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When India ushered in independence from her colonial rulers in 1947, it was more than just the mark of freedom and sovereignty that was brought in. This was also the beginning of the postcolonial era that paved the way for many writers and poets to put forth their nationalist sentiments in the form of literary works.
This period was wrought with thoughts and attitudes of the educated strata of the society that considered itself progressive in nature. These men, as well as women, aligned themselves with the left that aimed to straighten out the socio-political and economical kinks that littered throughout the Indian society in the 20th century. However, as Priyamvada Gopal points out in her work ‘ Literary Radicalism In India…’ “the woman question” was ultimately reduced to an economic issue that would be solved by the overthrow of capitalism in the Indian context. Moreover, many members of the progressive left were reluctant to form a women’s only group to address the “woman question” that clearly needed to be looked more closely at. As Hajrah Begum recollected in an interview once, the womenfolk of the progressive left parties, like her, were often reduced to carrying out menial jobs for the party meetings that had no significant effect on the society or its issues. However, these didn’t hinder women writers like Rashid Jahan from voicing out the injustice meted out to women, through their works.
A parallel can be drawn, in a similar time, to the condition of women of the upper-class Brahmins in Kerala. Women in the Malayali Brahmin families were forced to adhere to a strict code of conduct wherein they could not leave the house without covering their entire body with a cloth and carrying a palmyra umbrella to cover their faces while also taking a chaperone. The title itself that was given to them, Antharjanam, the woman of the inner courtyard, is significant in highlighting the seclusion these women were subjected to.
While the publication of Angarey in 1932, a collection of short stories by writers like Rashid Jahan, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismail Chughtai, and others from the Progressive Writers Association, brought in a new wave of revolutionary thought to Urdu literature, writers like Lalithambika Antharjanam in Kerala also made generous attempts to tear down the curtain that shrouded the women of the Malayali Brahmins in the same darkness that women in the northern parts of India were enshrouded in. Lalithambika Antharjanam, being from the Brahmin clan herself and Rashid Jahan being a woman doctor, had particular privilege of being able to peep into the hidden lives of women in their times.
Amongst the stories from Angaray, the main focus of this essay will be Rashid Jahan’s “Behind the Veil” (“Parde ke Peeche”) that peeps behind the veil to give an insight into the life of women in the colonial and postcolonial India of the 20th century. Further, this essay will examine that while the original literature was written in Urdu, limiting the understanding and impact of this text to the northern parts of India, the women in question were affected by similar issues regardless of the language barrier. Through a comparative study of both authors and their works, this essay will attempt to provide insight into how these women from different social and cultural backgrounds were able to stay within the confines of widely unrelated languages and yet, be able to have similar concerns and anguishes to convey through their literary works.
The short story Behind the Veil is a conversation between two women, Aftab Begum and Mohammadi Begum. The latter laments about her life to the other, telling her about the loss of her looks and health from the continued pregnancies, her lack of time for herself or her children because her husband always wants her by his side, her fear of being pregnant again and the fact that the male doctor who examines her can’t really see her plight because she is behind a literal veil that symbolises the ignorance of the menfolk of the women’s grievances. Here, the Begum is confined to the house to be at the beck and call of her husband much like in Lalithambika Antharjanam’s Admission of Guilt where the “Thing” is widowed and thus, forced to live a life of spiritual and ascetic responsibilities at the age of eleven. In this story, the young woman is kept hidden away from the pleasures of life and immersed into the life of a widow where she is expected to live out the rest of her life according to rules made and enforced by those who have no inclination of the suffering of women like her. Maybe the Muthassi who coaches the woman-child in the ways of a widow’s life is just as much a victim but she flies under the radar because she has conformed to the rules. Both women in Behind the Veil and Admission of Guilt are shown to want an escape from their respective lives but are subjected to living on their lives as “[they] were doomed to live because [they] could not die”. In the end, the admission of her guilt is that she is solely responsible for a weak moment in her young ages of life that gets her pregnant. This being immoral in the eyes of the society, she is reduced to the level of an unnamed object “sadhanam” (thing) and is questioned by a room full of elderly men with unsympathetic and ignorant eyes at her smartavicharam (trial).
The Begum in Behind the Veil is reduced to being the property of her husband who considers her an object to be used to fulfill his sexual and other needs. This is not entirely different from the case of the “Thing” whose vulnerability and tender age are exploited by an unnamed man whose “hot arms” encircle her and smothers her cries with a “gentle kiss” when she tries to protest in futility. However, she ultimately succumbs to, because she does not know how to control her natural desires. This young woman is wrought with jealousy at her sister-in-law who lives a happiiy married life while her life has essentially come to a standstill at a tender age. Yet, neither women in the two stories receive any understanding or sympathy from those around them because they still harbour desires of their own liking.
While the unification of the nation under a common language, English, contributed towards the wider understanding of both texts through translations, the women in those times suffered in silence, isolated from one another while still being subjected to suffering that only they themselves had any first hand knowledge of. Therefore, while their language and society may have kept them apart from one another, forming a barrier between them, all it took to transgress this were their shared experiences.
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