The road much travelled by women who lived in the earlier part of the twentieth century was a road paved with an earnest search for meanings, an eager attempt to grasp the new worlds that education and independence opened up for them in its entirety and the consistent attempt to bridge the gap dividing the disparate spaces of their lived realities and the dreams of a new independent nation. After education for women ceased to be a distant dream worked to place their newly earned knowledge at the service of the nation women gaining education with a sense of mission.
They wrote, spoke, taught and shared their understanding seeking to elevate their less fortunate sisters trapped in the orthodoxy and culture of the community. Women wrote desperately as if to save their lives. They edited magazines and ran schools and hostels for women rendered homeless by widowhood or poverty.
They read greedily and avidly curiously seeking the secret formula that might crack the contradiction between precept and practice in family, movement and society. Women realized that writing was a weapon of power, an act of subversion, a tool of liberation.That period was marked by an optimism, a hope, a determination to bring about reform and change. Above all an unquestioning a faith in the values they professed. They earnestly believed that nationhood and independence would herald a new era for women. And worked to make that era richer and more available to all women. Mahilavarnam/Womanscape (2001) a 150 year history of women in Andhra demonstrates this.
If the enrichment of the vernacular tradition represents a strengthening of the national-cultural perspective, the shift from English education to Telugu, a shift that was intrinsically political was effected by women who were becoming increasingly active in the field of education. Right from 1901 with the establishment of the Andhra Bhasha Sangham books, newspapers and journals began to appear along with schools for girls. Countless women’s organizations emerged. At the All Andhra Women’s Conference in Guntur in 1910 women demanded vocational training as they felt that ordinary education was no use in securing a livelihood. The prolific writing of women of this period is significant. Education took women directly into journalism and popular literature as vehicles for dissemination of ideas.
The All India Women’s Conference set up in 1927 had education high on its agenda but women soon recognized the indivisibility of issues and drew the link between education, women’s suffrage, social problems like dowry, purdah, child marriage, widow remarriage and colonization. Theatre, literature, the performing arts and cinema played a critical role in the transmission of nationalist ideas. They were also the platform on which the emerging intellectual community could consolidate itself. Women have been critical to the creation and consolidation of the platform. A similar phenomenon has characterized that period in states like Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra to name a few. Women Writing in India (1991) has plenty of examples of such writing.
At another level with the growth of women’s studies and with our own growing realization that perhaps our mothers had more to teach us than we realized when they were alive there is a sense of urgency with which we try to remedy the situation. There is also the nostalgia for an era gone by and the need to capture some of its essence. Increasingly of late it has become the trend to document our mothers and foremothers lives establish of one own linkage and preserve them for posterity.
A Road Less Travelled:The Life and Writings of Vinodinee Neelkanth is part of this trend. It has a biographical sketch by Aparna Basu and Shailaja Kalelkar Parikh and a wide range of her writing, essays, articles, short stories and extracts from her novels. Part of a birth centenary celebration this book provides the English reader access an excellent cross section of her work.
Vinodinee Neelkanth was thus a child of her time. She writes of everything under the sun or almost. One can see how her fiction and her articles would have been lapped up by readers in a state that produced the Mahatma and bore his imprint during that period but also one known for its literature. Belonging to a reformist family and daughter of the first woman graduate of Gujarat and the man Gandhiji called ‘the jewel of Gujarat’, it would have been surprising if she had been anything less.
‘Though she was not a feminist she made three generations of Gujarati women aware of their rights, gave them self confidence; helped them protest against injustice, abuse and humiliation; and taught them to live their own lives.’
That is a comment that speaks volumes.This is a book that is an interesting collection of Vinodinee’s works. Her family rightly wants to ensure that the story of this bright womanis not lost to posterity. And so we find an interesting attempt to recreate her life through the social milieu, her life and struggles, reminiscences and a chronology of events.
Understandably a praiseworthy effort. Many personal reminiscences and anecdotes which would be greatly entertaining for the extended family often detract from the value of the volume. It would best be part of a personal diary that would be of interest to the family circle than to the public at large.
The first half of the book which is biographical could easily be condensed to a short sketch leaving the emphasis on the translated collection which is interesting and raises several questions about the writer herself. It is interesting to see how she used plots, narratives, figures and fictional projects to shape the consciousness of her readers. It is interesting to see the form her sense of integrity and identity took in using objects coded into cultural significance to her purpose?
That she was an admirable and gifted woman is evident. There is little doubt that she was a product of a period produced several hundreds of women who give us a glimmer of the reality of their times. A glimmer that holds the reader with the courage, understanding and enormous energy they displayed to usher in change. And the sobering thought that women had to use so many devices and denials, so many devious circumspections, to say what they believed and still ensure that they got read, accepted and heard. Family backgrounds provide a degree of acceptability but only to those who tread the measured ways. Vinodinee admired, brilliant and feted took the road much travelled. But she travelled with a grace and speed that won her an admiring audience. All in all a writer worth reading and remembering. And as the editors say a source of knowledge of far away times for future generations of scholars.