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History in the Making

Making a Difference: Memoirs from the Women's Movement in India editd by Ritu Menon (Delhi: Women Unlimited),2011; pp 412, Rs 350.

History in the Making

Neloufer de Mel

W
hat can we say about a book that declares at the outset what it is not? Why does Ritu Menon, editor of Making a Difference: Memoirs from the Women’s Movement in India, open with a statement of disavowal: “Perhaps I should begin by saying what this book is not”? Is this defensive or defiant in tone? To me it is both, and well placed and necessary. It is defiant because the project of collecting memoirs from the Indian women’s movement towards an autobiography of a “collective subject” is a brave one. In a movement as diverse as this, there will always be – like elsewhere, and common to all social movements – questions over the “collectivising”, over the politics of inclusion and exclusion. I am struck, therefore, by how courageous a project this is – yet it also follows a certain self-confidence, a belief that the women’s movement in I ndia has come of age. Certainly, the women activists, scholars and artists showcased in this book have led the way in south Asian feminist politics and been an inspiration to us all in the rest of south Asia; and this book poses a challenge to us all: that it is time to collect the memoirs from our own movements for their own specificities, debates and locations – all of which outweigh the limitations such projects entail. The defiance, then, is in the self-confidence that comes from the recognition that this group of women, these groups of organisations, and activities constitute what the editor of the volume terms, “history in the making”.

The defensiveness, however, is also well placed because it is an insistence against misreading: against looking for an exhaustive account, or accounting of the Indian women’s movement within these pages. Menon is right to be on her guard. For there is also a further danger, of memoirs and autobiography being r egarded as the truth. A debate

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
february 18, 2012

book review

Making a Difference: Memoirs from the Women’s Movement in India editd by Ritu Menon

(Delhi: Women Unlimited),2011; pp 412, Rs 350.

has been raging in Sri Lanka about an autobiography entitled Tamil Tigress written by an ex-LTTE female cadre u nder the nom de plume Niromi de Soyza (interestingly a Sinhala name). Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan born historian asked in a recent review of the book, whether Tamil Tigress was poised to enter the “house of literary infamy” joining other such “tales of lies” masquerading as autobiography.1 He noted that Niromi de Soyza

considers her tale ‘unique’ because she was a female fighter and a ‘child soldier’ at that, albeit much like the many young Tamils who were ready to sacrifice their life for a just cause. Completing the tale, she adds, was ‘cathartic’ for her. Thus, we could say that she presents herself as a driven force telling the world her truths.

Herein lies the rub: the work of memory

– the basic ingredient for any memoir or autobiography – is, for this historian (and I suspect for many general readers), about retrieving and portraying the truth. From this perspective Roberts goes on to parse Niromi de Soyza’s book for both large and small errors. A significant error noted by him is the interpolation in the book of the Sri Lanka army for the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in a ruthless battle fought in December 1987. (This was the author’s inaugural battle.) Roberts sees in this manoeuvre a deliberate attempt to blacken the Sri Lanka army because he surmises that Niromi de Soyza would surely have known she was fighting the IPKF and not the Sri Lanka army at the time. The consequence of such an interpolation is, for Roberts, a covert reinforcement of the current, c ontroversial allegations against the Sri Lanka security forces of war crimes.

vol xlvii no 7

Whatever de Soyza’s political project may be, the rejoinder to Roberts came from Charles Sarvan, trained as a literary critic. Sarvan retorted that the errors in the book are so many they are

laughable; that the work of memory can be disjointed and need not necessarily be the work of duplicity; and that writers may tell lies – fiction – in order to tell larger truths. Certainly, many renowned writers blur the distinction between the imaginary and the real in order to u ndermine the very confidence with which we differentiate the two. I am reminded of Salman Rushdie’s Saleem in Midnight’s Children or the small “errors” Michael Ondaatje makes in Running in the Family, or his latest novel-memoir The Cat’s Table precisely I think to alert us to a faltering memory, or a different impact of an event on the character.

Fetish of Veracity

But we live today, in an age which fetishises veracity. One register of this plays out as our passports and identity cards, etc, are checked at various borders by the State; and our identity is whittled down to the status of an object so that it can be stabilised, and “known”, and recognised through bureaucratic rationalisation. Therefore the disciplinary tussle that I have just referred to between the literary critic and a certain kind of historian (because there are other methodologies within history which are more at home with the work of memory and representation) is, I think, important to flag because it calls into question this very relationship between identity which is complex and diverse, and identification that reduces it into something easily knowable. Within the framework of the book Making a Difference, this lens of identification would be to take the faltering memory, the play of imagination, or the variable impact of events on the women who describe them as distortions of the truth.

It is because of such claims and counterclaims to accuracy and truth which characterises how readers respond to what is now increasingly being called “life writing” that Ritu Menon, as

BOOK REVIEW

editor and curator of the voices in this volume, is wary from the outset: That, as she says – yes – memoirs are subjective and susceptible to falsification, they are constructed, shaped and mediated by language; and so, that a memoir is already in the realm of affect – also because of “where and at what stage we happen to be in our lives when we recall” (p xxv). Given that the volume, as a project, sets out very consciously to capture diverse strands, events, and entrances into the Indian women’s movement, many of its narratives are about how, as Stacy Holman Jones writes of what she terms “autoethnography”, “selves [which] are constructed, disclosed, and implicated in the telling of personal narratives”. They are also about “how these narratives move in and change the contexts of their telling” (Holman Jones 2005: 767).

The narratives in this volume are striking, therefore, for how they “move in and change the contexts of their telling”, which also points to how “truth” is constantly mobile. To a Sri Lankan, the context these stories move in is one of familiarity to the women concerned. Each chapter spoke of friends, places, streets, junctions, marches, slogans and songs that are not necessarily explained to the outsider. They could be reminiscences that take place in someone’s drawing room. In these conversations with each other, there is some nostalgia (the phrase “things seemed simpler then” runs like a refrain throughout), but also humour, and a racy pace as in Gabriele Dietrich’s piece with which the volume proper begins. This is a good beginning not only because it points to the inclusiveness of the Indian women’s movement in acknowledging the commitment made by a woman of German descent to life and work in India, but also because it is a more literary piece than the others and so, draws attention to the function of narrative in memorising.

The stories that changed the context through their telling have a greater impact, however, because of their effect on us as readers. Events I had read about such as Emergency under Indira Gandhi, or the 1984 violence against the Sikhs after her killing, or a particular women’s studies conference at which I may have been present appear in this volume as key events which changed these authors’ lives and led them to new directions of research and activism. Read this way, the events themselves take on added meanings, not only as the governmentality or pogroms of a state – but also as deeply moving engagements of women with that state, with violence in their communities, and with their inner selves. Having the privilege to know, or have met some of the authors in this volume myself, the revelation of how these macro events changed their lives in very fundamental ways will change the context in which I will, after this, review the larger events themselves. This is also because the revelations are honest and should be valued above all else for their self-reflexivity.

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february 18, 2012 vol xlvii no 7

BOOK REVIEW

Autoethnography

Stacy Holman Jones (p 765) notes, that the field of “autoethnography” is about “setting a scene, telling a story, weaving intricate connections among life and art, experience and theory, evocation and explanation…and then letting go, hoping for readers who will bring the same careful attention to your words in the context of their own lives”.2 This “letting go” is always difficult because, as I tried to show with my example of the Tamil Tigress controversy, readers’ responses are contingent and subject to alteration with historical change. So how a reader pays attention, or not, to what you write and how you write is somewhat beyond our control. But there are readers out there who will pay attention to how these memoirs are crafted, because of how they resonate with our own lives and movements. Personally I was struck with how Kamla Bhasin’s account begins

  • as if her own history itself now begins
  • with the tragic loss in her personal life. I was struck by how in the majority of these accounts, mothers and grandmothers – either because we fought with them or did not – are upheld as inspirational, paving the way to our entrances into feminist consciousness and the women’s movement.
  • As someone who teaches and has worked in the theatre, I was also struck by how integral a role the creative arts – whether of creative song, street theatre, or photography – play in the movement as it is documented in the pages of Making a Difference. (This is the one place where I would disagree with the editor who writes in her preface that every now and then the movement “replenished” or “recharged” itself and its campaigns through cultural work, p xix.) Rather than treating creative work as extraneous, the accounts by Uma Chakravarti, Sheba Chhachhi, Kamla Bhasin and many others show how songs, photographs and street theatre were turned to as important pedagogical tools with which to communicate the movement’s message. For example, Chakravarti writes of the street play Om Swaha crafted in order to a ddress and communicate more directly the issue of dowry murders, etc. Through her photo essay Chhachhi similarly acknowledges the interactive

    Economic Political Weekly

    EPW
    february 18, 2012

    play of/on photographs as integral to her work on women and violence.

    As for what we take out of this volume in the context of our own belonging – or sense of belonging – to our respective movements, I want to mark two areas I find significant. The first is that of selfreflection. Over and over again I was struck by the self-reflexivity incorporated in the act of writing these memoirs. Because the memoirs come across as a relaxed conversation amongst friends – even the controversies and debates within the movement, of nomenclature, of strategy, of focus, etc – are not hidden, but spoken about in the open. Feminism itself as a bone of contention is referred to. The limitations of the movement are spelt out. Its inequalities, and the boundaries to its achievements are clearly marked.3 The fights in Beijing at the 1995 UN women’s conference are not shied away from. Life writing often takes the narrative form of going inward, exploring vulnerability in the i nner self, in order to move the story out to the level of social and political relations. Many of the narratives contained in this book follow this form, of a descent into interiority in order to ask a larger question. The disclosures therefore come from deep introspection and this is what I wish to take back the most in order to assess our own selves and our respective movements and their places in south Asia today.

    Differences vs Commonalities

    The second aspect of Making a Difference which struck me as significant in the context of our own lives in Sri Lanka, is that the differences in focus of the Sri Lankan women’s movement and the I ndian one are greater than the com monalities we used to often assume. Yes, both have successfully campaigned for laws against d omestic violence (the Domestic Violence Act came into effect in Sri Lanka in 2005). Both have campaigned for various national committees on women, and submitted reports on the status of women. But given the 30-year war in Sri Lanka, the preoccupation of many Sri Lankan women’s groups has been violence against women in the c ontext of armed conflict. In Making a Difference this focus is most overtly present as a sustained narrative only in

    vol xlvii no 7

    Roshmi Goswami’s memoir. Given that much of her early activism was in the north-east of India, Goswami recollects the founding moments of the North-East Network or NEN, and marks the shift in its work from women’s needs to rights in the context of armed conflict, and violence against women by both the state and armed militants. This has resonance for us because women’s groups in Sri Lanka such as the Suriya Women’s D evelopment Center in Batticoloa, or Women and Media Collective in Colombo, or the Sri Lanka Women’s NGO F orum engaged in similar work.

    It strikes me, therefore, that even if the issues of armed conflict, militancy, prevention of terrorism laws, etc, are present for Indian women as they are for those of us in Sri Lanka, there is a slight but nevertheless arresting difference in India on focus and priority. Uma Chakravarti noted this in an essay entitled “The Burdens of Nationalism” published in the festschrift I edited with Selvy Thiruchandran in honour of Sri Lankan feminist scholar Kumari Jayawardena (De Mel and Thiruchandran 2007: 4). Chakravarti wrote that in Sri Lanka, “women’s interrogations of state power from a feminist perspective preceded many other countries in the region”. While she acknowledged the many discussions, in forums such as the EPW, on the civil and democratic rights movements in Assam, or women’s groups which went up to Kashmir and issued reports of the status of women there, etc, she noted this did not lead to feminist interrogations of the nation state in the context of armed conflict u ntil much later. She provocatively and courageously put this down to what she termed the “burdens” of nationalism that infused the Indian women’s movement at the time. For us in Sri Lanka, on the other hand, preoccupied with the war, women campaigned against the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), gender-based violence, a political solution to the armed conflict, and women’s representation in peace negotiations and decision-making committees, but lagged behind the achievements of the Indian women’s movement in the fields of environmental and ecological conservation, the rights of fishing communities, trade unions, and minority rights. Nor did we

    BOOK REVIEW

    succeed, given that all our universities are state ones, under-resourced, and fairly well entrenched in the status quo, in establishing women’s studies courses, faculty and research that fed the movement as it did in India.

    These memoirs are, then, an index of the times. They spark off charged m oments of connection and difference. They present self and culture, and self and politics as a delicate balancing act. They draw on multiple forms – journalism, photography, diarising, literary criticism, social science and history – to capture and convey the voices and memories of a renowned group of women. By

    -’ -

    -

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    --doing so they validate the women and their movement, and what and how they say about the act of making history.

    Neloufer de Mel (nelouferdemel@yahoo.co.uk) is with the department of English, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

    Notes

    1 Roberts wrote, “The literary world is now poised on the brink wondering if the Tamil Tigress (Allen and Unwin 2011) is going to join Forbidden Love (Random House 2003) and The Hand That Signed the Paper (Allen and Unwin 2000) in the house of literary infamy. Has the Tamil lady who uses the nom de plume Niromi de Soyza woven an autobiographical tale of lies that match those coined by Norma Toliopoulos and Helen Darville who wrote their memoirs as

    --

    -“

    -

    Norma Kouri and Helen Demidenko?” The I sland, 3 September 2011.

    2 Stacy Holman Jones, Autoethnography: Making the Personal Political, Sage Handbook of Aualitative Research.

    3 Eg Saheli’s statement that although they felt united as women, over the last two decades “women’s experiences and oppressions have become clearer than ever – linked as they are not just to religious identity, but as powerfully to class and caste, sexual orientation and other hierarchies that produce countless inequalities amongst us”, p 252.

    References

    De Mel, Neloufer and Selvy Thiruchandran (2007): At the Cutting Edge: Essays in Honour of Kumari Jayawardena (Delhi: Women Unlimited).

    Holman Jones, Stacy (2005): “Autoethnography: Making the Personal Political”, The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, Thousand Oaks (London, Delhi, Singapore: Sage), pp 763-91.

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    february 18, 2012 vol xlvii no 7

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