Book Review – Unbound: A Feminist Treasure


Title: Unbound: 2000 years of Indian Women’s Writing

Author: Annie Zaidi

Publisher: Aleph Book Company

Publishing Date: February 2016

Genre: Anthology

Pages: 357

Format: Hardcover, Paperback


“The road is at my feet

And just the sky above

I have the courage to bear

And express myself without fear.”

~Nirupama Dutt, Wicked Women


Puissant emotions passed through me as I gorged on the narratives of women compiled from over a period of two millenniums. In Unbound: 2000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing by editor Annie Zaidi, history writes itself through female gaze. Encompassing their peculiar experiences and demolishing the phallogocentric reign.


The collection of writings in this anthology includes a multitude of genres from poetry to prose, to journals, to nonfiction, drama, travelogues, diary, biography, memoirs and short stories. The excerpts have been selected from a number of women’s writings from academic, political, spiritual fields.


Women and their creative ventures have faced a lot of onslaughts before reaching the audience. Annie Zaidi starts the introduction with highlighting her sense of kinship with women writers, “I was here”, she says giving validation to the many anonymous women artists whose works turned to dust under the burden of societal expectations. The experiences, however, remain the same. She talks about the importance of using the prefix ‘womens’ before writing in the subtitle to emphasize the unique experiences faced only by women and the ways in which they express it. General for womankind, but specific to each one.


The writings have been compiled under eleven sections and mark the predominant themes and motifs present in the works of women writers since centuries, equally resonant even now.


Breaking Chains through Transgressions: Spiritual and Secular Love


The first section titled “Spiritual Love” contains works mostly of women poet-saints who fervidly avow their dedication and passion for God and evince disillusionment from the worldly options available to them.


Transcendental longing and expression of it is visible in the works of these poets. The first poem is written by a Buddhist nun, originally in Pali, taken from Therigatha scriptures. She sings about her spiritual journey and forsaking of the mundane world:


“O, free indeed!

O gloriously free,

Am I free from there crooked things:

from quern, from mortar, from my crookback’d lord!”


From freedom to captivity, the Persian princess poet Zeb-un-nissa pen named herself as ‘Makhfi’, describes her about being imprisoned by her father Aurangzeb:


“Mute is the heart that wailed continually.”

A number of other brilliant poetesses and saints like Kashmiri Lal Ded, Marathi Bahinabai, Rajai, Muktabai, Akka Mahadevi cajole and coax Gods to listen to them.


Poetess Jenabai writes passionately and controversially for Lord Krishna in the strain of Mirabai and Andal thus:


I have let my veil drop to my shoulders, In my hands the cymbals, on my shoulder the veena,

I have become your whore Keshava. I come now to wreck your home.”


Whereas Soyarabai argues with Lord Vitthala:


“How much more must I plead lord? How much more jealousy must I bear?”


The section ends to give way to “Secular Love” which focussed on the spectrum of human relations in the context of love, desire, and sensuality.


A chiaroscuro of experiences from young love, to desire for human touch to burgeoning sexuality of an adolescent married couple, the pages are painted with emotions like this:


“The room seemed ethereal. And the two of them two deities on an altar questing the potion of life from wellsprings hidden deep.”


Stories by Yashodhara Mishra, Krishna Sobti, Vibhavari Shirurkar and a number of others have been included under this theme.


The traditional imprisonment through women’s gaze: Marriage


Interestingly, the editor separates the theme of love from marriage which is the next section, the reason for this is presented in the preface, where she crystallizes the thought that marriage in India has legal and social implications, love within marriages is still a dubious ideal.


From women’s writings, it comes to the knowledge of readers, that they suffer under this obligatory institution due to irrational patriarchal regulations.


In this excerpt from her novel Sunlight on a Broken Column, Attia Hosain highlights the generation gap in a Muslim family where the mother wishes her sons to follow the incestuous tradition of marrying within the family but when one of them utters the word “love”, she retorts,


“Love? No one in decent families talks of love.”


From objection to love to a lower middle class married couple trying to survive on limited resources and growing family in Volga’s Experiment, to Indira Goswami’s Blue Necked God and Rassundari Devi’s Amar Jiban: all describe women’s struggle to assert their rights.


Not only married women but widowed ones and the stigma faced by them is darkly portrayed through scenes like this one from Indira Goswami’s Blue Necked God, on the horrific living conditions of widows in Vrindavan:


“These women were compelled to sing even if they were starving. They had to sing the Lord’s praises as loud as they could even if they were on the verge of choking…The only buyers of the rotting dried up vegetables, were the poor radheshyamis.”


The editor states in the preface that the withholding of education from girls was for the sole reason to take away agency from them as adult women, which is reaffirmed by Rassundari Devi in her nineteenth-century autobiography, cursing her life as a woman and that to a married one:


“Such misery only because one was a woman! We were in any case imprisoned like thieves, and on top of that, reading was yet another crime.”


The fury against injustice wrought seethes to the surface in most of the content.


Mothers and Children


Another intrinsic part of a woman’s life is motherhood, which has been shown under the title “Children”. From the onset of motherhood to birthing and nourishing children. Women’s and children’s lives are entwined and they affect each other in a number of ways, such as in the story by Mannu Bhandari titled Bunty: the young boy witnesses his mother and a doctor, unclothed together. It affects his psyche which relates nakedness to shame, it conjures anticipation to witness it again and brings in a cringe-worthy feeling for the same.


Baby Kamble in her story The Prisons We Broke, describes the horrendous condition of a woman who recently gave birth in the Mahar community:


“Labour pains, mishandling by the midwife, wounds inflicted by onlookers nails, ever-gnawing hunger… everything caused the new mother’s condition to worsen and she would end up getting a burning fever…many remedies which did not cost any money, would be freely prescribed and followed.”


The genesis of children is followed by a loss in the tragic excerpt from Manju Kapoor’s Name: Amba Dalmia, a post-menopausal mother in the aftermath of the death of her daughter,


“Every morning I opened the newspaper to the obituary page, to examine the only item that interested me, the death of the young… Confirmation that I was not alone.”


In a similar situation is Ajeet Cour’s protagonist, who is on the verge of losing her child. Also included in this unit, are poems which deal with the theme of mother tongue and the enchantment of stories for a child.


Following these are two consecutive sections “Food” and “Work” which deal with the transition of women’s lives from a limited space to the wider arena.


Swaying the ladle, stepping in one’s shoes: Food and Work


Cuisines have been conjoined with power structures since centuries, hence the writers have described them in the context of caste, politics, nostalgia, choice, class etc.

Extracts from Nayantara Sehgal, Ashapurna Devi, Nilanjana Roy and many others have been compiled under this section. The editor describes the theme of the “Work” section saying “ability is not defined by gender”, which has been debated by the patriarchs for a long time. Stories of a nurse, an activist, a security guard, a scholar and other employed women and men intensely portray an uneven reality, as seen in the condition of a poor woman laborer in Bama’s story Chilli Powder, when on being caught stealing farm produce, she retorts,


“We steal because that’s the only way we will not starve.”


It’s not only about income disparity between the genders but a latent envy within patriarchs for women who “transgress” and achieve something. It gets reflected in stories like Country of Goodbyes by Mridula Garg, where the woman scholar is duped by her husband, who steals her work and publishes it in his name. Drawing an analogy with Zelda Fitzgerald she quotes her,


“Women are so adept at bearing injustice.”

This struggle for a larger identity with equal rights and broader scope of understanding is reflected in the next few sections titled “Identity”, “Battles”, “Myths and Fables”, “Journeys” and “Ends”.


Identity is imposed as well as chosen, both of these are reflected in the prose and poetry of writers such as Rashid Jahan, Romila Thapar, Nirupama Dutt, Nivedita Menon etc. All of them constructing and deconstructing the preconceived notions about gendered identity and it’s expected norms. In an extract from Seeing Like a Feminist by Nivedita Menon, she demystifies the notion of femininity and masculinity as perceived by the society on the basis of scientific proof of chromosomal patterns, she writes,


“Maleness and femaleness are not only culturally different, they are not even biologically stable features at all times.”


The section articulated opinions on much-mooted topics like class and caste privilege, religious identity, skin color, political affiliation, gender roles etc.


The Incessant Battles


The daily war that women wage against these is shown in the “Battles” section with vital excerpts from works of Sarojini Naidu, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, K Saraswati Amma, Temsula Ao, Irawati Karwe and others. All of them present a picture of personal and collective efforts women put to achieve their dreams.


Stories from the partition, army intervention in Nagaland, the suffragette movement, physical and mental battles of countless women have been reflected in these extracts. An ongoing endeavor is made to shatter the logocentric dictatorship.


So it follows in the Myths and Fables section which attempts to rewrite the legends from a feminist point of view, such as in Saudamini Devi’s epic poetry Adbhut Ramayan Sita transforms into Goddess Kali to slay Ravana contrary to the narrative of Lord Rama killing him. A humanized representation of Goddesses is seen in Rukmini Nair’s poem Mayamriga, California and Malathi Maithri’s poem Forbidden Blood.


One With The Diversity and Transience: Journeys and Ends


A Mumbai local train carries “A thousand-limbed, million-tongued, multi-spoused, Kali on wheels”, Ismat Chughtai takes a pleasant trip to Lahore, Mahadevi Verma befriends a Chinese pedlar in Allahabad and Prabha Khaitan journals about her life in Beverly Hills, USA. Journeys women have undertaken are not merely geographical or temporal but it’s deeply emotional, personal, intense.


There is no topic left untouched by women writers, in the closing section titled “Ends” writers present their thoughts on aging, the transience of life and inevitability of death.


Karaikal Ammaiyar recites a macabre scene in a graveyard, Ambapali comes to awareness of her decaying body and KR Meera’s protagonists find love in dis-ease.


She Keeps Rising


Enticing and full of unabated emotions, the work forces the reader to rethink the Indian societal structure. Although most of the excerpts have been drawn from writings focussed on poor and lower middle-class scenarios, the general message remains the same: the inherent power of women in all its paradigms and circumstances, the vulnerability and the ferocity, both etch itself in the minds of the readers.


It’s been a long and hard fight for women to read, write and transcend to an expansive universe. Despite the suppression and violence, the disparagement and negation here she is rising like Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman.


Rightly does Sarojini Naidu writes on the strength of Indian woman,


“I do not exaggerate when I assert that there is no summit to which she might not aspire or attain in any sphere of our national energy or enterprise unhampered save by the limitations of her own personal ambition and ability.”


Price: INR 595 (hardcover) or INR 300 (paperback) + shipping




Book Cover: 3 / 5

Book Title: 4 / 5

Plotline: 3.5 / 5

Writing Style: 4 / 5

Narration: 4 / 5

Characters: 4 / 5

Language and Vocabulary: 3.5 / 5

Grammar and Punctuation: 4 / 5



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