One of the main missions of Vaidehi, among the most compelling Kannada women writers of our times is the retrieval of the woman’s voice from the past. That suppressed past which gains a voice in the present, even while it continues to exist in more nuanced textures. Alegalalli Antaranga is a compilation of Vaidehi’s short stories written over the last three decades. In the 80-odd short stories, spread into six collections, Vaidehi steers clear of jingoistic announcements of feminist positions, but presents the perspective of a woman as it affected her, from the politics of everyday life. Therefore, the stories mostly capture the woman’s real world, her real experiences, and the various aspects of self-fashioning, without taking overt, ideological stances. Vaidehi is one of the most unusual voices we have in Kannada today. So unusual that she is among the pioneers who enriched the world of Kannada literature; not only with a forceful picturization of the women of her own community; a village in Dakshina Kannada, but also opened up a new worldview with a refreshingly new spoken language.
Even as she gave voice to the women of her environs, Vaidehi was at the same time also speaking of the several women who occupied different geographical spaces and time frames, but sharing their story with the women who inhabited her backyard. Therefore, even in being strongly rooted—in a specific geographical location with a distinct language dialect—Vaidehi’s stories achieve a pan-Indian sweep.
In Lekha Loka, talking about herself, the times she was born into and the stories she wrote, Vaidehi says: “I don’t want to list the details of the condition of women as I witnessed it. Because, I think that was the plight of women elsewhere in the country too. What I however wish to recount are some of the compelling elements that I saw and experienced in my growing up years, in the world around me. Needless to say that it was this little universe, packed with forceful experiences that helped me blossom into a writer.”
Traditionally, women have been storytellers. Timeless epics have acquired local dimensions; the grand epics have been told and retold. Not to forget the abundant folk literature, this, even with its seemingly broad objective base and universal dimensions, was chronicling a period, its values and its outlook, and was hence subjective. From being passive narrators of stories, there is the middle phase when stories gained a woman’s perspective, more so in folk literature. I speak of that point when there were speculations if Ahalya’s choice was a conscious one or an unconscious one. From then to now, it has been a long journey; there is a marked transition. Women now tell stories that emerge from their lived life experiences and memories. Now it is gladly unabashed. It is that forthright telling of history that clearly doesn’t intend to exclude or lose either the woman’s voice or her silences.
As Vaidehi herself puts it, there was a clear demarcation between the outside world; with its loud, authoritative voices (the chavadi and beyond), and the inside world; entrenched in its poignant, disquieting silences (the kitchen, the backyard and a little more). Most of Vaidehi’s narratives are invariably set against the backdrop of these two distinct worlds—the outer realm with its imposing voice and the inner realm shut into a silence. The tension in negotiating these two worlds, often perceived as infringement, seen as protest by the patriarchal order, makes for the plot of most Vaidehi’s stories. The silent, slow, step-by-step, self-assured strides of the inner world towards the outer world, result not only in conflict, but also in a “violence of accommodation”. Vaidehi’s women are almost always a product of their situation, hence their negotiations are unstated. It is therefore never a grand agenda that is consciously devised. One sees a peculiar tension between public and private realities that underwrites most of her writing.
‘Akku’ from her collection Anatarangada Putagalu is Vaidehi’s most haunting story. It is the story of Akku, a zany middle-aged woman, who takes on the world in her state of madness. Akku’s good-for-nothing husband suddenly disappears, and Akku goes around imagining she’s pregnant. Vaidehi’s Akku, the “dark double” gives a hearing to her simmering anxiety and rage. In an interview, Vaidehi speaks of how the “mad” woman “serves as a device that allows her to write with a certain degree of freedom about issues that are sensitive.”
To write in their own terms, women have constantly found methods of subversion. While some have taken to humour to couch the drudgery of domesticity, others have sought solace in poetry for the sheer possibility of hiding emotions behind dressed-up words. Akku, to me, appears as one such strong case of insurrection, in her not being normal. There hangs an air of uneasy silence with Ajjaya’s iron fist controlling the breath of every occupant of the house, but nothing or nobody can put a stop to Akku living life entirely on her terms—a man’s prerogative. Not even when she is brutally clobbered. The vigilant Akku and her indomitable spirit refuse to be suppressed by the heartless wounds inflicted on her. She continues to scream to the world of male hypocrisies that often get quietly brushed under the carpet. So much so, in her version of the world around her, the distinction between Akku as a conscience-keeper and a tattletale is blurred; the distinction between truth and untruth. As Lakshmi Holmstrom puts it, Akku, in her state of madness, converts all her “humiliations into triumphs”.
Even while achieving a complex, multi-pronged victory through the character of Akku, Vaidehi makes her plot more complex with women like Siriyatte and Doddatte, who have been successfully normalized by a male order; they turn out to be as cruel as the men. Jyoti Puri in “Woman, Body, Desire in Post-colonial India: Narratives of Gender and Sexuality” very rightly observes: “The narratives of middle-class women on matters of gender and sexuality point towards class-based social regulation of women not through overt coercion but through the process of normalization. Social control in this form is far more insidious.” Therefore, when Akku’s sister Siriyatte derisively narrates the story of Akku’s reaction,—to her wedding finery, her ramblings about the transitory life of beauty, and what she calls a driveller’s chatter on the unequal man-woman relationship—it robs you of the sympathies for Siriyatte turning her into a cold, ruthless tyrant. It works similarly in the episode where Doddatte eggs on Vasu to ask unkind questions about her imagined motherhood. Vaidehi, at these junctures, prompts her readers to redefine established notions of binary opposites, of the oppressor and the oppressed. It is clearly not man against woman. She sharply highlights that the dynamics are clearly that of a patriarchal order and as it conditioned women. This to me elevates Akku from fiction to reality.
Chandra Talpade Mohanty in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism observes how in relations of power it is possible to retain the idea of multiple, fluid structures of domination which intersect to locate women differently at particular historical conjunctures, while at the same time insisting on the dynamic oppositional agency of individuals and collectives and their engagement in daily life. ‘Chandale’ also part of the same collection, leaves you completely shaken.
A young girl confesses to her neighbour Rami that she desires to be a prostitute. Rami goes through major emotional upheavals, not because she is disturbed by the young girl’s extreme impulse to break away from oppressive social norms and fantasy of a free sexual life as liberating. But because she imagines the teenager soliciting every other man in the neighbourhood—including her husband and son. Rami is interested in neither investigating the context out of which such a desire is born nor the reasons for it.
Vaidehi, with her forceful narrative, seems to raise the question of sexual codes and how it operates in the many layers of the community. One finds Rami, who wears the tag of a liberal, indulging in very stringent notions of “right” and “wrong”, “proper” and “improper”. So much so that she is constantly morphing Chandale—a young prostitute from her past, her body language and her gestures, on this young girl, in her present. With most part of the story set in the mindscape of Rami, the writer seems to very sharply attack our conception of violation. What then is a greater transgression? That which takes place in the realm of the mind or that which takes place in the realm of the body?
In ‘Sougandhiya Swagatagalu’ she attacks the basic construct of femaleness itself. Docility that is regarded as a high virtue for the woman gets cleverly turned into a vice, an inability to attract the opposite sex. So much so that Sougandhi’s parents come close to dubbing her as sexually dormant. Much that Sougandhi desires to scream from rooftops that she wouldn’t even mind being raped—contrary to what the world thinks of her—she is trapped. Not only in an image, but also in a devious traditional society that has a suit-yourself attitude to modernity.
Even with the danger of sounding far-fetched, one feels that the story is true of the time in which it was written (1991)—the coming of satellite television and the rise of the advertising industry. As Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan says in her Real and Imagined Women, the woman who attracts stares from a man on the street, bus or in any other public space – a harrowing experience of everyday sexist harassment for women—is imaged as the ideal of the attractive and sexually desirable woman. You find these echoed in the lines of Sougandhi’s father in the story. Nevertheless, as Susie Tharu says, the discourses of our time will constitute our world as much as they do our subjectivities.
‘Gulabi Talkies Mattu Sanna Alegalu’, ‘Shakuntaleyondige Kaleda Aparahna’, ‘Ammacchiyemba Nenapu’, ‘Abha’ are among the other striking narratives by Vaidehi. Her earlier stories, particularly from the collection Mara Gida Balli, pale in comparison to her later ones, both in form and content.
Resistance in Vaidehi’s stories is at once subtle and powerful. Subtle because it doesn’t gratify in celebratory feminist positions, powerful because it attacks the basic construct of a traditional society, even as she recognizes that modernity is not complete in itself. Powerful also because her stories do not revolve around “small moments of nay-saying”, but privilege both objective and action.
Vaidehi is clearly a product of her times: the seventies with its ‘second wave’ of feminism. Therefore one finds in her works the smell of jasmines, tinkling anklets, dark kitchens as well as a movement into thresholds marked “strictly for men”. There is an awakening of desire and an awareness of sexuality. If multiple ambiguities exist, even that is true.
Deepa Ganesh is chief sub-editor with The Hindu, Bangalore. She has written for various Kannada and English journals. I also do a lot of translations, from Kannada to English and from English to Kannada.