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Words of women

Jai Arjun Singh  |  New Delhi 

Zubaan's new collection showcases a
"We wanted a name that would reflect the naughtiness and cavalierness of this collection," said Anita Roy, commissioning editor, Zubaan, explaining why the Delhi launch of 21 Under 40, an anthology of short stories by South Asian women, was referred to as "What's New, Pussycat?". (The more solemn name for the event "" which included readings by some of the contributing writers and a discussion moderated by poet Jeet Thayil "" was "Words of Women").
"There are lots of varied voices on show in this book," she added. "I imagine any reader will hate some of these stories, be baffled or even horrified by some...and hopefully, enchanted by some as well."
Lighthearted as the tone of the discussion was (Roy related anecdotes about getting submissions from 68-year-old white men who demanded to know why they were being excluded, despite the specification that the writers had to be women, under 40 and South Asian; and about an audience member at an earlier launch who kept asking, "yes, but what is the purpose of this collection?"), it also threw up a few serious topics: such as whether stories written by women are still being looked at in terms of convenient labels, "feminist writing", for instance.
"Why can one not simply be a 'writer' and be done with it?" Roys asks in her Introduction, but she continues: "As anyone who has set pen to paper will tell you, there's nothing simple about being a writer. And for many of these young women, writing at all has required a large degree of courage."
That courage notwithstanding, the participating writers also acknowledge their debt to an earlier generation of women scribes who laid the foundation that has enabled young women of today to write with greater confidence.
"Some battles have already been fought for us," said one of the participants. Another point of discussion was that some of the stories in the current collection manage to be funny and feminist at the same time, which might not have been a realistic option for Indian women writers of an earlier time "" they would have felt constrained to employ a tone of gravitas when it came to discussing burning issues.
"If this collection is representative of anything other than the editors' own quirky sensibilities," Roy says, "it demonstrates that young South Asian women are boldly experimenting with form, style and subject matter."
Even a quick glance through some of the stories will bear this out. Nisha Susan's Broadband and the Bookslut is a witty, assured account of a bibliophile's attempts to find love "" and more importantly, to deal with it "" online. Paromita Chakravarti provides an acerbic satire of reality television (and perhaps of the traditional Indian marriage) in Instant Honeymoon, or Love in the Time of Television.
Diana Romany's Ferris Wheel is a very dark, cringe-inducing tale about sexual abuse and power equations. There are quieter, more introspective works by Sumana Roy and Annie Zaidi, a graphic story by Epsita Halder, and even a Mughal- era detective yarn by Madhulika Liddle. Yes, this is a varied collection alright, and most of it is pretty darn good.
It's worth noting that most of the best stories don't give the impression of trying too hard; these are samples of natural, unforced talent. At the launch, Roy mentioned that some of the submissions she had rejected read like the writers had pre-determined what type of story was most likely to appeal to a "feminist publishing house", and tailored their work accordingly "" which meant a compromise on spontaneity.
Inevitably, the ones that did make the grade are, above all, examples of good writing and solid storytelling "" independent of discussions about the gender divide.


First Published: Sun, April 01 2007. 00:00 IST