Dr Sarojini Sahoo is one of the most popular Indian writers today. Owing to the boldness of her writings sometimes she is described as the Simone De Beauvoir of India. Following are the excerpts of her email interview with Dr Kavita Arya.
Kavita Arya : You were brought up in a liberal family atmosphere and lead a happy married life. What prompted you to write so boldly on the issue of women? What in other words is the root of your revolt - the factors that prompt you to take up a particular theme? Is it entertainment, anger or a desire for Social-change?
Sarojini Sahoo: I started the first article of one of my books, Sensible Sensuality with an essay "Bicycle and Me," wherein I wrote about my experiences of childhood. As my father had an obsession for a male child, he wanted to see me as a boy and therefore, I was dressed as a boy; my hair was cut like a boy's; and I used to play boyish games with boys instead of girlish games with girls. Later when I grew up and read Social Anthropologist theory that gender is not an inborn instinct but a socially constructed attribute, I somehow could not admit these theories. Though I was brought up with boyish culture, still I could feel a girlhood and a girlish sensitivity in me. This led me to feminism or rather feminity. I believe more in Feminity than in Feminism. Another factor made me think about oppression of the women. My father was a staunch, active and stubborn personality. In comparison my mother was very submissive. She had no liberty to act according to her own decisions. Father bought jewelries for my mother but did not allow her to wear them publicly. For him these were assets for his house. He did not like my mother to spend time on her makeup. Even the menu for dinner or lunch was decided by my father. I was brought up as a boy and got full freedom but my other sisters and even my daughter after her marriage do not enjoy such liberty to express their will. These facts made me think about the women's status.
For me, writing has never been a way to propagate ideas on Feminism. I feel I am more sincere to my own feelings rather than to any announced social responsibility. It is basically a medium for self expression. I want to communicate my feelings, ideas and experiences. I am not a propagandist or an activist in my writings. It is an artistic and aesthetic activity by itself independent of social activism. I am more committed to my writings than to society. I don't think my writings could change the society, but as Camus said, "I always want to hang myself as I am, so that the readers could see their own image in me." Yes, along with my stories, I want to portray the society I am communicating with. As I live in a semi urban, semi rural surrounding, far away from Big City culture, I come across the down-trodden feminine characters and their culture which serves as the material for my fiction.
My latest novel Goddess in Exile is based on my neighbor's experiences. The saga of that newly married bride prompted me to write this novel. But the character Harsha, is not an exact transformation of that neighbor. I built upon her. Similarly most of my characters are built upon the people I come across in my life.
KA :When you started writing so boldly what was the reaction of your immediate surrounding which I suppose was largely conservative - your family members, elders, and acquaintances?
SS: Though my father belonged to traditional patriarchy, he was progressive enough to send his daughters to English medium schools in those days and allowed my elder sister to learn vocal music. I found him in more positive to my writings. When ever my writings were published in periodicals, he bought them, never showed a negative response, though my ideas must have looked odd to him. My husband also stood by me in case any controversy arose from my writings. But other relatives, near and dear ones, even many of my contemporary Oriya writers did not like such intrepid writing. Once a senior woman poet of Oriya, asked me whether I was promoting prostitution with my support to the slogan 'women's body, women's right'. This gives a fair idea about the response of my contemporary literary situation towards my support to feminism. Basically Oriya literature - and this applies to the entire Indian literature as well - is occupied by male writers. The female writers are considered as soft, self-absorbed, emotional and inferior to male writing. But I am fortunate that my readers and the next generation women writers prop me up.
KA : You have written so much but which one work you would name as your most representative?
SS : It is difficult for a writer to choose her own best. Every work has given me its own share of dissatisfaction.
I have expressed my ideas on feminism, femininity and sexuality in my collection of essays, Sensible Sensuality. Among my novels The Dark Abode (originally title, Gambhiri Ghara in Oriya) has been translated into English, Hindi, Bengali and Malayalam. Another novel Pakshibas has been translated into Hindi and Bengali. Many of my novels have not been translated into other languages. My every novel has a different theme, so it is difficult for me to name the best or the most representative one.
KA : They often describe you as Simone De Beauvoir of India. How do you view yourself with this reference?
SS : As I speak bluntly on women's issue, they sometimes make the reference to Simone de Beauvoir. But basically I differ with Simone on her 'other' issues. Simone said, 'women are not born they are made' and in my book Sensible Sensuality I want to prove basically femininity is an inherent nature of woman.
KA : Have you come across or been inspired by any indigenous traces of feminist revolt in Indian or Odiya literary traditions?
SS : In Indian Literature, feminism started with Nationalist Movement during struggle for freedom. Although there were women writers such as Bhabani and Jogeswari whose writings in the early nineteenth century questioned the patriarchal dominance of their husbands, the majority of women writers concentrated on the freedom struggle. Another feminist activist Savitribai Phule, who along with her husband championed the cause of women's education, was the first woman teacher in modern Maharashtra and together with her husband she started the first school for girls. Her follower, Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, was educated both in English and in Sanskrit. She stood against the patriarchal reading of the Hindu scriptures and early scholarly works of learned Brahmins which encouraged a repressive and demeaning interpretation favoring the suppression of women. Towards the mid-nineteenth century, more and more women began to write in regional languages as well as in English. Some of them, such as Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, created a world of feminist ideologies. In Odia literature, Sarala Devi, Reba Ray and some other women writers were involved in freedom movement and we find their thoughts regarding women literacy and empowerment. But can it be termed as feminist? There is a lack of consciousness regarding feminine identity, which developed in post colonial India. Kuntala Kumari Sabat was the veteran feminist poetess and writer of Oriya Literature. Her pre- and post-marital life was not peaceful and dangled between love, sex, oppression, and harassment by the male-dominated mentality of feudal India. But we never find any sexual agony or her personal saga in her poems. She always tried to hide her sexual expression and coated it with mysticism in the form of Sufi ideology. This trend prevailed even after the beginning of post colonial era in which we can see the poetess expressing her love feelings in the form of Bhakti poems. In Odia Literature, the search of female identity practically began just after 70's.
KA : The institutions of marriage and family are increasingly being seen by many as the instruments of women's enslavement. What is your opinion?
SS : Motherhood, parenting, and heterosexual affinity were blamed by the feminist think-tanks of the second-wave movement. But anything against our ecological and environmental situation may result into a disaster. A woman has to go through different stages in her life and there is a phase when a woman feels an intense need of her own offspring. Feminists of second wave feminism have tried to persuade a woman against the natural law because they viewed motherhood as a barrier in the freedom of a woman. But if a woman has her own working field, doesn't she compromise her freedom and time? And if she can adjust and can sacrifice her freedom for her own identity outside the home, then why shouldn't she sacrifice some of her freedom for parenting? Parenting is also a part of her social identity. She can reject the patriarchal model of parenting. We can insist upon the idea of the division of labor in parenting. Equally shared parenting is now common in Western culture but in South Asian countries it is still a taboo because of economic inequality between men and women, our crazy work culture, and the constrictions that are placed on us by traditional gender roles.
I think feminism should not act in opposition to men. To me, feminism is against oppressive and outdated social structures which forces both men and women into positions which are false and antagonistic. Thus, everyone has an important role in the feminist movement. It seems ironic that feminism has been characterized as anti-male. In fact, it seeks to liberate men from the macho stereotypic roles they often have to endure such as the need to suppress feelings, act aggressively, and be deprived of contact with children. I think we should emphasize our femininity rather than the so-called feministic attitude of the second wave.
So, I am here to support all sort of activities like marriage, hetero sexuality, mother hood and above all femininity which constitute the gender dichotomy of society.
KA : The conventional concepts of morality are now disintegrating and in the pursuit of satisfaction the individual is getting free from any kind of guilt feeling. Women are becoming assertive about their physical and emotional needs which were not recognized earlier. But we are trained to see things only in terms of Good and Bad. Is there any other option for an individual to be satisfied without being bad?
SS: This is the contradiction actually. We have not set our mind according to modernity. In Rape cases the victim is also accused. Many of our statesmen don't hesitate to point fingers at the characters of the victim. A patriarch always aims at women while justifying the issues with morality. Our society possesses a prejudice that women are more 'loose' than men and so some 220 words exist in English for the sexually promiscuous woman, but only 22 for promiscuous men.
In our Eastern traditions the woman was expected to live mainly for others, not for herself, because "others" controlled and molded the social structure. Woman voluntarily surrendered to the ideal of self-sacrifice. A writer Meena Shirwadkar writes: "Sita in Ramayana exemplifies the behavior of the proper Hindu wife, devotedly following her husband into forest for fourteen years, and after being kidnapped by Ravana, whom Rama finally destroyed, proving her wifely virtue by placing herself on a lighted pyre." In some part of India, the women worship Savitri, a mythical character who could save her husband from death.
In Hindu mythology Anasuya has been considered as Mahasati (most chaste wife). According to Garuda Purana, she considered her leper husband Kaushika, as her deity, and once as desired by her husband, she took him to a prostitute and requested the prostitute to sleep with him.
Since the old Sangam Period in South India, we find literature is used to glorify chastity of woman ("karpu" in Tamil). In "Silappatikaram , the famous Sangam epic, Kannagi, the eternally suffering chaste wife who bore her husband`s unchasteful behaviour, killed herself after her husband's assassination by the king and went to Heaven to reunite with her unchaste husband. This is how the Indian patriarchal society viewed sexual purity in marital life!
I think the only option is rejection of our traditional mythical fascination towards patriarchal moral values.
KA : The reading population is very small. How do you reach to the illiterate woman in the masses?
SS : I am not an activist and I know nothing about how to change the society. Frankly speaking, as a fiction writer, I think no fiction publication can change the society. But my essays may make one think about changing one's mind-set. I believe social media is a good forum for this purpose.