When one considers the fact that the autobiography or memoir as a literary form is predicated upon the sense of an individuated self that emerged with modernity, one must wonder, is ‘feminist memoir’ a contradiction in terms? At one level, perhaps not, because feminism is such a quintessentially modern philosophy; its ferocious critique directed precisely at modernity’s failure to deliver on its promise of the universal, emancipated individual. But at another level, there could be a contradiction, since like other modernist assertions such as from dalits and Marxists, the feminist claim to individual autonomy is accompanied by an insertion of the individual self back into a radically reconstituted or newly created community. The story of self-emergence then, is inextricably linked to narratives of other selves. This peculiarly other-directed sense of self may be what Sheba Chhachhi refers to in her largely pictorial essay in this volume, as ‘shared subjectivities’.
Another aspect of autobiography/memoir to which I would draw attention, has to do with its relationship to ‘truth’. The organizing of the innumerable details of one’s own life and that of others in one’s life, inevitably involves selectivity, and both the selection and chosen form of narrative, is preordained by the purpose behind the writing. Whether that purpose be exculpation, celebration, instruction, producing a modern ‘history’. Any of these (and many other possible) objectives would require its own particular kind of selection and organization of the literally innumerable ‘facts’ of one’s life into narratives. And thus it is that eventually, autobiographies/memoirs ‘tell the truth, but tell it slant’, to misappropriate Emily Dickinson (as her own intention with this admonition was less to question truth, than to save humanity from being blinded by its dazzling light!)
A related point that follows from this is the widely accepted distinction that supposedly exists between autobiography and memoir, which hinges precisely on the question of ‘truth’. Gore Vidal is supposed to have said that a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates and double-checked facts. While publishers may need to retain this distinction to protect themselves from lawsuits (a ‘memoir’ being given greater latitude), it should be immediately evident that the borders between the two supposedly different genres are porous. ‘How one remembers one’s life’ is as much bound by the idea of ‘facts’ as autobiography is; while in turn, autobiography is as unavoidably
“The volume is frankly selective-it is twenty voices from a movement. How could it not be selective, and nor does it pretend to be otherwise. This results in conversations across the pages, and the pleasure of recognizing references to the same names in more than one essay…”
selective as memoir. This is why auto-biographical writings are in a sense seen as both insufficiently objective (because told frankly from one point of view) and insu-fficiently imaginative (because constrained by facts).
These two issues-the other-directed self and the relationship to truth-are both central to a reading of this set of memoirs written by twenty women commemorating the ‘excitement of the shared history’ of ‘twenty-five years of active involvement with the women’s movement and with women’s studies.’ Every story here is intimately linked to movements, campaigns and struggles; every story is about the writer’s friendships as much as it is about herself; every story is about debates and disagreements within the community of feminists. Gabriele Dietrich’s self narration is inextricable from that of Pennurimai Iyakkam and Narmada Bachao Andolan; Vasanth Kannabiran’s from Stree Shakti Sanghatana.
(And by the way, how beautiful it is that the first essay in a collection from the women’s movement in India should begin with Gabriele recounting that she was born in Berlin in 1943, ‘in the bathroom of a strained hospital in the wake of a civil bombardment’. Feminists have long held the barbed wire fences of national borders in disdain, and this is truly a fitting first essay.)
In the piece by the resolutely non-funded, autonomous feminist collective Saheli, the individual self is completely erased in fact, as it prefers to write under the name of Saheli, and instead of a picture of a person as with the others, we see their familiar logo. This facelessness is not anonymity, far from it. Nor is it an abdication of responsibility and agency, as another reviewer of this volume mystifyingly concluded. Rather, it is an assertion of collective functioning and collective responsibility, and a rejection of the cult of the individual. Rather than facelessness, it is a many-facedness, like a powerful pagan goddess, perhaps (and oh how the wonderful hard-core atheists who comprise Saheli will hate this analogy!)
There are thrilling accounts of the kinds of experiences that made the narrators feminist, connected them to the larger collective, experiences that marked their ‘aha! moment’, as it were. For Ruth Vanita, it was reading the Communist Manifesto in the late 1970s, and meeting Madhu Kishwar who ‘magnetized me the instant I saw her, and who suggested we form a women’s group’. For Devaki Jain it was working on a book on Indian women for International Women’s Year that initiated her journey into feminism; for Uma Chakravarty, teaching history in a women’s college in Delhi, and for Nalini Nayak, who has worked for decades with the fishing community, it was listening to Chhaya Datar present her work on the women workers in the tobacco industry in Nipani, when suddenly Nalini saw the conceptual links between patriarchy and class.
But the ways in which issues were excluded are also evident-though Ruth does not make much of it, her loneliness as a lesbian feminist emerges starkly from the celebratory voices that surround her essay. If Flavia Agnes had an essay in here (which she does not), we would have heard about the inability of the impeccably secular women’s movement to acknowledge religious minority identity, and its assumption of upper-caste Hindu experiences as the norm. Ritu Menon conceded at the book release that she failed to persuade a ‘Muslim woman’ to write for this volume. What this has meant is that a key feminist issue that complicated our understanding of secularism in that period is missing-Shah Bano. The judgement and the legislation that followed have decisively reshaped the debates on the Uniform Civil Code, but it is pretty much absent in the essays. Not that it required a ‘Muslim’ woman to talk about it, but nevertheless, there it is-absent.
The volume is frankly selective-it is twenty voices from a movement. How could it not be selective, and nor does it pretend to be otherwise. This results in conversations across the pages, and the pleasure of recognizing references to the same names in more than one essay-Chhaya Datar and her exciting work on the Nipani women, for instance, appears more than once. But this also sets up a closed universe of well known matriarchs of the women’s movement in India. Not a bad thing, necessarily, and indeed, even inspiring, but obviously open to criticism from the point of view of presenting the heterogeneity of voices that could be called feminist in India.
The essays are selective too in less acknowledged, but as I suggested at the beginning, unavoidable ways. Some stories are told, others are not. If there have been friendships and solidarity in the women’s movement, there have equally been political battles and bitter personal falling-out. Ruth Vanita and Madhu Kishwar ceased to be friends, and indeed, Madhu, though still politically active, has famously declared herself not to be a feminist any more. Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia started the first feminist publishing house in India, Kali for Women, but they split up and now run two separate publishing houses. Urvashi is conspicuous by her absence in this volume. Thus the essays are marked as much by the absent presence and untold stories of broken friendships and dividing paths as they are by the explicit invocation of solidarities and connections. To me, as a later generation feminist personally inspired by most of these women, what is acknowledged and what is not-each is moving in its own way, and from each I learn something.