An Afternoon with Shakuntala and Other Stories: Vaidehi's stories here substantiate that the tensions involved in exteriorizing interior conflicts and interiorizing the social space take on a significance that far outreaches the aesthetic issues foregrounded by male Navya writers and critics during the 1970s. These stories raise a powerful set of questions in relation to man-woman relationship, asymmetrical sexuality and woman as a speaking subject. For instance, Kusuma's refusal in "Enquiry" to take on the gender identity given by the patriarchal discourse can be read as an attempt at changing kinship relation, an act that may disrupt the very premises on which that discourse stands. Saugandhi is forced to address sexuality only in soliloquies. And then there is Akku, an allegory of feminine discourse itself, in which the mad Akku has not spared any man in town, becomes pregnant every other day, knows who has been sleeping with whom, and refuses to be silenced by the powerful patriarchal order. Further, Shakuntala's is an attempt at narrativising a rare and unique feminist assertion in the face of agony caused by the patriarchal Crown and justified by the equally chauvinistic Poet.
Vaidehi is one of the most significant and prolific writers of modern Kannada. The corpus of her works so far includes one novel, five biographies, three poetry collections, seven short story collections, three essay collections, fifteen children's plays, one children's fiction, five translations and two edited volumes. She has received several awards like Katha Prize, Anupama Award, M.K. Indira Prize, Niranjana Award, Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award, Masti Award , and the prestigious Dana Chintamani Attimabbe Award. She received Sahitya Akademi Award for her collection of short stories Krouncha Pakshigalu in 2009.
Sukanya Kanarally, Associate Professor in English, is currently pursuing her doctoral studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Her research interests include women's writing and translation studies. She has authored several translations into Kannada and English.
My name is Janaki. Way back in seventies, I had sent my fist short story to Sudha, a weekly in Kannada. The story was based on a real incident that taken place at the college I was studying in. It had left me upset terribly. B the time I came o know that the story was being published, I had started regretting. I wrote to the editor of Sudha asking him to send it back. Not only did he not return the manuscript, he even published it under the name 'vaidehi'. I have retained the new name in my writing henceforth.
Thus recalls Vaidehi the story of her own emergence under a pen name. Was it a mere change of name? The shift from Janaki, the daughter of Janaka – an identity through the father – to Vaidehi, an identity through the land (here, Videha) is significant. At least the feminist potential of her writing makes one wonder whether the change was in anyway conscious.
Vaidehi was born in 1945, in Kundapura, a small town in Karnataka. Her father Sri.A.V.N. Hebbar, a practicing advocate, "wouldn't touch his food until he had recited the prescribed number of verses from the writings of the bhakti poet Tulsidas." Her mother, Smt. Mahalakshmi, "sensitive and intelligent, truthful come what may, but at the same time kindhearted, was her father's second wife focal point of the family." "Whenever I think of my father, it is the picture of my mother-leaning against a pillar, hungry, eyes heavy with sleep but trying to hold it back, waiting for Father to finish his daily routine of recitation before they could eat-that comes to my mind," Vaidehi writes." Her mother's affectionate personality, brother Sri. A.S.N. Hebbar's literary interests, husband Sri. Srinivasa Murty's support in literary endeavours, seem to have seen her through her literary achievements.
"On account of stammering a little, here and there, again and again, the light purple sari became light rose coloured sari. But there have been no attempts at dropping a grappling hook into the mind of the woman wearing that sari. Or is it an unpronounced anxiety so far?" wonders Vaidehi.
A Woman Navya Writer?
If Vaidehi is identified as someone who stated writing during navya – the period of Kannada Literary Modernity of the sixties and seventies – her concerns need to be specified in comparison with the male navya writers. In case of the navya climate in Kannada, as a result of the disillusionment with the Nehruvian ideals in the Indian political scenario, 'inwardness' and in turn 'authenticity' had become an obsessive preoccupation for the male writers. Quite surprisingly, the fact fact that women writers did not have to invent any 'inwardness', 'search for authenticity', 'exteriorization of interior conflicts', 'search for roots' and so on is by and large left ignored. These male writrs turned to questions of sexuality in their search for authenticity. Vaidehi's explorations of female sexuality are located in a radically different conceptual and ideological space. The tensions and problems involved in 'exteriorizing' interior conflicts and 'interiorizing' the social spaces take on a significance that far outreaches the aesthetic issues for grounded by male navya writers and critics. For a woman writer – Triveni and Vaidehi are Vaidehi are good examples – the 'social' and political aspects of selfhood have been thematic from the very beginning. Her effort has primarily been towards recognizing defining and deconstructing the cultural mythologies that have socially constructed her selfhood.
Tracing the Matrilineal
Situating Vaidehi in the Kannada context takes us to the previous generation of women writers as well. An overview of women's Writing in Kannada, particularly in relation to two overarching themes like 'domesticity' and 'female sexuality' makes it possible to identify three paradigms:
Grihavadini is the model of conformation, aggregation and consolidation. Writings of first generation writers like Tirumalamba, Kalyanamma, Ianakamma, M.K. Indira lean towards this model - where the "private" space is given and natural. Next generation writers like Saraswati Bai Rajawade, Kodagina Gowramma, and H.V.Savitramma, identified the locus of women's oppression in the social factors. But like their characters trapped in the helplessness that such a society proliferates, they too could not vocalize a resolution to such issues. Eventually, their characters find solutions to their problems in committing suicide, religious conversion, or conscious self-effacement.
Triveni, and other numerous writers who toed her line in their style and choice of theme too focused on women's problems, but failed to locate the root of their oppression in the institution of family and the politics of the family in the patriarchal nature of state politics. Therefore they tend towards upholding the view that a "good family" can shelter a woman from all the atrocities "outside".
Grihabhangini is the one who blasts the institution of marriage and walks out. Anupama Niranjana's Madhavi, like Nora of "Doll's House" dismantles the apparent stability of family by rejecting it. Borrowing from Mahabharata, Niranjana not only attempts to read a canonized text like the Mahabharata from a' radically different angle, but also debunks the highly idealized model of Sita that plays a powerful role in the cultural organization of gender. The final act of Madhavi, where she, as an act of intense protest, throws the garland away refusing to choose a prince for a husband in the swayamvara, is an act of feminist assertion. The fact that Madhavi's body was used as a "site" for social exchange and for something similar to "renting a womb" is turned into a metaphor for the woman being used as a sexual/ procreative object for social exchange. Though refused sufficient critical attention, Madhavi established a powerful counter- paradigm in women's writing in Kannada.
Ni-Grihini is the one who has no home to go and the one who can not "make" a home. Among the writers who come later are Veena Shanteshwar, Vaidehi, Ganga Padekal, and Sara Abubakar, to name only a few. Their works do raise a powerful set of questions in relation to man-woman relationship, the violence implicit in institution of marriage, asymmetrical sexuality, and woman as a speaking subject and a spoken-about subject. Their preoccupation that marks the difference in their narratives is the choicelessness of a woman who has to choose between being kutumbini - a family-centric woman - and thereby head towards a self-denial and self-effacement, and staying outside the frame of marriage which has only alienation and loneliness to offer. The choicelessness is what a woman with an awareness of her subjecthood has to confront within the present historic situation. Therefore the question is one of negotiation with those choices; one of redefining the relationship between man and woman within the institution of marriage, or engaging with the notion of "loneliness" that in a way marriage has defined as "emptiness."
Several characters in the stories that follow testify to this state of choicelessness and homelessness. Kusuma's refusal in 'Inquiry' to take on the sexual identity given by the patriarchal discourse might be read as an attempt at changing kinship relations which may disrupt the very premises on which that discourse stands. This disruption of domestic and sexual identity is therefore dealt with through an enactment of a scene in juridical terms. The absence of 'Judgment' in the scene is an assertion of interrogation itself, which in its very process has passed a judgment. In fact every spectator in the narrative has been a judge. Similarly, the Beena in "Chandaley" shocks our middle class morality through her desire to grow up to be a prostitute. Vaidehi does much more than 'shocking' us. She draws our attention to the 'Beena' in all of us. And the quiet character Manju in 'Pages of Deep Within' says, "When I slept with my husband, I felt I was prostituting. And with this man? I feel I am living!" The Saugandhi in "Saugandhi's Soliloquies" is forced to address her sexuality only in asides: " ... but Amma, let someone come and seduce me, pounce upon me like a lion, tie me up, make me immobile ..." And then there is 'Akku', an allegory of feminine discourse itself, in which the 'mad' Akku has not 'spared' any man in town, becomes 'pregnant' everyday, knows who has been sleeping with whom, and refuses to be silenced by the powerful patriarchal order. "An Afternoon with Shakuntaley' is an attempt at narrativizing the hitherto unexplored feminine assertion of Shakuntaley in the face of agony caused by a patriarchal Crown and justified by an equally chauvinistic Poet.
However, there seems to be a certain economy in the way Vaidehi contests the sanctity of the ideals of middle class sexual morality or that of family relations. In a certain sense, all women writers have been a part of the milieu in which they wrote. But within that milieu, the writings are as subversive as they are conformist. Triveni, though appears to have faith in a 'good' family that would be a panacea for all the problems of women, does talk about the asymmetrical relationship between men and women in a way that does not escape the attention of the reader. In her novel Sharapanjara, Kaveri's 'madness' is a result of a sexual morality that she has internalized. And later, the family and the society at large successfully push her into the prison house of asylum once again. Triveni suggests that the sexual morality at one level constitutes the prison house and the family, at another. The economy with which Triveni raises certain questions employing silences and controlled articulation perhaps also explains the negotiations she had to make with the reading public at that time that had its own expectations. Popularity of a writer is also a reflection of the absence of any conflict between the writer and the reader. For a certain smooth negotiation with the readers located in a milieu that was increasingly becoming aware of the issues related to women, Triveni seems to have simultaneously been articulate and restraining. She seems to have resorted to employing a certain economy which by its such nature draws the attention of the reader to the 'unsaid' or 'half said'.
Vaidehi has furthered some of the explorations made by Triveni in relation to domesticity and sexuality. And like Triveni, Vaidehi too, restricts her transgressive potential to questioning certain established values within the domestic space. This is not however, to argue that her narratives lack 'social space' in them. It is only to note that unlike Mahashweta Devi's stories that become the nodal points for a myriad of questions related to caste/class and gender, Vaidehi's questioning can not be extended into a larger space other than the gender question within the domestic space. For instance, her novel Asprashyaru (Untouchables) does try to talk about the untouchability in terms of caste. But it is the untouchability in the framework of gender within the domes space that comes through more effectively. Her narratives engage with the dailyness of the domestic space - a space that is not just 'private/personal: but also a concrete expression of the soc structures. Perhaps, Sumitra Bai's foreword to her collection short stories Katekate Kaarana sums up this:
Vaidehi's feminist consciousness does not limit itself to writing about the lives of women alone, instead encompasses the humankind itself. There has been a contention that she does not write about women belonging to the 'lower' strata of the society. When one reads the narratives like baaki itihaasa and the one related to Manjammajji in this collection, the question rises: what strata do these women anyway belong to? Vaidehi's mode is certainly not to answer questions that rise out of an ideological reading of her works. She instead tries to answer them in her own artistic and creative narrativization.
Vaidehi has so far published seven collections of short stork three collections of poetry, one novel, four biographies, thee collections of essays, fifteen children's plays, one children's fiction, five translations, two edited books and one narration memories. She has received thirteen awards including theKarnataka State Sahitya Akademi Award. Many of her narrativ and books have been translated into English and other Indian languages.
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