21 Under 40: New stories for a new generation
edited by Anita Roy
An anthology of short stories appeared earlier this year touting the courage of young Indian women fiction writers to candidly talk about sex. Supposedly, these women herald a new era of Southasian feminism, a feminism that has shunned its self-serious habit and learned to just “have fun”. But there is a hint in these claims of an underlying assumption that scurrilous feminism is even more threatening to men. On the contrary, if editor Anita Roy had ballyhooed the concept well and loud, and if the cover and the title of 21 Under 40 had not been so extraordinarily unenticing, sex-starved straight men could very well be queuing up to get their hands on it.
But, as a good adage teaches us, let us not judge the book by its cover. After all, this volume is no feminist smut, but rather an honest literary endeavour. Not sexy writing but rather women’s writing was the publisher’s original interest, even if that is the kind of interest that typically and mechanically presupposes that ‘women’s writing’ is not sexy. 21 Under 40 was put out by Zubaan, an imprint established by Urvashi Butalia, co-founder of the erstwhile feminist publishing house Kali for Women. These imprints have undoubtedly advanced erudition on Southasian women, while documenting the remarkable spiralling of the Subcontinent’s women’s movement over the past two decades. They have also strived to – and very often succeeded in – injecting into public debates an uproar of women’s ‘marginalised’ voices.
The themes of agency and experience, present even in Anita Roy’s introduction to 21 Under 40 – the title presumably setting out Zubaan’s definition of the ‘new’ generation – have constituted the bedrock of most feminist endeavours around the world. These themes may explain Zubaan’s increasing fascination with the “words” and “writings” of women, and hence the foray into fiction. A commentary on the significance of language as a battleground for gender politics is unnecessary here. But even so, Roy’s emphasis on women’s writing harbours a very romantic notion: battered as India is by the crassness of local and global economies, the power and ability to write creatively offers an alternative world, where some kinds of freedom s are possible. Roy’s enthusiasm for women’s writing is such that, if one finds liberation unattainable in the real world, she must then simply write.
Roy still expects, though, that the stories on offer in 21 Under 40 will reveal some important aspects of women’s realities. In other words, the traditional distinctions between fact and fiction, the actual and the imaginative, will not apply here. In fact, it is this conviction that allows Roy to admit that the gender-labelling of writers is an obsolete practice while still insisting on ‘women’s writing’ as a viable category. When reflecting on 21 Under 40, then, it becomes inescapable to wonder how women’s writing differs from that of men. The difference, it appears, is that men may be ‘cock-sure’, but are ultimately not shackled by the urgency to represent their gender. Whereas women, even when writing fantasies, are compelled to reflect on a certain condition of womanhood. The irony of starting the book with a quote by Ursula LeGuin, perhaps one of the greatest fantasy writers, to invoke a legacy and aesthetics of women’s literature, can hardly be ignored.
Sex, sex, sex
There is a contradiction inherent in 21 Under 40 that some writers in the anthology seem to be aware of, and even exploit in varying degrees: the notion of writing as an ‘emancipative’ act, existing alongside the need to maintain gendered identities. Indeed, many write freely about the parameters of gender. Most successful among these is Sumana Roy’s “Award-Winning Writer”, which takes to task the question of literary tradition itself, as a famous (male) writer, Bhaskar Sen, is troubled by a small-town girl who writes stories for insignificant prizes. This becomes the context in which to lampoon both the complacency of the privileged writer and the categorisation of the ‘women’s writer’. One story by the young girl has a character demand that her English literature syllabus include a 33-percent reservation for women authors.
In “Like Scenes from All Those Movies”, Anjum Hasan engages in an unexpected kind of gender play. That Hasan writes from the perspective of a male persona in the story has been trumpeted by the publishers as a symptom of contemporary women writers’ relative “freedom and confidence”. Hasan’s story is indeed one of the best in the volume, but not because she has managed to exonerate herself from gender boundaries. Engaged in two platonic relationships, her Bangalorian protagonist is caught between a man’s romanticism and a woman’s pragmatism. And looking from this ambiguous perspective, Hasan’s caricature of the genders is most provocative.
Most of the time, though, when publishers and reviewers gush about the ‘freedom’ of these young writers, what they are really referring to is an excess of sex talk. And certainly, references to sex are quite abundant in 21 Under 40. Tishani Doshi’s “Spartacus and the Dancing Man”, Meena Kandasamy’s “The Suicide’s Inbox”, Revati Laul’s “Drool” and several other stories each renders the sexualities of their characters quite manifest. These efforts are commendable, even if some of the writers behave like teenagers who have just learned to cuss.
The older generation of Indian feminist writers were accusedly far too prudish for all this – ready to politicise the personal, yet pretending that their desires and fantasies had no role to play in any larger discussion. Of course, Indian scholarship is rapidly, if belatedly, catching up with the various discourses on sexuality, finally acknowledging that matters of the private room are as complex, and warranting of analysis, as are topics of democracy and the stock market. Still, to think of this newfound sexual openness (or ‘shamelessness’, as some prefer) as a sign of a brewing revolution is grossly premature. In the age of Rakhi Sawant and indulgent consumerism, after all, pretty much anything goes.
Yet for a book that supposedly flouts the oppressive overtones of sexual writings, the sex is not always positive. Diana Romany writes the most sexually explicit story in the book, “Ferris Wheel”, which features a prostitute who is admirably game, but also a loathsome male protagonist, whose libido evokes outright revulsion. Mridula Koshy’s story “The Large Girl”, filling the lesbian token, is nothing like that, depicting homoeroticism very sweetly, if not melancholically. But quite predictably, this ‘irrational’ desire had to be quickly trumped by what can be referred to as ‘heterocentric pragmatism’: the married heroine has to banish her lover to the same realm of heartbreak and solitude that literature has created for all of the sexually unconventional.
Nevertheless, “bad girls sometimes do have a good time, without being eaten by foxes,” writes Nisha Susan in “Broadband and the Bookslut”. And they ought to. All the same, this much-hyped literary freedom of young women writers needs some contextualising. Men, after all, are not the only foxes.
The greater hound still is the bogey of class, that demon-who-must-not-be-named. No doubt, the way that issues of sex and sexuality have flared up in academic, literary and activist circles is a significant advance. But this often comes paired with obliviousness towards class. How else would Anita Roy be able to compile an anthology by a predominantly urban, middle-class bunch of writers, and then deign to call it a “celebration of diversity”? To search for the “silenced or marginalised” among those who have mastered a language well enough to manipulate it is something of an oxymoron.
On this note, 21 Under 40 does portray an aspect of contemporary India brilliantly: the changing scope of a rapidly globalising nation. The sterile world of IT and cyberspace explored in a few of these stories is not emphasised merely in the name of literary experiment, but is also symptomatic of this societal change. The swelling middle class, finding that the new economy is more tolerant of its idiosyncrasies, naturally has a lot to gain from ‘speculative’ fiction. The same globalising force, in other sectors, is razing homes, commodifying humans and rewarding philistinism. Some lucky girls have been roped in for fat cheques to type up meaningless letters in secretarial divisions of unremarkable offices. From their desks, the so-called autonomy of young women writers feels like a lofty ideal.
In the end, though, 21 Under 40 should not be panned too harshly. The publishers simply wanted to put out a book of fiction. Their ambition is totally legitimate. It is just that, in this case, politics and ideology muddled things up. As for the writers, all of them have tried, some of them excelled and most – hopefully – are having fun.