Monday, May 25, 2015

Sexual and Gender Violence - Stories: NEERA KASHYAP

In our continuing blog series on sexual and gender violence, we feature a story in which a young woman struggles with the demands of a traditional marriage and her desire to study medicine.

Neera Kashyap

He had promised my parents that he would support my medical studies, both financially and in spirit, after we got married. For me, it was the basis for giving my consent. Still Asad Bhai insisted that we have a nikahnama made which carried a clause that my husband, Nasir Ahmed would support my medical studies. Being a physician, my brother knew that medical studies were a long and arduous undertaking that would need extraordinary support.

Abba had first baulked at the idea, saying nobody got formal nikahnamas made; it would give the impression that he and Ammi did not trust my in-laws. But Asad Bhai persevered so that the nikahnama not only carried the clause of support for my medical studies but details of the mehr I would receive from them, a detail that Abba had no reason to negotiate. My husband and his family were gold merchants and my mehr included both money and several tolas of gold.

At the nikahwhen the qazi came into my room to get my assentI stared with bewilderment at my hennaed hands and feet, at the glittering edging of my veil as it hung low over my head. Softly, I voiced my acceptance three times, but waited for him to read out the clauses of the nikahnama, nodding approval only after he had read out the condition that my husband would pay for my medical studies. Passing the medical entrance exams had carried a huge thrill for me, a joy I knew was shared. For it was Abba, sitting at his chemist shop with a pile of newspapers, who had tracked down my roll number among the successful candidates, and it was my brother Asad who had left his hospital duty early to rush home to communicate the news to me.

The qazi returned to the congregation to read the Khutbah from the Quran, explaining the mutual rights and duties of the spouses. It was to the Quran I expressed my gratitude again and again – as we sat and prayed together after the wedding dinner – the holy book between us, and when I entered his home for the first time – my mother-in-law, standing at the threshold, holding the Quran above my head. 

It was to the Quran I clung when everything turned out differently. On the first night when my hands and feet involuntarily resisted his rough overtures, he clipped both my hands together over my head with his large hand. I must have passed out soon after, but on waking, my body seemed to be one great throb of searing pain. Some nights, the image rose in my mind of a butcher hacking hard at a leg of mutton and the carcass thrown to rot in the open drain.
When Abba called to say that my allotment letter for the medical college had come and the due date for paying the fees was a week away, my heart throbbed with longing for my family. I could visualise Abba looking through the papers in his intent curious way as he spoke to me, ‘Zoya bitia, there are a lot of things needed here: so many certificates and your admit card roll number – all in original and photocopy. Three bank drafts have to be made in the name of your medical college.  Better you come here with Nasir beta, and I will explain everything.’

‘Yes, Abbuji,’ I said, keeping the tremor out of my voice. ‘We will come soon.’

I waited that night to speak to my husband – after he had had his fill of sex, for that was when he lay awake for a while and talked. I explained the medical college admission formalities in brief. There was no reaction – no resistance, no assurance, no indulgence – nothing. Just a chilling indifference as he turned his back on me. With shock, I watched the white chikankari of his black kurta move rhythmically to the heavy breathing of sleep.

My first act of resistance was to leave the breakfast utensils unwashed the next morning and to enter my mother-in-law’s room without summons after the men left for work. Ammi Jaan was reclining on her vast bolstered divan watching Nazia trace a paisley pattern onto a stretch of cloth. I had to come right into the room before she acknowledged me with a smile that did not reach her eyes. She did not ask me to sit.

I came straight to the point: ‘Abbuji called yesterday. We have to pay my medical college fees within a week. There are bank drafts to be made and … other formalities.’ My voiced faltered as I pushed, ‘Can you speak to him about this? Can Abba Jaan speak to him?’

‘To Nasir? You must have already spoken to him,’ said my mother-in-law.

I was silent.

‘He doesn’t approve? How can he, Zoya beti? You are so beautiful. Like an exquisite piece of gold jewellery. He can’t lose you. Suppose someone was to make eyes at you in that medical college? And you were to fall for it? We would then lose our exquisite piece of gold jewellery, would we not? Come sit near me, beti. Here. You have everything here. We don’t need your medical degree, do we – so why do you?’ She reached for the remote control and turned on the television, raising the volume simultaneously. Nazia glanced up slyly at me.

I could make no response. What response could I make to her, to him, to them who deliberately chose not to recognise me, and the achievement for a girl from our community to get a seat in the best medical college in the State? Woodenly, I watched Nazia finish the tracing on the cloth before leaving the room. Ammi Jaan’s door closed on me, as the sound from the television got sharply reduced.

In the ensuing days, I did not see him alone. He must have slept in the spare room, coming into our room only to change. But before the week was out, my parents came. As they sat with stiff humility in the gleaming living room, my mother-in-law spoke untiringly of me: of my poor adjustment, my lack of social and culinary skills, my disobedience to her and my husband, my unorthodoxy, my stubbornness, my selfishness. From time to time, my father-in-law nodded while he … he assumed the air of gloomy disappointment.

Finally, Abba stirred from a hapless humility to plead that my admission to medical studies could technically be deferred for another two years through a gap year certificate for which a simple affidavit from a doctor certifying medical illness could be submitted. Since I was only seventeen, I could gain admission next year which would give me time to adjust to my new home. My Ammi raised her hands in a silent plea. The agreement was deliberately left vague. Except that it was in the nikahnama; I urged my parents wordlessly to assert this, feeling their betrayalBy the time they left, I felt abandoned as if on a remote island, absolutely alone.

Ammi Jaan called me into her room the next morning. I saw for the first time how witchy she looked: the tube light reflected off the blue wall to give her features the quality of a stiff blue mask with hollow arching eyes.

She smiled. ‘Come near, beti. Come, come. You must not take all what I said to your parents to heart. We have to live together, so I had to caution you to the ways of this household. How better than to speak before your parents? All we expect is obedience, nothing more. And of course, we expect a grandchild, our first grandchild – Nasir’s son, our family heir. Is that too much to ask, beti?’ She reached out with her blessing, plucking her hands down on either side of my head and knocking her knuckles against her forehead.

My nausea welled up enough to make me gag, but I kept it down. ‘Ammi Jaan,’ I said, my voice tremulous with sorrow. ‘I want to study. I want to be a doctor. Please, please help me, Ammi Jaan.’
For an instant, her mask lifted and my eyes filled to see a listening face. Almost instantly, the mask was back again, her eyeballs moving rapidly to gain control. ‘Did you soak the rice and dal for the khichri?’ she asked. I broke down only when I reached my room, not allowing her the satisfaction of seeing my sorrow.

My second act of resistance was to see that I did not get pregnant for the next one year – till I could claim my seat again through a gap year certificate. I looked up the unsafe days for an average reproductive cycle and saw they were eleven long nights that fell together. For some months he did not understand my strategy of resisting him during the unsafe period, but when he did, he used force and beatings to make his invasions. Still, I managed to keep the three or four most fertile days free from his assaults. The year dragged on.

It was a battle of wits. While I sought control at night, his family imposed more controls by day. I could no longer go out alone. I could not visit my parents or anyone without permission - denied regularly on some flimsy pretext. I did all my assigned tasks, yet made time to read and re-read my pre-medical texts and the Quran. I zealously followed the call of the azaan, praying alongside. My heart would trip when reciting the Ta’awwudh, as I knew its meaning: ‘I seek shelter in Allah from Shaitan, the cursed one.’

The year passed. My mother did not probe my situation so interactions with my family remained on the surface. When my mother-in-law announced that my father was coming to visit, I was surprised. Abba came to the same gleaming living room. But this time he came with Asad Bhai, who held in his hand my nikahnama. They sat close together on a red velvet two-seater beneath a gilt mirror. After some subdued pleasantries, Abba came to the point. ‘I want to bring up the issue of Zoya’s medical studies. Both families had agreed that she would be allowed to study medicine. Her admission itself is a rare achievement – she worked for it with all her heart. I request you to allow her to claim her seat this year. We will arrange for the gap certificate. But she needs your willingness and blessings.’
There was a tense silence. Asad Bhai held up the nikahnama and said, ‘The agreement is in this document. It has signatures….’ Abba held up a restraining hand.

Then he, my husband, laughed – a slow fat laugh that shook his massive frame. His laugh found reflection in Ammi Jaan’s arched eyes and amused smile. ‘But hasn’t Zoya beti told you?’ she said.
‘She won’t be claiming her seat this year, she will be giving us a precious gift instead – our family heir, Nasir’s child. We will be grandparents.’

My father recovered quickly, unlike Asad Bhai who took longer to disguise his shock.

Samdhanji,’ Abba said to Ammi Jaan. ‘Forgive me, but we did not know. We did not know … we are happy for you all … we are happy. I have only one request. Please let Zoya come to us as often as she wishes. This will make her happy and Asad will look for the right doctor for her.’ As they made to rise, the nikahnama dropped from Asad’s lap. My husband swooped down on it with the same slow fat laugh.

I moved back to my parents’ home a few months before my delivery. My child was stillborn. Born pre-term, he was perfectly formed but small and still. Asad said it was probably the malaria I had suffered in my ninth month that had infected the placenta, forcing the baby to come too weak, too early. I felt nothing. Nothing when my in-laws crowded outside the labour room in anticipation, nothing when they fled on knowing he was stillborn. By the time I recovered, the date for claiming my medical college seat for the second time had passed.

Faske-nikah. Divorce. It was Abba’s idea. I concurred wholeheartedly and with gratitude. Abba chose the Darul Qaza, the sharia court for filing the appeal. He said it would be faster, cheaper, would follow Quranic principles and be less damaging socially. It turned out differently.

The Darul Qaza was a pink building with several stories and a neat front lawn dotted with palm trees. He and my parents-in-law were there for the first hearing. We all sat on the ground on rugs before an old bearded qazi who sat at a low sloping table, peering at our appeal and nikahnama for a long while before calling out my name. I tightened my hijab around my neck before sitting down before him.

‘Why have you filed for divorce from your husband, Nasir Ahmed?’ he quizzed.

‘I … we had agreed before the nikah that he would pay for my medical studies. It is in the nikahnama … I passed my medical entrance….’
‘I know what is in the nikahnama. Were there arbiters from both sides to help reconcile the differences?’

‘My parents came, requesting that my husband should pay my fees. It is in the nikah… my in-laws said they wanted me to adjust to their family before I could think of joining medical college.’

‘Why could you not adjust? It is the duty of good women to be obedient.’ Despite my sweating palms, I pushed, ‘I did my duty. I was obedient. He … they did not want me to study … they did everything to prevent me.’

‘What did they do?’

I searched for the right words. Before I could, he dismissed me with a wave and summoned him instead. He unleashed the same tirade that my mother-in-law had unleashed about me. There was an addition. ‘She does not have a good character,’ he said, leaning conspiratorially towards the qazi. ‘She has deliberately gone out alone into the crowded market late in the evening when all modest women have left the streets to go home. She deliberately removes her niqab before men. If she can do this while living in a traditional home, what will she do in her medical college?’

The qazi shook his head and quoted from the Quran, his family gathered around the qazi, speaking in whispers. The qazi announced, ‘The Ahmed family is willing to take the girl back. I am setting the next day for the last Thursday of next month. Let us hope the girl will consider reconciliation and adjust to the culture of her husband’s family.’

This could not be according to the Quran, I thought. The Quran is just and benevolent, equally to men and to women. I knew this, as the Quran had held me together through my worst days. More hearings transpired. Then my husband and in-laws stopped appearing.  Slowly we learnt that while this court could pass the decree of divorce, it could not make him return my mehr. A divorce without mehr would make me a burden on my family. It would sour everything. I began working on Asad. Together, we eventually succeeded in persuading Abba to remove our papers from the Darul Qaza and file a divorce petition in the civil court.

It took two long and trying years. I worked in Abba’s chemist shop to help save on the salary of two salesmen. Still, it was a terrible financial drain on Abba. The divorce finally came through, with a court order decreeing he returned the mehr. I would pass my medical entrance exam once again and use the mehr for my medical studies. There was no decision here. This was choiceless.

Neera Kashyap is the author of short stories for children, Daring to Dream, Rupa & Co, 2003 and for anthologies from Children’s Book Trust, 2004 and forthcoming. She has contributed essays that interpret scriptures and ancient literatures to print journals. Her short fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction have been published in Reading Hour, Muse India, Cerebration, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Direct Path, Kritya and The Earthen Lamp Journal. She lives in Delhi.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Out of Print Author Series: Annie Zaidi Edits a Volume of Women's Writing

We are so pleased and excited that the compilation, Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing that surely bears editor, Ann Zaidi’s singular approach and fine perspective will be released in a few weeks. Out of Print has pre-ordered its copy of this important volume and looks forward to it.

We asked Annie some questions about the choices she made when putting the works together, and she kindly arranged with her publishers, Aleph, to share an excerpt from the Introduction. But what is even more thrilling, and I believe, important is, she told us why she chose to use an extract from Salma’s On the Edge that first appeared in translation (translated by N Kalyan Raman) in Out of Print. Her insights into the story are remarkable, and we are so pleased to share them here with you.

Although the excerpt from the Introduction sets a context for her views on Salma’s piece, we will begin with why she chose to use the work by Salma.

Note on Salma’s story On The Edge, from which I picked a short extract for the anthology:
As a student who was scribbling (mostly bad) poetry in longhand in single-lined notebooks, I was aware that writing – especially in India, especially writing poetry or literary fiction – was not seen as a real job. Even very well known writers had day jobs. Some were teachers; some worked in banks; some were bureaucrats. This was true of both men and women contemporary writers. Very few of them are what you’d call career writers.

Salma was particularly interesting to me because she didn’t just have a day job, she was an elected representative of the people. This meant that she was doing two uncertain, possibly unremunerative jobs, and both held the potential for internal conflict. A writer must speak her own truth and that of her people. A politician rarely dares to speak the truth for fear of alienating her people.

I had read her poems (some of them are available in translation in Wild Girls, Wicked Words, edited and translated by Lakshmi Holmstrรถm, Sangam House-Kalachuvadu Press co-publication, 2012). I was aware that she was part of a brave generation of Tamil poetesses who were being threatened for writing honestly about feminine experiences and feelings. I had also read her novel The Hour Past Midnight, liked it, and had almost decided to include an extract from that. But I happened to talk to Indira Chandrasekhar and told her about this anthology project. Over a cup of coffee, I asked her about the women writers she has really liked whose work I ought to read. She mentioned that there was a brilliant short story by Salma (translated by N Kalyan Raman) that Out of Print has published.

I looked it up. I read it. Immediately, I loved it. Or rather, I loved it both immediately and lingeringly. The story gathers up the threads of multiple aches in a household and weaves them into a long braid of empathy, intimate detail and gentle humour. It was one of the rare stories I’ve read about OCD in India, and it was especially interesting to me since our collective culture has historically made a fetish of purity-pollution norms, while simultaneously ignoring public hygiene particularly in urban areas. But the story is also about the vulnerability of women who have no property and no man to protect them, and how this powerlessness manifests in the form of obsessive traits or psychological breakdowns. It is also about the ways in which the simplest joys are taken away from us – men or women – in the name of morality. One of my favourite passages from the story describes a scene in which the protagonists are all riding in a car, and one of the characters wants to listen to a romantic song, but is afraid of being judged for it, and ultimately, is prevented from listening to it.

This particular story is full of pathos and yet, it appears to have been written with a light hand. I read it again after a year of reading several other authors before I decided to approach the writer and translator for permission to publish an extract for the anthology.

An extract from the introduction to Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing:
Editing this anthology has also been a personal journey. Some books felt like a personal tryst with truth, philosophy and cultural identity. Some were bottled-up forebodings, full of cruel prescience. Others infected me with a grey groping in the midst of bewildering change. Often, I would tweet a few lines as soon as I had read them. I couldn't wait to share with the world a tiny fraction of what I had right now!

I am hoping to convey to you, dear reader, a portion of the joy, the rage, the comfort, the kinship that I have found. It was only after reading all these women writers that I was convinced of the need for this anthology, even though other anthologies already existed. The most significant one is an intensive two-volume set edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. This set included as many women writers as could be established as authors. Other anthologies have appeared with an emphasis on language, genre, 'new' voices; voices from the eighteenth or nineteenth century, 'saint' poets, and so on.

This anthology does not seek to document all literary contributions by all Indian women. There are thousands of women writers and it is beyond the scope of a single volume to include all. I expected to include between eighty and ninety writers. I have done my best to represent each era and region but limited myself to existing translations or those forthcoming shortly.

Apart from the problem of not being able to include all writers, in some cases, it was all but impossible to firmly establish authorship. The Rig Veda refers to female rishis like Ghosa, Lopamudra, and Apala, but scholars do not seem to agree that they authored hymns or verses. I have heard of women like Bavri Saheb, Sheikh Rangrejin and Taj who are believed to have written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but could not find books featuring their original work. It would take several lifetimes to rescue all the texts that have disappeared from print or have never been translated.

We do have access to verses in Prakrit, translated beautifully by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra in The Absent Traveller, which resonate powerfully thousands of years later. But while they are written in a feminine voice, and may have been written by women, there is no way to establish individual authorship and therefore I have not included them here. Matters are further complicated by the fact there is a definite tradition of men writing in the first person, from a female perspective. For the same reason, I chose not to include folk literature where it is not clear who the author is.

In trying to decide what to include, I also examined the question of ‘Indianness’. Historically, India (Hindustan or Bharat) was an entity that shifted as kingdoms were won or lost, but it was contained mainly within the subcontinent. So, of course I have considered all writers who belong to the current map of India. Partition in 1947 complicates matters but I settled the issue by including writers who were writing extensively and getting published before Partition, like Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. If they were born before 1947 but most of their writing was published in independent Pakistan or Bangladesh, I have left them out.

Many ‘Indian’ writers not only live abroad but were born, bred and educated in other nations. I cannot settle prickly questions about cultural versus national identity but I decided to go with some basic rules: I would not privilege Indian writing in English over other languages, especially where good translations are available; I would look for our spiritual, cultural, mythological and political history; I would pick narratives set within India as far as possible. I have avoided diaspora writing, particularly if it is set in other nations.

Genres represented include poetry, drama, novels, short fiction and non-fiction. I tried to focus on writers whose body of work was not restricted to speeches, letters or newspaper columns. I also avoided diary extracts. I very reluctantly excluded the memoirs of Binodini Dasi, Hamsa Wadkar, Protima Bedi—I would urge readers to read those remarkable works. I grappled with the notion of ‘writer’ for a long while and eventually decided that, at least for the twentieth century, I ought to focus on writers who created a body of work and not only one memoir. The exceptions are texts that capture a slice of women’s history at times when reading and writing was strongly discouraged, if not forbidden, like Rassundari Devi’s and Ramabai Ranade’s memoirs.

I read and considered the work of women playwrights where it was available in English translation but did not include screenplays and narratives about the making of films. I do believe that film scripts may well be a literary genre of the future. But I also believe that we must learn to read screenplays without reference to, without access to, the audio-visual production they lead to. We should be able to judge them on purely literary grounds, and that time has not yet come. We can, and do, read scripts written for the stage, regardless of the productions they resulted in.

Wherever decisions were difficult, I have weighed in on the side of literary craft and genre-bending abilities. Another deciding factor was the possession of a distinctive voice, a definite way of observing the world and remarking upon it. This is what unites writers as disparate as Qurratulain Hyder, Ismat Chughtai, Irawati Karve, Nayantara Sahgal, Volga and Suniti Namjoshi. They have all pushed the boundaries of content and form while offering a fresh feminist perspective.