Changing Images of Women in South Asian Fiction

Shoshana M. Landow '91 (Anthropology 302, Princeton University, 1989)

The image of women in South Asian novels has undergone a change in the last three decades. Throughout this period, women writers have moved away from traditional enduring, self-sacrificing women toward conflicted female characters searching for identity. The interests of women writers have changed with South Asian society and its relationship with the West. This trend in writings by South Asian women clearly appears if onecompares the images of suffering women in Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve and Meera Mahadevan's Shulamith to recent subversions and expansions of the traditional image in works by Chitra Fernando, Anita Desai, Kamala Das, Sara Suleri, and Anees Jung. In contrast to the main women characters in Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve and Mahadevan's Shulamith, female characters in the 1980s assert themselves and defy marriage and family strictures. Chitra Fernando's collection of short stories Three Women, like Anita Desai's In Custody, portray women who want their individual worth realized and attempt to break through the suffering that traditional society offers them. The most recent books, of the last three years (1986-1988), explore an educated woman's search for identity and meaning -- in autobiographical form, as in Kamala Das' My Story or in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days, or combining autobiographical and ethnographic form, as in Anees Jung's Unveiling India: A Woman's Journey.

Traditionally, marriage for women -- except in certain matriarchal tribes in the south that remained unaffected by the Aryan invasion that began in 1500 B.C.E. -- has entailed a most submissive feminine role. Although a woman ideally had power as a mother, as a wife she submitted to her husband and his family. Only recently have South Asian women in the dominant patriarchal tradition started to question aspects of this role, or decided against marriage altogether.

In Image of Woman in the Indo-Anglian Novel, Meena Shirwadkar claims that, following the changes in Indian society, novels have started to progress from depicting women characters solely as epitomes of suffering, womanly virtue to portraying more complex, real characters.

Tradition, transition and modernity are the stages through which the woman in Indo-Anglian novel is passing. The image of traditional woman, the Sita Savitri type, was at once, easy and popular. . . . In India, with its strong bent for tradition, woman was expected mainly to live for others than for herself because "others" controlled and moulded the social structure. Even woman in life and literature herself voluntarily surrendered to the ideal of self-sacrifice. . . . Modern woman, in life, has been trying to throw off the burden of inhibitions she has carried for ages. Yet, a woman on way [sic] to liberation, trying to be free from inhibitions, is rarely seen in Indo-Anglian literature. [Image of Woman in the Indo-Anglian Novel (New Delhi: Sterling. 1979), 153-154.]

Shirwadkar's study, published in 1979, criticizes a literary tradition still overshadowed by the traditional, suffering ideal of womanhood. This ideal has persisted in culture permeated by religious images of virtuous goddesses devoted to their husbands. The Hindu goddesses Sita and Savitri still exist as powerful cultural ideals of women in South Asia. Both images tell women to devote themselves to their husbands to extremes of endurance, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. As Susan S. Wadley explains,

[The god] Rama's wife Sita exemplifies the behaviour of the proper Hindu wife, devotedly following her husband into forest exile for twelve years, and eventually, after being kidnapped for a time by the evil Ravanawhom Rama finally destroys, proving her wifely virtue by placing herself on a lighted pyre. . . . Throughout North India, the women yearly worship Savitri, a goddess whose renown emanates from her extreme devotion to her husband, through which she saves him from the god of death. The story of Savitri isheld up as a prime example of the lengths to which a wife should go in aiding her husband. The good wife saves her husband from death, follows him anywhere, proves her virtue, remains under his control and gives him her power. ["Women and the Hindu Tradition,"in Women in India (New Delhi: Manohar, 1986), 122-123]

Meena Shirwadkar finds that the representation of women in Indo-Anglian literature fulfils this ideal of suffering devotion, which she calls the Pativrata tradition. She argues that "a graded change" has occurred, however, in Indo-Anglian fiction. "The early novels show [the] wife in her traditional role, mainly as a house-wife and child-bearer, and the writers are preoccupied with her suffering," she claims. Later novels, in contrast, show "the wives . . . to suffer more because of the incompatibility between her individuality and awareness of herself and the traditional views of her husband and her in-laws" [49].

From women who endure namelessly fulfilling the ideal of the devoted wife-goddess, South Asian fiction by women has progressed to a conflicted yet liberating naming of one's one experience and that of other women. Although Easterners and Westerners can debate South Asia's traditional valuation of suffering, both must value the latest developments in South Asian women's writing. These women authors incorporate their experience in both worlds in an attempt to make new, empowering image for women. As Anees Jung points out: "Where the two experiences meet lies a revelation, and a story." Recent writers' stories realize both the diversity of women and the diversity within each woman. Rather than limiting the lives of women to one ideal, they push the ideal towards the full expression of each woman's potential.

[This contribution derives from work written for Professor Ranjini Obeysekere's Anthropology 302, South Asian Women Writers: Another Approach to Feminism, Princeton University, 1989/]

[Postcolonial] India OV [Gender OV]

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002