Susie Tharu and K. Lalita are well-known in India and beyond for their path breaking publication Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present. Published by Feminist Press in 1990, the two-volume collection is a comprehensive representation of 2600 years of women's writing in India. Seemingly unattainable, Tharu and Lalita's project unearthed women writers from various parts of India, examining local and oral traditions, and recovering a magnificent array of writers and poets from forgotten pasts. This significant contribution to the history of women's writingis reminiscent,in scope and achievement,of Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own or Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic, worksthat recovered women writers from theWestern tradition.
Susie Tharu visited Dhaka this past May as one of the keynote speakers at Redrawing Gender Boundaries in Literary Terrains, an international conference arranged by the Department of English and Humanities at BRAC University. In her keynote speech, she spoke of the various challenges and achievements of women writers and activists, but her focus is on the larger perspective: she wants women to make connections with the world and not dealonly with the domestic sphere.
Tharu's more recent achievements include Towards a Critical Medical Practice: Dilemmas of Medical Culture Today (with Anand Zacaraiah and R. Srivatsan), 2009, and No Alphabet in Sight, 2011, a dossier of new dalit writing from Kerala and Tamil Nadu (with K. Satyanarayana). The Exercise of Freedom: An Introduction to Dalit Writing (with K. Satyanarayana) is another example of Tharu's groundbreaking efforts. The works in the later collection not only showcase the literature of a suppressed group of Indians, but alsosuggest how literary work can turn into social movements.
When I met her during the BRAC University conference, Susie Tharu's first observation on Dhaka was the cleanliness of the public toilet she had seen while walking from BRAC Centre to BRAC University. She said, “Now I know that it is possible to keep them clean, but I rarely see any in India.” The comment reflects her keen observation and interest in human behaviour; she certainly is not just a theorist or artist observing things from her ivory tower. No wonder she noticed the cleanliness of public toilets in Mohakhali and the fact that it was possible to keep them clean without making other humans carry excreta on their heads.
When Iasked about her accomplishments as a teacher, writer, editor and activist, she smiled as she said, “All teachers write at some point of their lives. I do, too. As for the projects you mention of unearthing the women writers—well, there were also some others who wanted to do it. We just got together, and then other women and even some men joined in. It was a delightful project with some very dedicated people in it.” She made it sound so simple; and yet the faraway look in her eyes was a tell-tale sign perhaps of the constraints her team had to overcome, or some experiences that still strike a chord when she reminisces about the project.
“I wanted to be connected with a variety of things in my own world,” she said with reference to dalit literature and how it came to acquire an identity of its own. As late as in 1979,dalits were refused a panel in a conference arranged by Kannada Sahitya Parishad. She condemned the caste system in India saying, “I am glad to see that it is not such a huge problem in Bangladesh.” When told there is no caste system in Bangladesh, she shook her head, “That I don't believe. It is everywhere in some form or other.” Suddenly, the image of a dehumanized manhole cleaner emerging from open sewer in a busy road near New Market loomed before my eyes and I became silent.
The other point of interest she referred to is the political culture of medical equipment. “Medicine has become politics, you know,” she said with a wry smile. Critical Medical Practice opened an untrodden path for her and many others. “It was an entire year of preparation. You surely cannot be unaware of the gigantic business enterprise the medical industry has become,” she said. Then her expression turned grim as she went on to explain how doctors and medical students are part of a huge conspiracy. For many of them working through this project was an “a-ha moment,” as they experienced flashes of an existential crisis. The original goal of this project was to look into the educational cost of a medical education. But instead, the study turned to examining the medical infrastructure providing the best for the rich, and a minimal service to the poor.
Our conversation turned finally to women's writing and sexuality in ancient and modern India. “Look at Khajuraho. Isn't it difficult to believe, or even conceive, some of the art forms depicted there? When right wing Hindu activists attack art scholars, we refer to those ancient examples. We have such a rich tradition. But then, we cannot go back; we have to live within today.” She paused and added,“Repression and suppression are two different things. We have to learn to differentiate between them.” As for feminism, she refuses to take the term as something static. “Feminism grows,” she said, “from carefully thought-through and grounded 'feminist' interventions in specific contexts and in relation to specific issues.” For Tharu, feminism is an unfinished project which developed in response to the challenges it had to confront. At this point, she turned to Bangalore Nagarathnama, the famed artist and courtesan of South India, and a figure given prominence in Women's Writing in India. She alluded to the patriarchal culture that incriminates such women for profanity and immorality because of their profession. Yet when it comes to art and literature, these same women often prove the pioneers, philosophers, and writers.
At one point Tharu said, “A text is so much more than just words on pages.” She talked about the miracle of meaning and how translation has become important in today's world. She calls it a “transaction” between different cultures. That is also when she said wistfully, “You know what you should do? You should write a history of the Indian subcontinent from the perspective of Bangladesh.” I could tell that she was glimpsing an undiscovered terrain and wondering at hidden treasures lying underneath. But it is a legacy to be explored by us Bangladeshis. As an onlooker, Susie Tharu could only advise and suggest directions for scholarly work.
But even before embarking on such a project, we need to write a literary history of women in Bangladesh, I thought. Some of this important work has already been taken up by scholars like Firdous Azim and Perween Hasan, but there is much more that needs to be done to uncoverlong forgotten Bangladeshi women writers from the rubble of oblivion. There must have been women writers who are now lost to us merely because of lack of documentation. The story of the eighteenth-century Telegu poet Muddupalani and her work Radhika Swantanam that Tharu's uncovered is inspiring, as are the efforts of Bangalore Nagaratnama to revive that classical tale. Even though the latter lost a legal battle against the British Raj who accused her of spreading immoral tales, her book continued to be sold and read in secret.
When it was time to leave, I took in her white hair, bright eyes and warm, engaging smile. She turned to thank the student volunteers for bringing us tea. As she held out her hands to say goodbye I knew that it was not just Tharu's scholarly work, norher fascinating projects as an activist, but her personality itself that has helped her shape contemporary South Asian feminist discourse.
Sohana Manzoor teaches English at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh.