Queer Literature

Queer literature from India you haven’t read, but probably should

To read queer literature from India is, to a large extent, to read between the lines. Since the augment of notions of colonial morality in the subcontinent, there has been a systemic erasure of queer voices. What remain today are largely texts that merely hint at the love and relationship shared between same-sex companions. Talking about this systemic erasure Ashwini Sukthankar, in her Introduction to Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India says ‘terms historically used to describe women who love women – such as sakhi and saheli – have been purged of their eroticism over time and reshaped into harmless descriptions of female friendship, so that today we find ourselves banished from language itself, literally at a loss for words.’ Still, some texts remain preserved in our history that not only vaguely allude to, but rather openly declare, the pervasiveness of desires other than normative heterosexual ones.

This listicle aims to bring to light a few of these groundbreaking and provocative works of Indian language literature. It explores chronologically works of literature from India’s past, written by people who might or might not themselves have been queer. We then delve into two contemporary translated works written by LGBTQ+ individuals. These texts become important because they call attention to this country’s journey into queer selfhood, and highlight the importance of reclaiming queer literature as our own.

 

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee
Indira (1873)

Indira is a novella written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who considered to be Bengal’s greatest novelist of the nineteenth century. The story of Indira revolves around the protagonist’s passionate and intense friendship with Subhashini. Although Indira is a married woman; she maintains a lifelong love for her friend. The novella is rife with subtext regarding the attraction the women feel for one another, as well as unflinching descriptions of their physical proximity. Indira, through the course of the narrative, finds herself wondering, ‘Can there ever be love like this? Can anyone ever love like Subhashini?’.

 

Suryakant Tripathi Nirala
Kulli Bhaat (1939)

Regarded as one of India’s best known Hindi language writers, Suryakant Tripathi Nirala wrote novels, poetry as well as essays. In Kulli Bhaat, Nirala chronicles his lifelong friendship with Kulli, who’s attraction to the poet as well as his sexuality are alluded to but never explicitly stated. Throughout the novel Nirala humanizes and empathizes with Kulli, despite other people’s reservations about him.

 

Ismat Chugtai
Terhi Lakeer (1945)

Chugtai is most popularly known for her short story ‘Lihaaf’, where a young narrator witnesses a relationship between two women. The story caused an uproar, and Chugtai was charged with obscenity and was forced to face a court trial. Terhi Lakeer follows the life of its middle-class Muslim protagonist called Shamman as she navigates the trials of life, female spaces and the politics of India’s Independence movement. In the novel, Chugtai alludes to the fluidity of female sexuality, especially in the chapters wherein Shamman finds herself attracted to her young female teacher, Miss Charan.

 

Sachin Kundalkar
Cobalt Blue (2006)

Originally written in Marathi, Kundalkar’s novel Cobalt Blue was translated into English by Jerry Pinto in 2013. The novel is about Tanay and Anuja ¬– siblings living in Pune who fall in love with the same man. The coming-of-age novel beautifully casts a sympathetic gaze at homosexuality in an oppressive and hostile society. Kundalkar, who himself identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, lends to the narrative a keen understanding of what it means to be a gay man in India.

 

Vasudhendhra
Mohanaswamy (2016)

Vasudhendhra’s Mohanaswamy is a Kannada novel translated into English by Rashmi Terdal. It is regarded as the first work of gay fiction written in Kannada. A collection of short stories, Mohanaswamy talks about the lives of gay man in India, chronicling their trials and tribulations. Vasudhendhra unflinchingly records the experiences the queer community in India who do not have the privilege of having access to English as a language.

Contemporary works of queer writing in India have largely been confined to the space of Indian writing in English, set only in urban metropolitan spaces. However, queer voices in India have existed across time periods, regions and languages. These novels attempt to bring to light these voices which have so often been relegated to the margins of Indian literature.

Listicle

Indian language translations to look out for in 2021

The year 2020 was consumed wrestling with a predicament of unimaginable proportions. However, things were not so bleak for translated works in Indian literature. Last year was especially pivotal in driving home the perseverance of translations.

Transcending the challenges posed by the worldwide pandemic, translations shone in their roles of bridging cultures and amplifying under-represented voices in Indian-language literature. Masterpieces like Pandey Kapil’s Bhojpuri novel Phoolsunghi and pioneering Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s short story collection Ratno Dholi were made available to the English-speaking world for the very first time. They also served as a reminder that our journey through the nuanced and variegated depth of our literary roots is ever-continuous. It will keep leading us to chart new territories every year.

With that in mind, we have compiled a list of the upcoming translations from across Indian languages, which are currently gearing up for their much-anticipated release. Diverse and thought-provoking, add these riches of Indian language literature to your reading list for 2021:

BENGALI

Kaste
by Anita Agnihotri
Translated by Arunava Sinha

Through the lives of farmers, migrant labourers and activists in Marathwada and western Maharashtra, Anita Agnihotri’s Kaste illuminates a series of intersecting and overlapping crises: female foeticide, sexual assault, caste violence, feudal labour relations, farmers’ suicides and climate change in all its manifestations. Translated as The Sickle by Arunava Sinha, this gripping fictional narrative tells the darkest truths about contemporary India. It is set to release this March, by Juggernaut Books.


Ether Army
by Sirsho Bandopadhyay
Translated by Arunava Sinha

This powerful novel narrates the true story of a handful of broadcasters in the port city of Chittagong in East Pakistan, who joined the Liberation war with the only weapon they had: a radio transmitter. We are hoping Westland Books releases it on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Bangladesh Liberation War.  


 
Mahanadi: A Novel about a River
by Anita Agnihotri
Translated by Nivedita Sen

Woven around the mighty river Mahanadi that originates in Chattisgarh, Anita Agnihotri’s novel documents the life and struggles of people through the confluence of myths, legends and archaeological anecdotes. First published in Bengali (2015), this translation by Nivedita Sen is expected to be released in May through Niyogi Books. 


Amrita Kumbher Sandhane

by Samaresh Basu

Written by the Sahitya Akademi-winning Bengali author Samaresh Basu, Amrita Kumbher Sandhane is narrated through the gaze of the protagonist, who has come to the Kumbh Mela—one of the largest Indian religious fairs —not out of any religious sentiment, but merely to see and understand people.
 

 
 
Chandal Jibon Trilogy — Part 2
by Manoranjan Byapari 

Translated by V. Ramaswamy 

While The Runaway Boy was released late last year, it introduced us to Jibon, who arrives at a refugee camp in West Bengal with his Dalit parents and later runs away to Calcutta to earn his living, we are anxiously awaiting Part 2 of the trilogy.



Chhera Chhera Jibon

by Manoranjan Byapari

Translated as A Tattered Life, Manoranjan Byapari’s most recent standalone novel is about a boy called Imon who goes to jail in his mother’s arms, and is let out in his early twenties long after his mother has passed.

 

Khwabnama
by Akhtaruzzaman Elias

Translated by Arunava Sinha

Published in 1996, Khwabnama captured the variegated experiences of the people of Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) during the turbulent times of the 1947 partition. Best known as critically acclaimed author Akhtaruzzaman Elias’s magnum opus, the novel also delves into the socio-political realities of that period—the communal riot, the rebellion of the peasants against the landlords and the conflict between different ideologies, among others. The English translation by Arunava Sinha will be released in July by Penguin India.

 


TAMIL

Generations
by Neela Padmanabhan
Translated by Kaa. Naa. Subramanium

Set in the 1940s around a community of Tamil speakers who live on the borders of modern Kerala, the novel offers a sensitively drawn profile of the passing of a traditional way of life into modernity and the nostalgia that comes with change. The book is expected to release this June, by Niyogi Books.

 

The Collected Stories of Imayam
Translated by Padma Narayanan

Imayam is one of the foremost and bestselling Dalit writers in Tamil, closely associated with the Dravidian movement and its politics. Speaking Tiger brings together his selected short stories in English for the very first time in this collection. We are eagerly looking forward to this one.


ASSAMESE

Five Novellas about Women
by Indira Goswami
Translated by Dibyajyoti Sarma

From the pioneer of feminist Assamese literature, here’s a cross-sectional portrayal of her lesser-known writings with a special focus on women. The lives of the rural poor, the situation of widows, the plight of the urban underclass and various social constraints under which people are forced to live, are depicted in these impactful narratives. The book is slated to release this July, by Niyogi Books. 

Incidentally, we have learnt of a collection called Tales from Assam by Ranjita Biswas, that is on the cards later this year, by Rupa Publications.


MALAYALAM

The Book of Passing Shadows
by C.V. Balakrishnan
Translated by T. M. Yesudasan

Set in a Malabar village of Christian settlers, C.V. Balakrishnan’s The Book of Passing Shadows resonates with the pathos of the human spirit caught in the travails of earthly life. Translated by T.M.Yesudasan, the novel has remained popular with readers since the Malayalam original Aayusinte Pusthakam was first published in 1984.


Theeyoor Chronicles
by N. Prabhakaran
Translated by Jayasree Kalathil

Theeyoor Chronicles by N. Prabhakaran follows the trail of a journalist who visits Theeyoor or ‘the land of fire’ to investigate uncanny happenings. Interspersed with history, myths, nature, political events, and everyday concerns of ordinary people—this novel is widely regarded as a masterpiece of contemporary Malayalam literature. We can’t wait for its release.


Lesbian Cow and Other Stories
by Indu Menon

The most outspoken contemporary feminist writer from Kerala, many consider Indu Menon a successor to Kamala Das, having inherited the same progressive outlook. In Lesbian Cow and Other Stories, she uses raw images, bolder language and empathetically records the lives of marginalised sections of society.
 
 
 
Collection of Stories
by Shihabudheen Poythumkadavu
Translated by J Devika

On the collection, translator J Devika says that ‘Shihabudheen’s stories are sometimes realistic, sometimes terrifyingly not…you can sense in his writing the deep anxieties of the Muslim male and all kinds of inversions…and crossings between the human and non-human universes.’ We wonder what this abstract collection would read like.

KANNADA

This Life at Play: A Memoir
by Girish Karnad
Translated by Srinath Perur and Girish Karnad

First published in Kannada in 2011—and being made available to English readers for the very first time—This Life at Play provides an unforgettable glimpse into the life of a towering figure on India’s cultural scene—actor, film director, writer, and playwright—Girish Karnad.

HINDI

A Silent Place
by Vinod Kumar Shukla
Translated by Satti Khanna

Originally published in Hindi as Ek Chuppi Jagah, Vinod Kumar Shukla’s evocative novel tells the story of a grief-stricken forest that has been stunned into silence. It then follows the adventurous journey of a group of children as they devise schemes to restore the song of birds and murmurs of human voices into the forest. Translated as A Silent Place by Satti Khanna, the book also explores a profound human philosophy through the children who endeavoured to help the forest overcome its muteness.


Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls
by Usha Priyamvada
Translated by Daisy Rockwell

An iconic work of modern Hindi fiction, Usha Priyamvada’s Pachpan Khambe Laal Deewarein is hailed for its unflinching and deeply sensitive exploration of the emotional life of a single woman in Delhi in the 1960s. One of Priyamvada’s best-known works, we are eagerly waiting for one of our very first translations in collaboration with Speaking Tiger.


I Haven’t Seen Mandu
by Swadesh Deepak
Translated by Jerry Pinto

Recovering from a long spell of recurring bipolar psychosis, the celebrated Hindi writer Swadesh Deepak finished the manuscript of his memoir, Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha. Indian literature—in Hindi or any other language—has never produced anything as harrowing, yet strangely hypnotic as this. It remains one of the most revealing and powerful first-person accounts of mental illness and we are eagerly looking forward to Jerry Pinto’s translation to make it accessible to English readers.


Fragments of Happiness
by Shrilal Shukla
Translated by Niyati Bafna

In Shrilal Shukla’s Fragments of Happiness, an ordinary businessman from Delhi, Durgadas is apprehended for murder. Translated from Hindi by Niyati Bafna, the novel explores the psychological aftermath of the event by delving into the tumult of ordinary people coming to terms with their desires and helplessness. 
 

 
GUJARATI

Krishnayan
by Kaajal Oza Vaidya

Kishnayan is indisputably Gujarati literature’s biggest bestseller, having sold over 200,000 copies and gone into 28 editions. This tender, lyrical novel starts when Krishna is injured by Jara’s arrow, and gives us glimpses into Krishna’s last moments on Earth. The most important women in his life—Radha, Rukmini, Satyabhama and Draupadi—appear before him. The novel is stitched together with what they meant to Krishna.


MARATHI

Battlefield
by Vishram Bedekar
Translated by Jerry Pinto

A tragic love story between Herta, a Jew escaping Hitler’s Germany, and Chakradhar Vidhwans, a Marathi man returning from England to India, the novel was originally published as Ranaangan in 1939. Translated by Jerry Pinto, this novel is a rousing investigation of nationality against the backdrop of World War II. We are looking to read this fresh translation, sometime this year.


SPECIAL MENTION

Voices from the Lost Horizon: Stories and Songs of the Great Andamanese
by Anvita Abbi 

Voices from the Lost Horizon is the first-ever compilation of folk tales and songs, rendered to Prof. Abbi and her team, by the Great Andamanese people in local settings. It comes with audio and video recordings of the stories and songs to retain the originality of the oral narratives. 

Collaboration

A book a day keeps anxiety at bay

Books steadfastly continue to be our safe place, comforting haven and trusted confidantes both through tranquility and turbulence. With that in mind, Niyogi Books with Indian Novels Collective has prepared a special treat for you this World Book Day that will help you choose your pick from a compelling mélange of Indian language literature in translation and enjoy a meaningful reading experience.

At the price of INR 1, we invite you to visit the Amazon Kindle Store and delve into the collection of twenty beautiful, exciting and thought-provoking titles that Niyogi Books has on offer. Starting tomorrow i.e., 24th April, 2021 each book will be available to be downloaded each day over the next 20 days from 00.00 hours to 23.59.

Here is a look at the books that we have in store for you:

24 April: The Heroine and Other Stories by D. Jayakanthan (translated from Tamil)

D. Jayakanthan’s short stories depict the life of common people in Tamil Nadu in the middle of the 20th century and reflect his progressive thinking. Selected and translated by the author’s daughter, these stories sensitively explore situations in the lives of both the marginalized and the middle class and comprise some of the best of his writing. Each story in this collection delves into the depths of the human psyche, revealing the hidden strengths ordinary people find within themselves when faced with extraordinary circumstances.

25 April: Ballad of Kaziranga by Dileep Chandan (translated from Assamese)

Ballad of Kaziranga is not a love story (although it does seep in), but rather, the story of love three friends share for the beautiful and majestic Kaziranga, in their own unique way. It is through the lives of these three men and their dreams, aspirations and sometimes, even their frustration and anguish that Kaziranga unfolds itself. A riveting story, it also throws light on the current state of affairs in the national park and the problems plaguing it.

 
 
 

26 April: Blossoms in the Graveyard by Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya (translated from Assamese)

Blossoms in the Graveyard is the story of Mehr, a young girl from a village in what is at that time, East Pakistan. It is the story of her journey from dependence to self-reliance, both emotionally and physically. Parallel to her story, is the narrative of a land that is struggling to assert its identity, and moving towards a hard-won Independence in a crucible of blood and tears. Mehr is the symbol of the land. Jnanpith Awardee Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya has told the story with a fine understanding of all the issues involved, in a non-partisan way. Though fiction, it deals with events and issues of recent history.

27 April: Elegy for the East by Dhrubajyoti Borah (translated from Assamese)

Before the relentless march of history, the lone individual is helpless. Yet it is men whose collective efforts give history its momentum and ushers in change of eras. These changes are tempestuous at times—like a churning that brings up both nectar and scum. Elegy for the East explores the utter helplessness and travails of man in face of exactly such overwhelming odds. A narrative not far from truth, where an uncaring, anonymous, and overbearing State creates and/or co-creates situations of social and political strife, and where innocent and beautiful dreams of the masses die in the stony bed of terror and counter-terror. This novel is a work of fiction; the characters bear no resemblance to any person dead or alive. Yet they walked amongst us all–in flesh and blood, in thoughts and dreams. Fiction that reflects reality in a more truthful way.

28 April: Brink by S.L. Bhyrappa (translated from Kannada)

The English translation of the epic Kannada novel Anchu by the renowned author S.L. Bhyrappa, Brink is a love saga between Somashekhar, a widower, and Amrita, an estranged woman. The novel deliberates on the moral, philosophical, and physical aspects of love between a man and a woman. At the core of the story is compassion. An enthralling read, the novel has stood the test of time like Bhyrappa’s other novels. Packed with internal drama, tension, and flashbacks, the book promises to impart an aesthetic experience to the reader.

29 April: Kasturba Gandhi: A Bio-fiction by Giriraj Kishore (translated from Hindi)

Kasturba Gandhi: A Bio-fiction is the fictionalised biography of Kasturba Gandhi, a lady as strong and great as Mahatma Gandhi. A lady who earned a place in history because of her personal sacrifices and strength of conviction in what was right as much as on account of being the wife of Mahatma Gandhi in his fight for basic human rights for Indians in South Africa and the Indian Freedom Movement. The book gives a glimpse of how a strong woman can empower herself staying within the folds of tradition and convention. It offers a rarely portrayed facet of Gandhi – a family man, a father, a husband. It shows how his transformation from Mr Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to Mahatma Gandhi happened with the support of a woman who was a silent partner in the struggle.

30 April: A Plate of White Marble by Bani Basu (translated from Bengali)

First published in 1990 in the original Bengali, A Plate of White Marble tells the tale of the ‘new woman’ of an era that just witnessed the independence of a nation. Bandana, the protagonist, though grieves over her husband’s early death, never conforms to the social connotation and ideals of ‘widowhood’. This first translation brings a significant Bengali novel with important social concerns to a wider audience.

 
 
 

1 May: A Day in the Life of Mangal Taram by Anita Agnihotri (translated from Bengali)

Anita Agnihotri’s stories traverse a wide range of human emotions, discover the myriad complexities of relationships, and also takes the reader through a journey into the dynamics of an Indian reality, where the unheard voices still wait to be deciphered by a sensitive writer. A Day in the Life of Mangal Taram is a careful selection of 14 stories out of over 200 short stories written by Anita Agnihotri spanning over three decades.

 
 
 

2 May: Island of Lost Shadows by E. Santhosh Kumar (translated from Malayalam)

Island of Lost Shadows is a story of intrigue, nerve-wracking tension and suspense, raising questions relevant in the present-day context of terrorism and sedition in the guise of revolution and social change. Through the voices of a myriad and sharply sketched characters, the author brings to life the troubled times of the Seventies when sadistic excesses were the norm. He also explores the human mind and its tendency for corruption and depravity. A compelling tale that keeps the readers engrossed…

3 May: Giligadu: The Lost Days by Chitra Mudgal (translated from Hindi)

Giligadu: The Lost Days, by the 2018 Sahitya Akademi Award winner Chitra Mudgal, is a multi-layered novelette, short in length yet deep in meaning and messages for urban India. Set in a time frame of 13 days, with two senior men as the main characters, it analyses the relevance of older values in present-day life and the need to change with the times. A page-turner that leaves the reader satisfied and encourages introspection.

 
 
 

4 May: Beasts of Burden by Imayam (translated from Tamil)

The first novel of one of the best writers today, Koveru Kazhuthaigal is located in the early 1970s when ritual status and payment in kind were giving way to cash wages. It is a tapestry of despair, courage and a journey both outward and inward and a story of decline and change in a village seen through the eyes of a washerwoman (vannaatti) Arokkyam, who serves a dalit community of agricultural labourers. The novel gives us an extraordinarily detailed picture of a lifestyle that has now passed—reclaimed and told with pride.
 
 

5 May: A Fistful of Mustard Seeds by E. Santhosh Kumar (translated from Malayalam)

The 12 stories in this book, originally written and published in Malayalam over a period of almost two decades, explores moral dilemmas, personal traumas and delves into the dark recesses of the soul. These insightful and deeply moving stories illuminate the elevations and abysses of the human condition. Sensitive, thought-provoking and perceptive, each story is a vignette into a different realm of emotional experience.

 
 

6 May: Land Lust by Joginder Paul (translated from Urdu)

Evocative and crisp, Joginder Paul’s stories in Land Lust offer poignant glimpses of the unequal multiracial relations in colonial Kenya. Translated from the original Urdu, they evoke insightful moments of compassion from within the harsh xenophobic environs. Land Lust attracts empathetic attention to divisive follies of race and colour, and progress and development even more pertinent today than earlier. The writer deftly and gently asserts the dignity of the black people by including their voice and predicament in these stories.

7 May: Laila Ke Khutoot: The Letters of Laila by Qazi Abdul Ghaffar (translated from Urdu)

Laila ke Khutoot has been hailed as the ‘first specimen of a truly psychoanalytical fiction in Urdu’. Set in the early twentieth century, the Letters of Laila are not only a courtesan’s search for identity but also an exposition of the exploitation of women by a complacent and hypocritical society. The letters are by turn witty, philosophical and deeply moving.
 
 
 
 

8 May: In the Glow of Your Being by Govind Mishra (translated from Hindi)

The modern Indian woman – equal to her male counterpart in every aspect of life, be it education, career, intellect, ambition, and the rest – has no equality when it comes to individual freedom or choices, shackled as she is by the fetters variously named ‘tradition’, ‘Indian culture’, or ‘value systems’. In the Glow of Your Being examines the issues faced by the modern Indian woman and probes deep into the question of a woman’s freedom and its denial by society. It delves into an intelligent, working woman’s dilemma: how, though working alongside her male colleagues, she is expected to be unaffected by any emotional baggage that such close association triggers off, more so if the woman has both beauty and brains.

9 May: Kayakalpa: The Elixir of Everlasting Youth by Lakshmi Nandan Bora (translated from Assamese)

Anuj Kripalani is an internationally renowned scientist who apparently has everything—scientific breakthroughs, awards, fame, wealth and a fine family. A deep personal crisis makes him return to India, to rediscover himself and to find out an answer to the question that has always haunted the human race from time immemorial. Anuj thus sets forth on a physical, emotional, spiritual and scientific journey in India. But the answer to the question—the key to rejuvenation—continues to elude him till he finally learns the secret, in which he is helped by a yogi’s Kayakalpa treatment and modern science.

10 May: The Story of a Timepiece: A Collection of Short Stories by Sankarankutty Pottekkat (translated from Malayalam)

The Story of the Timepiece: A Collection of Short Stories, written by award-winning writer S.K. Pottekkat, aptly showcases the author’s penchant for melding realism with romanticism. These short stories touch upon themes of universal interest. Written in the author’s unique style, both prosaic and poetic, they depict complex characters and human relationships in realistic, everyday situations, often reflecting the social consciousness of the pre-Independence period

11 May: The Musk and Other Stories by Arupa Patangia Kalita (translated from Assamese)

The Musk and Other Stories, an eclectic mix of short stories and a novella by acclaimed Assamese writer Arupa Patangia Kalita, sheds light on some of the burning issues that reverberate through the Assam Valley. Set against the breathtaking scenery of Assam with its lush green fields, meandering rivers and mighty mountains, the book pushes one to reflect upon the current political situation of Assam.
 
 
 

12 May: Jallianwala Bagh: Literary Responses in Prose & Poetry Edited by Rakhshanda Jalil (translated from Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi)

Jallianwala Bagh massacre, the butchering of unarmed innocents, is a historic event that haunts the human mind even after the lapse of a century. 1650 rounds fired in a matter of ten minutes, the blocking of exits, preventing help reaching the injured are all acts of unmitigated bestiality. Through a selection of prose and poetry – the direct outcome of this horrific event and an introduction that traces the history of events leading to the massacre – Rakhshanda Jalil, a literary historian and translator from Urdu and Hindi, attempts to open a window into the world of possibilities that literature offers to reflect, interpret and analyse events of momentous historical import.

13 May: Generations by Neela Padmanabhan (translated from Tamil)

Generations is an intricate tale, simply told by a master of fiction about a community of Tamil speakers who live on the borders of modern-day Kerala. Set in the 1940s, it is a novel of generational change and conflict, and how the boy Diravi grows up to take charge of his family, which embodies a distinct culture. Amidst the background of language, myth, and ethnic consciousness, we are offered a sensitively drawn profile of the passing of a traditional way of life into modernity and the nostalgia that comes with change.

Women Writers in Indian Languages

15 Indian language women writers who should feature on your reading list

Updated on 8 March 2021

Often, the inspiration for a significant change is born from the most mundane of battles. Here are fifteen women from across Indian languages who gave us a glimpse of the inner workings of society from behind the four walls. Yet, their writing has radically questioned the patriarchy and societal inequality, and created an inclusive, thought-provoking representation of women in Indian literature.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, let us celebrate them by celebrating their written word.

Qurratulain Hyder
Urdu
One of the most outstanding literary names in Urdu literature, she is best known for her magnum opus, Aag Ka Darya. It tells a story that moves from fourth century BC to the post-Independence period in India and Pakistan. The female characters in most of her works are portrayed as independent individuals rather than being known through the male lens.

Further reading:
Safina-e-Gham-e-Dil (1952)
Translated into English as Ship of Sorrows by Saleem Kidwai (2019)

Spanning roughly three decades (1920s to 1950s), Safina-e-Gham-e-Dil is Qurratulain Hyder’s second work and derives its title from a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. This novel is the coming-of-age story of a privileged set of six friends from Awadh that combines autobiography, fiction, and the documentation of time and place. The author debuts in this story as Anne Hyder and fictionalises her experience during the communal riots in Dehradun.

Aakhir-e-Shab ke Hamsafar (1979)
Translated into English as Fireflies in the Mist by the author

Set against the four decades of East Bengal’s history—from the dawn of nationalism in the 1930s to the restless aftermath of the bloody struggle for an independent Bangladesh—Aakhir-e-Shab ke Hamsafar is told through the impassioned voice of Deepali Sarkar. Hyder perceptively follows the trajectory of Sarkar’s life—from her secluded upbringing in Dhaka to becoming a socialist rebel, from her doomed love affair with Rehan Ahmed, a Muslim radical with Marxist inclinations, to her ultimate transformation as a diasporic Bengali cosmopolitan. The novel also explores the growth of tension between Bengal’s Hindus and Muslims who had once shared a culture and a history. Hyder received the Jnanpith Award in 1989 for this book.

Kamala Das
Malayalam
Kamala Das is best known for her fearless and unapologetic treatment of female sexuality and questioning patriarchal norms. In her autobiographical novel, My Story originally published in Malayalam, titled Ente Katha, Das recounts the trials of her marriage and her painful self-awakening as a woman and writer.

Further reading:
Ente Katha (1973)
Translated into English as My Story (1988)

Originally published in Malayalam, this autobiographical novel provided a lens into the personal and professional experiences of Kamala Das, as an independent-minded woman navigating a patriarchal society. She introduced her readers to the concept of female sexuality, a notion that was non-existent in the conservative society of Kerala, until then. The book managed to evoke such a widespread reaction that it went on to become a cult classic and has stood the test of time, as one of the most enduring accounts of the life of a woman writer in India.

The Sandal Trees and Other Stories by Kamala Das
Translated into English by by V C Harris and C K Mohamed

Originally written in Malayalam by Kamala Das under the pen name Madhavikutty, the stories in this anthology (1995) deal with the nuances of human relationships and intrigues of love, life and death. The title story ‘The Sandal Trees’ is the English translation of ‘Chandanamarangal’ (1988) which charts a four-decade-long sexual and emotional relationship between two women that echoes the relationship between Kamala and the college girlfriend in My Story.

Mahasweta Devi
Bangla
Mahasweta Devi has been known as one of the boldest female writers in India. Her Bengali novel, Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa delved into the life of an ordinary Indian mother fighting against all odds to retain the memory of her dead son. Rudali, based on the life of Sanichari, a poor low-caste village woman and a professional mourner, is an ironic tale of exploitation and struggle and above all survival. A powerful text, Rudali is considered an important feminist text for contemporary India.

Further reading:
Jhansir Rani (1956)
Translated into English as The Queen of Jhansi by Sagaree and Mandira Sengupta (2010)

Mahasweta Devi’s prolific writing career was launched with the publication of Jhansir Rani (1956). Drawing from historical documents, folk tales, poetry and oral tradition—the novel constructs a detailed picture of the legendary Indian heroine, Lakshmibai, the Queen of Jhansi, who led her troops against the British in the uprising of 1857, now widely described as the first Indian War of Independence. Simultaneously a history, a biography, and an imaginative work of fiction, this book is an invaluable contribution to the reclamation of history by feminist writers.

Chotti Munda Ebong Tar Tir (1980)
Translated into English as Chotti Munda and His Arrow by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (2002)

The wide sweep of this novel ranges over decades in the life of Chotti, the hero of this epic tale, in which India moves from colonial rule to independence and then to the unrest of the 1970s. Written in 1980, it raises questions about the place of indigenous peoples on the map of India’s national identity, land rights and human rights, and the justification of violent resistance as the last resort of a desperate people.

Indira Goswami
Assamese
Indira Goswami continually addressed social injustices in her work. Her writing was spurred on by widowhood and social injustice. From her first novel, Neel Kanthi Braja (Shadow of Dark God, 1986), she examined the social and psychological deprivations of widowhood to Tej Aru Dhulire Dhushorito Prishtha (Pages Stained With Blood, 2001), where she writes about a young female teacher in the neighbourhoods of Delhi that have been affected by anti-Sikh riots in the wake of the assassination of Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh bodyguards, her characters stand out and are imprinted in your mind forever.

Further reading:
Tej Aru Dhulire Dhushorito Prishtha (1986)
Translated into English as Pages Stained With Blood (2002) by Pradip Acharya

Considered a classic of modern Assamese literature, Tej Aru Dhulire Dhushorito Prishtha is, perhaps Goswami’s most famous work which first appeared in a serialised form in the monthly magazine Goriyoshi. Depicting the carnage of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination through a semi-autobiographical lens, the novel is a first person account of a young woman who teaches at Delhi University.

Dontal Hatir Une Khowa Howdah (1986)
Translated as The Moth-Eaten Howdah of the Tusker by the author (2004)

Dontal Hatir Une Khowa Howdah revolves around the lives of Brahmin widows in a Vaishnavite satra of southern Kamrup in Assam, while also drawing upon the author’s own experiences of childhood and adolescence. Written in the dialect of the region, just after the Second World War, the novel holds up a powerful picture of transition that unsettles an apparently ‘timeless’ agrarian culture and the unchanging rhythms of orthodox religion within a layered, intricate social canvas. It was made into an award-winning film Adahya, by Santwana Bordoloi.

M K Indira
Kannada
Malooru Krishnarao Indira is a well-known Kannada novelist. Her most popular novel, Phaniyamma is based on the life of a child widow. It is a real-life story of a widow whom Indira knew during her childhood. While Gejje Pooje revolves around the life of prostitutes and the social stigma associated with it. Indira’s works have been a strong critique of various unjust practices related to women in the society.

Further reading:
Phaniyamma (1976)
Translated into English by Tejaswini Niranjana (1989)

Phaniyamma leads the austere life of a widow and never complains or rebels, but she does counter when inhumanity is sanctioned in the name of traditions. The novel works as a critique of the inherent social hypocrisy and demonstrates how Phaniyamma emerges as a powerful figure despite the atrocities posed by widowhood. The novel won the Karnataka State Sahitya Akademi Award and the English translation by Tejaswini Niranjana won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1993. It was also adapted into a film that won several national and international awards.

Tungabhadra by M. K. Indira (1963)

M.K. Indira’s first novel Tungabhadra (1963) was a pioneering work. It portrayed the struggles and aspirations of rural women, and was able—through its use of evocative detail and regional dialect—to create a rural world with unprecedented realism. It also received the Karnataka State Sahitya Akademi Award.

Lalithambika Antharjanam
Malayalam
Lalitambika Antharjanam, is popularly known for her short stories and powerful woman narratives in Malayalam literature. Her novel, Agnisakshi tells the story of a Nambudiri woman, struggling for social and political emancipation. The novelist highlights the women’s role in society and critiques the social institutions that limit women and curtail their freedom.

Further reading:
Agnisakshi (1976)
Translated into English as Agnisakshi: Fire, My Witness by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan (2015)

Set against the history of Kerala, and the life, customs, habits and culture of the Namboodiri community alongside the Indian National Freedom struggle, it also highlights a woman’s struggle for social and political emancipation. The narrative follows three strong-willed female characters – Unni, Thankam and Tethi, as they struggle to search for their own freedom from the rigid and oppressive structures of Brahmanical patriarchy. The novel received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1977.

Cast Me Out if You Will: Stories and Memoir (1998)
Translated into English by Gita Krishnankutty

Offering a chilling testimony to the brutal oppression suffered by women at all levels of Indian society, Cast Me Out if You Will (1998) is a unique collection of short stories and personal memoirs, which captures early moments in India’s nationalist and feminist movements. A compilation representing half a century of writing and activism— this is the ideal introduction to one of India’s best-loved and foremost feminist authors.

Bama
Tamil
Bama, the Tamil, Dalit, feminist novelist who rose to fame with her autobiographical novel Karukku, which chronicles the joys and sorrows experienced by Dalit Christian women in Tamil Nadu. They portray caste-discrimination practised in Christianity and Hinduism. Bama’s works are seen as embodying Dalit feminism and are famed for celebrating the inner strength of the subaltern woman.

Further reading:
Sangati (1994)
Translated into English as Sangati: Events by Lakshmi Holmström (2005)

Published in 1994, Sangati seeks to create a Dalit-feminist perspective and explores the impact of manifold social inequities, compounded by poverty suffered by Dalit women. Translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström as Sangati: Events, it rejects all received notions of what a novel should be, delves deep into a community’s identity and underlines the fighting spirit of the Paraiya women against the double-edged oppression of caste and gender discrimination.

Kusumbukaran (1996)
Translated into English as The Ichi Tree Monkey: New and Selected Stories by N. Ravi Shanker (2021)

This collection features the Dalits of rural Tamil Nadu as the protagonists and celebrates the everyday acts of rebellion and fortitude. Translated from Tamil by N. Ravi Shanker, this recently released short-story collection bears testament to the raw energy and vitality one can always encounter in Bama’s widely acclaimed writing.

Kundanika Kapadia
Gujarati
Kundanika Kapadia is a Gujarati novelist, story writer and essayist who won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Gujarati in 1985 for Sat Pagala Akashma – a revolutionary feminist work in Gujarati. The novel raises questions about the status of a married woman accorded to her by a male-dominated society and struggles to find an equal voice and liberty for women.

Krishna Sobti
Hindi
Krishna Sobti is popularly known for her bold and daring characters in her novel. Her most acclaimed novel Mitro Marajani is about a young married woman’s exploration and assertion of her sexuality, which set the Hindi literary world aflame and is seen as a major feminist work.

Forthright as ever, Sobti said, “I don’t like being called a ‘woman writer’. I would rather be called a writer who is also a woman…”

Further reading:
Zindaginama (1979)
Translated into English as Zindaginama by Neer Kanwal Mani and Moyna Mazumdar

Set in the small village of Shahpur in undivided Punjab, Zindaginama is a magnificent portrait of India on the brink of its cataclysmic division. Detailing the intricately woven personal histories of a wide set of characters, Krishna Sobti’s magnum opus imbues each with a unique voice, enriching the text with their peculiar idiom. Described by Ashok Vajpeyi as an ‘abridged Mahabharata’, it received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1980.

Gujrat Pakistan se Gujarat Hindustan (2016)
Translated into English as A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There by Daisy Rockwell (2019)

Part novel, part memoir, part feminist anthem, A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There is not only a powerful tale of Partition loss and dislocation, but also charts the odyssey of a spirited young woman determined to build a new identity for herself on her own terms.

Irawati Karve
Marathi
Though not a novelist, Irawati Karve’s refreshing approach to Mahabharata in her collection of essays, Yuganta: The End of an Epoch, has left a lasting mark in literature. Scientific in spirit, yet appreciative of the literary tradition of the Mahabharata, she challenges the familiar and formulates refreshingly new interpretations, all the while refusing to judge the characters harshly or venerate blindly. Yuganta received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1968, making Karve the first female author from Maharashtra to receive it.

Amrita Pritam
Punjabi
Leading poet, novelist and essayist, Amrita Pritam was the first Punjabi woman litterateur to be felicitated with both, the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1956 for her magnum opus Sunehade and the Jnanpith Award in 1982 for Kagaz te Canvas. A crusader for gender equality and a woman’s right to live, love and write sans constraint, the iconic writer paved the way for many young writers through her writing and life. Recipient of the Padma Shri and the Padma Vibhushan, Pritam authored 100 books in different genres—poetry, fiction, essays, biographies, memoirs—as well as a famous autobiography titled Raseedi Ticket (The Revenue Stamp, 1976).

Further reading:
Pinjar (1956)
Translated into English as Pinjar: The Skeleton and Other stories by Khushwant Singh (2005)

Pinjar relates the story of a Sikh girl who was abducted by a Muslim because of a land feud and she chooses to remain with him rather than be rehabilitated in India after Partition. Translated by Khushwant Singh, the novel is widely considered one of the outstanding works of Indian fiction which engaged with the Partition from a woman’s perspective.

Raseedi Ticket (1976)
Translated as The Revenue Stamp (2015)

Maintaining a non-linear, fractured rhythm, it includes recollections of her travels, the making of specific books, references to fellow-writers and snatches of conversations with loved ones, but the bulk of the text contains reflective lines and notes to herself that she has learnt from her life experiences, the most memorable and sustained being love.

Popati Hiranandani
Sindhi
A versatile Sindhi writer, a forthright feminist, and an outstanding social activist, Popati Hiranandani was a formidable presence in twentieth-century Sindhi literature. Recipient of several awards, including the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1982 for her autobiography, Hiranandani tried her hand at multiple genres: the novel, short fiction, poetry and biography, as well as literary criticism. Her works not only depicted the urban milieu of Sindhi culture, but also delved deep into the life of Sindhi middle-class and the plight of women in the social structure. Among the several works she published are poetry collections: Ruha sandi runch (1975), Man Sindhini (1988), short stories: Pukar (1953), Zindagi-a-ji-photri (1993), novel: Sailab zindagi-a-jo (1980), etc.

Further reading:
Munhinji-a Hayati-a Jaa Sona Ropa Varqa by Popati Hiranandini (1980)
Translated into English as The Pages of My Life: Autobiography and Selected Stories by Jyoti Panjwani (2010)

The award-winning autobiography poignantly captures the two vastly different worlds of pre- and post-Partition India through the author’s journey as a homeless, community-less, displaced woman. Translated as The Pages of My Life: Autobiography and Selected Stories, it also provides remarkable insights into the Sindhi society, and the social and political upheaval following the great tragedy overtaking the country.

Yaddanapudi Sulochana Rani
Telugu
Considered among the top fiction writers of her time, novelist Yaddanapudi Sulochana Rani heralded a new era in Telugu fictional literature in the decades between the 70s and early 80s. She introduced pulp literature to a new generation and brought novels to the mainstream, in Telugu. Her prolific writings reflected contemporary trends, complexities of urban relationships and the working of a woman’s mind. Employing her signature nostalgic style, the immensely popular writer threw new light on romance and popularised reading among the middle-classes, especially women. Some of her best-known works, which used to be serialised in Telugu magazines, include Secretary, Jeevana Tarangalu, Kalala Kougili, etc. Many of her literary works have been adapted into films and TV serials.

Further reading:
Meena

The novel revolves around the eponymous character Meena, her silent rebellion against her mother, her escape from an unwanted wedding, her attempt to reunite feuding families, and how she succeeds in marrying the love of her life, against all odds.

Secretary

Narrating the romance between Jayanthi—who joins as a secretary in an elite ladies’ society ‘Vanitha Vihar’ and industrialist Rajasekharam—the novel Secretary created tropes of a wealthy, stylish landlord, and luxurious cars that captured the fantasies of many. Written 50 years ago, the universal appeal of this bestseller still continues to charm the readers. It remains relevant in its portrayal of social reality, celebration of self-made, modern women and their quest to break free from punitive norms. It was also adapted into a 1976 Telugu film and won Rani laurels across the commercial stream.

Ismat Chughtai
Urdu
Universally regarded as one of the four pillars of modern Urdu fiction, Ismat Chughtai has received many awards and accolades, including the Padma Shri, in 1976. Her formidable body of work, including short stories, screenplays, novels, novellas, sketches, plays, reportage and even radio plays, created revolutionary feminist politics and aesthetics in twentieth-century Urdu literature. Her style was bold, innovative, rebellious, and unabashedly realistic. Ismat analysed feminine sexuality, middle-class gentility, and other evolving conflicts in modern India.

Further Reading:
Tedhi Lakeer (1943)
Translated into English as The Crooked Line by Tahira Naqvi (2006)

Published in 1943, Tedhi Lakeer is centered on Shamman who grows from being a rebellious, independent-minded girl to a politically-conscious feminist activist involved in the Indian independence struggle. In this critically-acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel, Ismat Chughtai exposes the intellectual and emotional conflicts against the backdrop of an enormous socio-political canvas.

Dil ki Duniya (1918)
Translated as A Chughtai Collection: with The Quilt and Other Stories & The Heart Breaks Free & The Wild One by Syeda Hameed and Tahira Naqvi (2003)

Narrated in the first person from a child’s point of view, the novella follows the lives of a varied group of women living in a conservative Muslim household in Uttar Pradesh. Dil Ki Duniya, much like Tedhi Lakeer, is autobiographical in nature as Chughtai draws on her childhood memories of life in Bahraich.

Basanta Kumari Patnaik
Odia
The first and only Odia woman writer to have received the Atibadi Jagannath Das award—the highest award of the Odisha Sahitya Akademi—Basanta Kumari Patnaik was an eminent novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet and essayist. Her notable short story collections include Sabhyatara Saja, Palata Dheu, Jibana Chinha. The three novels that established her reputation as a major writer of fiction are Amada Bata (translated as The Untrodden Path), Chorabali and Alibha Chita (translated as The Undying Flame). Considered one of the pioneers in Odia literature, Patnaik’s writings reflect a deep understanding of the domestic and social world of twentieth century Odisha.

Reading Recommendations:
Amada Bata
Translated into English as The Untrodden Path

Amada Bata became the first Odia novel to be successfully adapted into a memorable film and remains an iconic classic, both in Odia fiction and cinema. Set in a middle-class household, the novel’s protagonist Maya is a remarkably perceptive and resilient character, gifted with the ability to dissect the ‘veneer of civilization’ at large, through its practice of customs and rituals. Patnaik, in Amada Bata, compels readers to rethink the fundamental ethical assumptions associated with the duties and responsibilities of individual women.

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