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Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

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Ipshita Chanda: Elizabeth Jackson. Muslim Indian Women Writing in English. Class Privilege, Gender Disadvantage, Minority Status. New York: Peter Lang, 2018. Pp. 170. ISBN: 9781433149955.

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Elizabeth Jackson. Muslim Indian Women Writing in English. Class Privilege, Gender Disadvantage, Minority Status. New York: Peter Lang, 2018. Pp. 170. ISBN: 9781433149955.

In discussing the very slim corpus of “Muslim Indian Women Writing in English” – 4 writers and a dozen volumes in all – Elizabeth Jackson has judiciously further narrowed her field by specifying “class privilege, gender disadvantage and minority status” as the triple foci of her study. Curiously, all the adjectives designated to describe the subject of her study are exclusive in some way or other, and latent in them are the effects of exclusion as well as exclusivity. The discourse of feminism challenges the patriarchal order of things in the time and place wherein patriarchy constitutes it: deprivation of various sorts is inflected by, even subordinated to, patriarchal gender organisation which frames the lives of women and men in society (a section on female power as surrogate patriarchs as well as the patriarchal bargain makes us aware of this fact, 145–9). The questions which follow arise from this context, and do so because the author has conscientiously dealt with all aspects of the matter through categories of analysis currently fashionable and hence unchallenged. This book is such a professional study that we are led to reflect upon the bases of the “profession” of comparative literature as such, a situation we are faced with directly in the title itself: “Muslim Indian Women Writing in English.” One may begin to ask, has “Muslim Indian” the same resonance as “Indian Muslim”? On what grounds are we putting one description before the other? Is one a preferred identity over the other? Does the order of words in a phrase designate their importance to the subject they describe or is it the whisper of history that makes us give one term apparent – political – priority over the other? The very carefully mapped out title of the book reveals to us the constraints within which work on the real lives of women in society is arrayed – the sociological categories can contain narratives of a single aspect of women’s lives, but there is no way in which they exhaust the experience of inhabiting those categories simultaneously as a living breathing woman, as the fiction considered in this book shows, sometimes contradictorily. Intersectionality attempts to ←281 | 282→complicate the terrain but rarely is the narrative able to keep the different “sections” in active dialogue with one another, which is imperative for the understanding of lived experience. From chapter 2 to 4, the author does present to us the contradictory aspects of such lived experience. In doing so, she shows how the attempt to link underlying social ideology to it, detectable in the choices made by the characters from different chronotopes – disaggregates into different aspects of an entire life spent in a patriarchally organised society. Gender practices engage with – support, resist, reject or adjust to – patriarchy in the form it takes within family, society, religious community, state.

This brings us directly to the problem of organising a scholarly study of literature along categories of sociological interpretation. This does not imply a critique of the book, which makes a valiant effort to let literature speak for itself, showing the awareness of contradictions highlighted above. However, the works analyzed in this study are tightly bound into chapters according to their thematic content, a standard procedure when examining literature through social science categories. This book contains only a single chapter placed at the very beginning reminding us that we are reading fiction, rather than extended interviews of random participants in a focused survey on precisely what the subtitle claims describes their lives: minority status, gender disadvantage and class privilege. This framing device, added to Muslim Indian, as pointed out earlier, exhibits the contradictions and the apparently impossible situations experienced by these women.

This contradiction stands out despite the author’s attempts to cover various aspects of a category in every chapter subsections. Trying to capture the weft of life in a general rubric is bound to provide doubtful answers – some women in a given classification may not share the views exhibited by others in their “category,” while some women’s lives resist any attempt to categorise. Jackson discusses at length the preponderance of one identity over the other in the chapter “Religion and Communal Identity,” concluding that class is a greater force than religion in depriving women of whatever constitutes their natural right. Hence one wonders why the title of the book insists on placing “Muslim” before Indian. Is it a knee jerk reaction against the denigration of Islam worldwide, as some people mindlessly link it with terror instead of scrutinising the specific time, place and cause for the disturbed milieu in which Muslims have been confronted with the additional burden of being held responsible for ←282 | 283→this phenomenon? If class truly constitutes the factor prompting women’s exploitation rather than communal identity, then all Indians, be they of any religion whatsoever, will be subject to the same forces, and there is no need to single out the Muslim woman for special focus.

However, perspectives are bound to change as time passes – the books and authors considered span a period of fifty years, during which India became a sovereign entity and a functioning democracy. As Jackson points out

Religion is not a particularly prominent theme for any of these Muslim authors…We have also seen that communal identity is an increasingly important factor in the lives of the characters in the later texts. In the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries we note a growing sense of hardening of communal divisions, with Muslims being part of an embattled minority, whether or not they are religious. (156)

So ironically, religion does play a role: a politicised one. A democracy is committed to protect its minorities. The Muslims in India, as the result of history, represent the largest minority in the country. Does this imply that class privilege may not be enhanced by minority status, but that patriarchal oppression certainly is? What is identity in the context of the plurality of India? Is it a question salient to Indians today because of the need to interrogate the undercutting of the importance of caste, class or gender through the prioritising of religion and separate exclusive cultures? Jackson does not need to address this matter for the writers considered do not write of contemporary times – the latest book dates from 2006, paving the way for the dawn of the situation we find ourselves in today. The gender ideology practised in Muslim society differs from that of Hindu society. However, the power of patriarchy, though admittedly not its shape, remains the same in all societies. While the Koran instructs that all are born equal and that woman has certain rights Hinduism and Christianity did not give her, the power of masculine privilege, regardless of which society we are concerned with, subverts the dictums of the Koran by designating men as the conduits to spiritual and other types of wisdom, and keeping women within the confines of the patriarchal family structure. Examples of this are legion in the eyes of the writers examined in this book. Gender thus can be privileged over class: writing of Samira Ali’s character Layla in Madras on Rainy Days, Jackson singles out the relation between a socially and economically privileged bride and her disenfranchised groom – among Hindus this could also occur along ←283 | 284→the lines of caste. However, gender hierarchy triumphs through marriage. Jackson comments “Thus the narrative emphasises the inherently inferior status of a wife to her husband regardless of their relative social classes.” (130–1). In Reaching Bombay Central, the porter imposes upon the timid heroine, whose life has been spent in deferring to men. In Attia Hossain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column, the destabilising effects of different gender ideologies upon women in patriarchy can be observed in the fate of Aunt Saira and her friends, the “new Muslim woman” (139).

Jackson offers a narrative construction of the negotiations with patriarchy gleaned from the works of four writers who are women, Muslims, Indians. They obviously belong to a class which gives them the privilege of an English education, leading to an experience of life both behind the purdah and before it in an India which grows from a colony into an independent secular democracy. At the time when the works of fiction analyzed are set: “Elite Indian women […] were well aware of feminist ideas but often living in family structures imposing gender subordination softened by class privilege” (129). The novelist’s task is to probe the lack of fit Jackson outlines in sociological terms. As readers of scholarly writing, we should feel prompted to wonder at the subtle forces of change already manifest in literature but not articulated in social science theories until they became threats to the harmonious life of a plural society. In most of South Asia, no literary production can exist in the coloniser’s language without the context of an older written tradition of literature. In every language that may be called modern Indian, we can discern the start of a conversation with the west rather than the limited idea of the west prevalent in a world of Anglophone supremacy. Jackson fails to consider this aspect of things, though her awareness of it is evident early enough in her remarks on women writing in Urdu and their similarity in education and class with those writing in English. Given this realization, placing Anglophone writing at the basis of theorisation about South Asia skews Jackson’s research field. It limits it in a way that restricts the practice of comparative literature.

Considering the importance of the plurality of belief and experience, the idea of “India” does not constitute a homogeneous whole. India is the home of many languages, religions and cultures, constituting a plural society that survives on the negotiation of this plurality as everyday experience. Accordingly, Jackson should combine a sense of synchronic diversity with her diachronic approach. However, scholars of Indian writing, whether they be Indian or foreign, do not seem to privilege this ←284 | 285→perspective. Evidently, foreign scholars face a greater challenge in learning that both diversity and overlapping histories, languages and customs are complementary to each other; that caste identity is commonly experienced in overt and covert ways in the very structure of social life itself, and that gender discrimination rides piggyback on every other form of discrimination available in patriarchal capitalist society.

Jackson’s study offers a very apt example of a species of “comparative approach” which fixes the other/woman with a sympathetic “objective” gaze, trying to construct a history of her emotions with the flow of events underlying her historical being. However, it would be necessary for the critic to indicate what may be the areas of concern and to identify their causes. First, the categories used in this book to study experience show themselves to be contradictory even when applicable without qualifications. Subjective realism and free indirect discourse enable critical distance and involvement, a position of looking at rather than looking through. Jackson refers to the “social realism” of some Indian English writers in order to explain why women writers in general and Muslim ones in particular, do not receive much attention, even from a scholarly perspective. Similarly, the non-Muslim women writers in English during the postcolonial period remain less popular than their male counterparts like Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth who are described as writers of “the implicitly mainstream Anglophone Indian novel (6, quoting Priyamvada Gopal). Jackson’s subtle approach relies on narrative strategy. She establishes distinctions in her corpus on the basis of the nuances of realist fiction which she divides into subjective realism and social realism (13). All writers, male or female, who use the latter aesthetic garner more popularity; women writers whose “fictional worlds are unashamedly domestic and their characters inevitably female” (167) generally adhere to the subjective realist narrative style. The centrality of the male perspective, identified with the “public” sphere, still constitutes a barrier to interpreting the experience of women and men in society as interactive within a structure of feeling. This is evident, Jackson argues with examples of extrapolation, in “patriarchal bargains and negotiations” (134–35) theories, as well as in Shangari’s “surrogate patriarchy” thesis (ibid). With sympathy but with no less sharpness, Ismat Chughtai and Qurrutulain Haider have critiqued a similar phenomenon in their Urdu writings, their writing styles being more experimental than those of the authors discussed by Jackson. Should Jackson have placed Haider’s novel River of Fire in conversation with the work discussed in her book, certain ←285 | 286→questions of reception of literature among Western educated women writers, Muslim and otherwise, could have been brought up. Does the staid realist paradigm of most of the women writers mentioned in this study, whether Hindu or Muslim, reflect what the writers were interested in reading? Does the history of literary reception of English realism in Indian languages impact the writing styles of the first few generations of women writers? Does the narrative style of someone like Jane Austen, a preeminent figure in English Literature courses, influence those women writing in English? This history of reception, or even a brief mention of it, is not addressed in contemporary critical and scholarly engagements, which favour a sociological categorisation of experience. Sadly, such approaches limit the scope of comparative practice.

Comparative methods provide us with the means and the material to study alterity and difference as intrinsic ways of being human. To pin them down into categories would be an injustice to the tremendous courage of the women who preserved the contradictions inherent in such differences. Indeed, their criticism ought not to be silenced nor should the sheer tragic force of their lives be diminished or reduced in any way through our own limitations. Jackson’s study, in conscientiously trying to keep the complexity of lived experience intact despite the non-literary categories of analysis deployed, foregrounds the valuable role of literature and highlights the need for appropriate modes of understanding it.


Ipshita Chanda

English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad