Playing with Fire

playing with fire-1Playing with Fire. Feminist Thought and Activism through Seven Lives in India. By Sangtin Writers and Richa Nagar. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 2006. Pp.xLviii+181. 

Playing With Fire has given me days of joy, learning, anguish, despair, and hope. It is the English version of the Hindi original, Sangtin Yatra, first published in 2004. Richa Singh and Richa Nagar, both rooted in the land and trying to make the soil a little richer – one tending the fields and helping the oppressed half of humankind, the other contending with entrenched interests and blending activism with scholarship to serve the poor and the neglected half of the species, got together seven rural women from the district, Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh. The seven women worked with the two Richas in the Sangtin, and the Nari Samata Yojana, women empowerment organizations, ‘for varying lengths of time’ from 1991.

The real names of the selected seven, who bare their lives, are on the title page: Anupamlata, Ramsheela, Reshma Ansari, Shashi Vaish, Shashi Bala, Surbala, and Vibha Vajypeyi. But the names under which they appear in their stories, not necessarily in the same order, are: Chaandni, Garima, Madhulika, Pallavi, Radha, Sandhya, and Shikha. Names of their villages too are changed.  Perhaps this precaution was necessary, as they and the two Richas were entering uncharted territory. Yet, they could not escape the wrath of the NSY. Fortunately, their families stood by them: ‘Don’t even think of apologizing or explaining anything to your employers. If they make more accusations, we will answer them’ (xLiv-xLv). Women’s earnings altered families’ economic conditions (100).

All the nine sangtins are the collective authors of the Sangtin Yatra. The selected seven wrote diaries of their childhood, adolescence, sexuality, marriage, households, patriarchy, poverty, hunger, untouchability, caste-ism, communalism, classism, hypocrisy, work, and so on. Richa Singh focused on the details of the stories the authors had collectively decided to tell, and Richa Nagar shaped them with her impeccable scholarship, raised a notch higher by her aesthetic heritage, orchestrating the multiple vocals into a haunting and fighting choir: ‘Our notes blend, disperse in ones or twos or sevens, and regroup’ (xxxiv), reminiscent of the ancient Greek chorus. The writing went into several drafts, discussions, revisions and re-revisions, to have all the participating authors on board. Any such study is bound to be selective, but when the selective becomes representative, the result is an authentic account of rural women in India, irrespective of differences of caste, class or religion.  Sandhya repeatedly pointed out that injustices are being perpetrated on women of all castes (79).

Contributing authors Surbala and Shashibala wondered aloud, ‘What would happen if our stories could replace the stories of Sita and Jhansi ki Rani in our school text books?’  (xxxi). Indeed, the nine sangtins are the modern day versions of the epic model and the nineteenth century rebel. Sangtin Yatra should be translated into all the Indian languages, under the auspices of an institution like The National Book Trust, and made a prescribed text, in original or suitable retellings, at appropriate levels.

richa profile-1

Prof. Richa Nagar

Awareness is the first step to reform. Soon the sangtins realized: ‘We sought to reshape the discourse and praxis of empowerment by eliminating hierarchies in Sangtin’s organizational structure and future work. In order to achieve this goal, however, we had to confront the reality of an unequal distribution of “skills” within the collective. To begin with, the autobiographers were themselves differentiated, not only by caste, religion, salary, and social status, but also by varying levels of formal education and opportunities they had had as workers in the NGO sector’  (xxxvi). ‘Bitterness, anger, suspicion, and conflict within the collective produced as many tears in the journey as were produced by the pains and sorrows inflicted by “others”. No meeting of the collective ended without tears at some point’ (xxxv).

Starving Garima (anonym) and her little brother had to go to a funeral feast for a meal. ‘There is no food at home. What will Amma eat?’ Garima ‘hid two puris in her frock and placed them in her mother’s hands when she reached home. Amma was not able to stop her tears for a long time’ (21). As she grew up, Garima had the courage to put in writing: ‘When I was a child, I told so many lies… stole so many times. Yet, I never formed the habit of stealing’ (15).

Pallavi and her newborn lay for seven hours waiting for the midwife to come and cut the umbilical cord (56). Chaandni became a mother at fourteen, and her body was battered by more deliveries. It is heart wrenching to read that her five year old ailing son asked her for the last time, ‘Ammi, will you let me have your milk one more time?’ and died, even as the mother, nursing his sibling, pulled the little boy to her breast (59). As a Hindu midwife would not attend to a Muslim woman’s delivery, Chaandni vowed to learn to be a midwife, became one, and made it a point to reach whoever and wherever anyone needed her (65).

It takes a man and a woman to commit adultery, but the punishments differ: Chaandni’s aunt was murdered for having an affair, while her uncle received a mere scolding for his promiscuity (36).

Caste system has its own baggage. Sandhya, Garima, Pallavi, and Shikha, all from the Hindu upper caste backgrounds, were disturbed by having to eat and drink with members of lower castes. Radha and Mahdulika were never free from fear of being insulted for belonging to untouchable castes. But all of them, including the Sunni Mulsim Chaandni, were horrified to see an untouchable Bhangi working in the office kitchen (81).

The seven contributing authors realized that they had been brought to their sasurals as ‘slaves’(41). Yet, ‘how strange are our lives entangled in these webs of mayaka and sasural. Sometimes it was our mayaka that embraced us as its own, and sometimes it was our sasural.  And sometimes, despite having these two homes, we continued to feel that there was not a corner or place in our lives that we could truly call our own’ (44).

In the midst of all this darkness, there is an occasional flicker of light. Village Muslims looked forward to Hindu Ramleela celebrations. Despite patriarchal dominance, the activists were able to transform gudiya peeto (thrash the doll) rituals into gudiya jhulav (cradle the doll) festivities. Untouchable Radha’s father ‘sent his two daughters and three sons to study’ (17). Financial difficulties eased family restrictions on the seven women, who were now allowed to go out of home for work (73). In course of time, they moved from trudging with cracked feet on dirt roads to riding bikes. Therein lies the hope for a better tomorrow.

The idea that ‘if Richa Singh and Garima both had access to equal salaries, facilities, and respect from the outset, the question of taking advantage of amenities and of fewer or greater benefits and perks would never crop up’ (125) brings to mind Ruskin, whose Unto This Last had influenced Gandhi to the extent that everybody was paid the same salary on his Phoenix farm in South Africa, a century ago. On the other hand, consider this understanding of the contributing authors: ‘How can we deny the privileges that are bestowed on a woman in our patriarchal system with the arrival of mother-in-law-hood? After years of being crushed as daughters-in-law in the grinding mill of the sasural, how can mothers-in-law overcome the temptation to enjoy the benefits of their newly acquired power?’ (66).  While most victims think of revenge, there are a few, like Chaandni, who vow never to allow another to suffer, if they could help.

Playing with Fire is a seminal text and should run into several prints. Here are a few suggestions for its next edition.

The normal practice in folios is to give the chapter heading on the recto and the book title on the verso. It is user friendly and may be followed.

A pronunciation guide will add value to the Glossary and also help in reading the transliterated lines in the text (27, 43, 124…). There is, however, no need to include in the Glossary words that have already found their way into the English dictionaries, e.g. amma, ammi, bahu, bhabhi, bhangi, bidi, brahman, burqa, dal, dalit, dhoti, dupatta, ghee, izzat, mandir, masjid, munshi, paisa, pathan, pooja, prasad, purdah, puri, roti, talaq, yatra…  Tulsi is really not basil, as it is known in the west; its botanical name is, ocimum sanctum, popularly known as ‘holy basil’; the botanical name of basil is ocimum basilicum.

The use of ‘pennies’ on page 68 and ‘cents’ on p.102 jars, more so, as several Hindi words find their way into the text. Paisa is in the English dictionary. The phrase ‘palaces of cards’ on p. 40 falls between ‘houses of cards’ and ‘castles in the air’. The reference number 1 in the last but one line on p. 40 and its note on p. 161 do not correspond.  There is an occasional slip in proof-reading (111) and grammar (48).

An Index will be helpful both to the lay reader and the learned scholar, because it is not always easy to follow the lives of the autobiographers, as they appear not in chronological sequence but in thematic relevance.

Dr D Subba Rao

Dr D. S. Rao

D. S. Rao, Ph.D. is an author, literary critic, retired professor of English, and former Editor ofIndian Literature, the academic and literary bimonthly of Sahitya Akademi, the National Academy of Letters, India. Presently he is based in Minneapolis, but divides his time between USA and India.

2 Responses

  1. Mukundaramarao says:

    One of the great reviews I have read in the recent times. We will be benefited if he continues to write such thought provoking articles for readers and learners like us.

    Mukunda Ramarao

  2. Manjeet Kaur bhatia says:

    Great work! Reviewing a book so interestingly only Dr. Rao could do…. A review that tempted me and hopefully other readers to read the book…

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