनी कलम समर्पित करें ? मेरे मन में ऐसी ही बातों ने धर कर लिया और मैं खुद से ही सवाल करने लगी − क्यों कुंती पतिव्रता थी ? माता सत्यवती ने व्यास को क्यों छोड़ दिया था ? अम्बा और अम्बालिका के यहाँ संतान कैसे पैदा हुई ? मैं मानती हूँ कि ऐसे सवाल करने की इजाजत शास्त्र-पुराण नहीं देते । और जो तर्कातीत है, उस पर मेरा विश्वास नहीं ठहरता । ‘सती’ शब्द स्त्री के लिए पुण्य-पवित्र है या विनाशक ? जहाँ हमारी स्वतंत्र दृष्टि का निषेध होता हो, उसे हम साहित्य कैसे मानें ?

The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are our our classic texts, in which forms of good and bad people are given based on the examples of select characters. But I often wonder, is Kaikeyi truly a bad mother and a villainess? Was the kingdom plunged into crisis because of her alone? This justice-seeking, independent-minded woman was simply reminding King Dasaratha of his promise. And Manthura was the evocateur of this daring campaign. Is it a crime to demand one’s own rights? Sita is the ideal for women, but why is it considered so bad for women to cross the Lakshman-line? Sita’s true nature was to cross Lakshman’s line and to freely produce the picture of Ravana. Only this sort of woman can save her womankind from its terrible deterioration. Why do we not commit our pens to Sita’s daring passion? These matters engulfed my mind, and I began to ask question myself. Why was Kunti pure? Why did Mata Satyavati abandon Vyasa? How were children born at the home of Amba and Ambalika? I recognise that the Shastras and Puranas do not permit asking such questions. And I place no faith in that which is beyond logic. Is the the word “Sati” sacred or destructive for women? How can we consider that which inhibits our independent vision as literature?

The Lakshman-line (lakshman-rekha) refers to an episode of the Ramayana, in which Rama’s brother Lakshmana draws a line to protect Sita when he leaves her alone in the forest. But when Sita ventured a toe past the line, Ravana was able to abduct her. The term has come to mean any line that women are not supposed to cross, any arena that is supposed to remain woman-free. Pushpa wants to celebrate women who cross that line, and she does so by rejecting Hinduism’s classic texts (gaurav granth). She even commends Sita for a much-debated Ramayana episode, in which she produces a drawing of her captor. Why does she produce this drawing? Pushpa doesn’t care; Sita can do what she wants. As radical as this seems, Hinduism boasts centuries of internal questioning along these lines—a fact lost upon those who want to silence marginal voices in Hindu tradition.

But if Delhi’s previous government was hoping to find a non-political individual to head the DWC, they should perhaps have knocked on someone else’s door.


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