“Opening a Window and Cracking an Egg”, Contemporary Women Literature: Questions of self, sexuality and cultural identity

Contemporary women literature is so vast and eclectic that it would be difficult to put it all down in one article. There has been, and the tribe is ever-increasing, a plethora of women from the Indian subcontinent writing today. Strangely, many of them are settled outside India, and yet, they can speak of the Indian experience as if they had never gone. It may be a case of outsiders looking in, or it may be a case of insiders looking deeper in, but the contemporary Indian woman writer speaks her heart out.


A friend talked to me recently about a play she watched where the young girl, who is the protagonist, asks her mother to ‘Open the window’. As my friend said this, she looked at me and our eyes met. The exchange that took place between our eyes was the understanding of being a woman and what it means.

Women began opening a window chink by hesitant chink, and bathed in whatever light that filtered in. However, there was hell to pay in the beginning, when society could not take the onslaught of what the woman’s private world revealed.

“It was Ribbo who scratched her back, meaning that she’ll scratch Begum Jan’s back for hours. Getting her back scratched was one of the necessities of Begum Jan’s daily life, or perhaps the most necessary. Ribbo had no other responsibilities. She was always massaging some part of Begum Jan’s body.”

In 1941,Ismat Chigtai wrote “Lihaf”(the Quilt), where she wrote of a lesbian encounter within an all-woman setting (Zenana) in a traditional Muslim household. This relationship between two grown women was written about in lucid detail, albeit with a humourous twist. The story was based on a truth, and due to this story Ismat Chughtai was sued for obscenity.The charges were subsequently not proven, yet she never wrote a similar story again for it seems it had embarrassed and shamed her family.

In 1997, Arundhati Roy’s novel,”The God of Small Things” won the Booker prize. It speaks of life in as small town in Kerala. This somewhat autobiographical novel talks of the small, perhaps considered otherwise insignificant, childhood experiences of a pair of fraternal twins (Estha and Rahel) that snowball into the bigger things that affect their later lives. They are the victims of given circumstances, as most children are, and it is a take on life which appears normal but is not so.

“’Now if you will kindly hold this for me’, the Orange drink Lemondrink Man said, handing Estha his penis through his soft white muslin dhoti, ’I’ll get you your drink. Orange? Lemon?’
Estha held it because he had to.”

Her use of terms like “Orangedrink Lemondrink Man”( name of the paedophile) is typical of an Indian child’s way of speaking about a cold drinks vendor.

The backdrop of the novel is the beauty of Kerala, the Communist ideology that is rife there, the religious demands of the Syrian Christian way of life, and the way the caste system impinges on the subconscious of all men and women in India.

There is a new style of writing here, and this is where she breaks fresh ground, with the liberal use of Malayalam words interwoven with English ones, lending a different texture to her writing.

It also exposes the prudery of a society for what it is, fake and hollow. The intercourse between Ammu, a married woman of a higher caste, and Velutha, a carpenter, is a forbidden one on many counts. Yet the lyricism of their bodies as they explore a long denied need is fraught with the culmination of the desire of two human beings to unite.

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Jilly Dybka