The Philosophical Backdrop of Womanism in Asia: An Attempt to Connect the Dots

One change that has taken place in the world of cultural interventions is that in writing, staging and teaching literature, women have outnumbered men. Right after the Civil Rights Movement of the late sixties, men had started discarding the world of literature as barren, oblique and unproductive. And that was the time when, with the advent of feminism, more and more women entered the deserted realm to convert it into a lush, green patch.

This is just one simple example of how female genetic code promotes a better survival instinct. Even in an extreme situation, when men must perish, women survive, and not only do they survive, they also laugh against odds and talk their hearts out in a language that is distinctly their own.

Voicing their sattvik akrosh (pious rage) against discriminatory structures of all kinds, women activists/writers/journalists/artists are often heard talking in a language that radiates the urgency of a telegram. Telegrams have faded in oblivion but long live this idiomatic vigour and emotive turn of phrases that remind us of the poetic utterances of Rishikas, Theries and women Bhakt poets in different Indian languages! Long live the push and joy of women’s language which “delivers” the deepest moments of their heartfelt agonies with the libidinal force that women apply in delivering a baby.

As the studies of Nancy Chodorow and other psycholinguists underline, at the language acquisition stage girls prove to be luckier than boys In order to grab the socially appropriate image of “a tough guy”, boys are often made to shun the secure warmth of the pre-symbolic maternal kingdom (queendom, if you like). The fear of being called a sissy baby attached to Mama’s string usually keeps them in great stress Girls are not subjected at least to this peculiar stress of looking and sounding different from mothers, the first object of love in anyone’s life. Because this jolt of separation from the ideal mother-figure is minimal in girls, smoothly they swim into the mother image, and this naturally helps them acquire an unhindered spontaneity in expression. It is basically through this spontaneous, intimate, informal chit chat that they excel in human bonding.

Women’s share of shock comes later. They start feeling gagged and “lost” in their teens, but the good news is that this loss doesn’t last for long if they decide to pay attention to the psychic and bodily rhythms and the hitherto ignored areas of women’s fantasy, their language readily revives the snipped-off ties with their own lost selves. A case in point are masters of metaphors who juxtapose two levels of reality in a flash and the writers who don’t feel shy in taking a dip in the subterranean subconscious, the ones like Kalidas, Bhavbhooti, Shakespeare, John Donne, Hopkins, Rilke, Lorca, Mirza Ghalib, Khalil Gibran, James Joyce, Nâzım Hikmat, Neruda, Muktibodh, Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Yehuda Amichai.

Locked into the unconscious realm of our being, this early bond of the pre-linguistic stage remains asleep (coiled up, almost like the kundalini) in both men and women But in their stressful hunt for big things, men usually stop bothering about the finer points in life. Remaining emotionally illiterate doesn’t bother them primarily because, with a big lollipop in hand, patriarchy tells them that if they really want to lord over the Universe, they must develop a mercenary and no-nonsense approach to life. Even those who don’t strangle softer emotions, soon learn to hide them in the deepest pockets of their sad hearts, thinking that tender gestures would project them as weaklings and brand them as unfit to rule and control. (Mard ko dard nahin hota is a pet maxim guiding them). Public display of anger or full-throated hatred is not shameful for them, but being a little demonstrative in love is certainly nonsensical. One can only smile at the situational irony.

In Sanskrit we have a beautiful word for this instinct—narikel vritti, the instinct to play a coconut, hiding the soft linings and the cool water in a tough exterior. In nine out of ten cases, men seem to be conveniently forgetting that the revival of bonds with the pre-linguistic maternal world of intuitions and half ideas, can help them bloom better, it can help them create not only their environment but also their subjectivity afresh. (Some women too forget it.) Logocentricity thus becomes the norm for them but —through this dialectical oscillation between the symbolic and the semiotic —forceful women writers and thinkers (such as Elizabeth Barret Browning, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Andrienne Rich, Ismat Chughtai, Fehmida Riyaz, Sara Shagufta, Forough Farrokhzad, Szymborska, Krishna Sobti and others) do give birth to portmanteau words, and these seem to be flowing in accord with the rhythms of contraction during labour.

There are many more subversive techniques of breaking boundaries through which women writers, and even women folklorists, combat the brutally impersonal authority effect of what Luce Irigaray calls a father tongue. In ‘The Sex Which is Not One’ she raises very pertinent questions about agency and leaves us wondering how women can be a part of the great world without being disloyal to their inner compulsions and bodily rhythms — like those of contractions during labour, feeding, weaning and other semiotic sensations.

It is basically because of the brilliant flash of an extraordinarily lucid and masterfully vibrant language that women all the world over are coming up as Ras Siddha Quissago — fountainheads of juicy talk-stories. Their video clippings, sound bytes from interviews, chitchats, memoirs, quotes and snippets can bloom into a beautiful collage and emerge as an important feminist text. Beyond that we have a long list of novels and anthologies of outstanding essays, shorter fiction, poems, columns, creative and critical reflections on everything under the sky (literature, cinema, TV shows, education, reservation, love, liberty, motherhood, health, war, riots, market fundamentalism, the feel-good syndrome et al)

Their dynamic strength lies in constant questioning of structures and hierarchy on the one hand, and a constant battle against division and isolationism on the other. And yet they are hardly reviewed, canonised, taken cognisance of.

Especially in the developing world, women’s writing is still considered either a luxury or a Hydra- headed activity of busy for nothing, over-ambitious, leaky crackpots who waste their time in blackening pages when they should be wholly submerged in cheering up their men. Not that women in these developing countries are insensitive to the sufferings and humiliations that their deserving and yet unemployed or underemployed fathers, brothers, lovers, husbands, sons and partners are usually subjected to, especially in an environment where out of the four Purusharthas — dharm— arth—kaam—moksh — at least two — arth and kaam — have a solid material base.

Not being gainfully employed is just a systemic failure, not a comment on their calibre and yet, constant socio-economic pressures give most of our men the angst of not being man enough. Women understand this agony so very well, but what people, in general, don’t understand is the basic fact that writing empowers not only the person who writes but also the people she writes about. People who are written about gain not only a distinct focus but also an intense empathy and empathy does make a difference. At least it creates the first ripple of change. This change may be as indirect and subtle as the change brought about by a tender plant on the environment, but it is there, for sure.

Women in developing countries do empathise with their unemployed or underemployed men, that’s why, even when treated like a punching bag, they find it difficult to raise a voice, and when life becomes an endless ritual of forgiving it all every day, 24x7, filtered narrations get dense with inner contradictions. Justice and compassion get locked up like horns of an intense dilemma. Like a malignant cyst in the uterus, often the unresolved dilemmas get calcified as aporias floating in the textual subconscious, and aporias, we all know, are impossible to deconstruct without the intricate spiritual training of swimming against the current and reading the text against the text.

This journal aims to emerge as a training ground at least for younger men and women. We want them to at least realise that deconstruction gets monstrous without empathy, patience, forbearance and all such values which till this day only women have been identified with. Till now only women are expected to be virtuous. Only they are expected to play the fountainhead of all spiritual values and the treasure island of all great virtues — lajja aurat ka gahna hai, they say in Hindi. Modesty (lajja) is identified only with women as their stree dhan, but with our intense faith in distributive justice, we want not only lajja but all the virtues to be equally distributed among men and women. Why should anyone be allowed to have a lion’s share in anything? Be it the fund of virtues, resources or opportunities, monopoly is a bad idea. In this journal, Pashyantee, we aim to raise all these philosophical enquiries.

By way of stating our vision behind this bilingual journal with better clarity, I shall evoke a tale from the Harivansh Puana. It begins with the epical depiction of the charred remains of a deserted battlefield. After eighteen days of high voltage drama, ultimately the battle of the Mahabharat has drawn to a close. A sage with his bunch of disciples is passing by, offering a discourse on the tragic waste of potentials in the conflict of egos. Suddenly he notices a huge bell in the middle of the field. Hit by an arrow, it could have fallen from the neck of an elephant (elephants, after all, were very much a part of the four-tier Chaturangini Sena). But there is something strange about the bell. Though fallen on the ground, it is producing a sweet tinkle. The sage asks one of the disciples to check, and soon they discover four little birds fluttering their wings inside the huge bell. The sage closes his eyes and explains how traces of life start playing in the middle of death and disaster because simultaneity is life.

We can choose to read this episode as a metaphor for the basic principle of Creation. Truth may be one but it can materialise and manifest itself only through binaries. Idol formation, for example, presupposes the coming together of soil and air, fire and water Oscillating between the two extremes of binaries — pain and pleasure, for instance — the human mind is never at peace. Peace or bliss (anand as they call it in scriptures) dawns upon the human mind (and also on its immediate surrounding) only when it stops the mad hunt of grabbing the lion’s share of resources and opportunities. This mad hunt stops only through samrasya or equipoise, and samrasya is attained through a deep identification with all that surrounds us: men, women, the flora and the fauna, the five elements et al. The possibility of samrasya is inherent in human nature, but before we build upon that, let us go back to the rational explanation of how the impossible became possible in the story.

The rational explanation is no less intense, because rational and suprarational too are binaries connected through an umbilical cord. They are almost like Siamese twins. The great chaos let loose in the battlefield had shaken the heart of a mother-bird. With her four little eggs clasped in her claws, she had tried flying away to a secure place where she could hatch her eggs at peace. Hit by one of the arrows, in the middle of her flight, she had fallen dead, but the fall of the four eggs was cushioned by the blood-rush of the battle-field and were soon covered by the bell broken loose from the elephant’s neck. Hatched by the heat that the exchange of weapons had generated, secure within the cover of the fallen bell, the four eggs break open, releasing the four birds which are explained away as the four Vedas in the tale, but we, the modern readers, can easily read them as the four vital life forces emanating from Libido (i) the thirst for survival, (ii) the thirst for love, (iii) the thirst for knowledge and (iv) the thirst for peace which help us sustain ourselves against all odds.

Like the soft tinkle produced by the flutter of the little wings sealed within the fallen bell, peace talks softly, and yet is heard, so soldiers of peace, artists and writers all the world over, need not lose heart. Luminous moments in major classics woven around the metaphors of war and peace clearly illustrate how the two major instincts constantly keep playing the game of Musical Chair in the human heart. Ultimately peace looms large, if not forever, at least for a larger duration it sustains itself. Why so? Because war or chaos of any kind is born of agitation, and it is impossible to remain at the peak of agitation for long. That’s why negative emotions of life start eating their own tails. But even peace and stillness are not there forever. Creation presupposes movement and there can be no movement without a tilt. The earth moves only because its axis is tilted at 33 degrees and a half.

Still many cultures in the world have built at least their utopias around the notion of peace. Roman pax, in the assumption of a set of binding obligations, is a concept of social architecture which advised senators against direct assault. It also made them lament for the kind of structural violence that they could not help being a part of. This was a tricky kind of generosity which generated a lasting problem in the Western Peace Theory: many a time peace was equated with the maintenance of status-quo by those whose interests were well-served by the existing structure.

My friends from the Middle East tell me that the Greco-Arabic concept of siren — sala’am and shalom pick up ideas of peace found in concepts like justice, equity, equality and freedom. In short, these are more directed against structural violence.

In the East we begin with peace in the personal space—shanti as indicative of interpersonal peace, peace of mind and inner self, and ahimsa with its clean moral injunction of abstaining from
  • hurting fellow humans and
  • disrupting the rhythms of biosphere, animals, plants and microorganisms.
A natural corollary to this is the notion of guarding peace. The simplistic formulae of each for himself, God for all doesn’t work here. Vouching for peace as a personal choice may be easy — at least for those who have not had a troubled and traumatised childhood — but ensuring peace in the vicinity is a tough job, especially when you have decided not to lose your cool even at the gravest provocation. People born and brought up in tough circumstances, conflict zones or in regions with a long history of economic, cultural and political subjugation, are naturally filled with some kind of sattvik akrosh which must be addressed and put into perspective before a team of sensitised men and women strikes a dialogue with them, inspiring them to try this path of samrasya.

As we can easily see for ourselves, these occidental and oriental concepts are based on two fundamental illusions: illusion in the East is that, with the right human beings and the right interpersonal relations, the rest will take care of itself, regardless of all wrongs and violence in the structure. And the illusion in the Western Peace Theory is that, once we get the structure right, we can put any kind of humans into it, without addressing their unresolved and interpersonal conflicts and their lack of personal competence.

Keenly aware of the critique also of the Liberal Notion of peace — with its political expression in democracy and the economic expression in capitalism — and the new Marxist Theory — with its political expression in democratic centralism and the economic expression in socialism — the women authors and artists from the land of Buddha, can very well imagine the ideal/samyak state somewhere in the middle, and this middle state we can arrive at only by curbing excesses and working towards empowering others.

Pashyantee is there to sensitise at least younger men and women to the goal of a more equitable society and also help them realise that empowerment is a mystical process. One can empower oneself only by empowering others. But how? By minimising the politics of othering which finally boils down to the action plan of

  • helping people realise their hidden potentials
  • providing the right kind of infrastructural and moral support for realising those potentials and
  • creating an environment that dethrones the ruling principle of “cut-throat competition” and inspires people to follow the guiding principles of joyous cooperation and interdependent, peaceful co-existence.
This is what we are going to exercise here through the sisterhood not only of languages but also of sibling art forms.

For this to happen we must learn to discourage traits both of Hyper Femininity — which reduces women either to dumb cheer girls and Barbie Dolls or to intelligent manipulators — and of Hyper Masculinity — which makes men aggressive, bossy and crude. The journal wants us all to remember that Samrasya or Harmony is the guiding principle both of Aesthetics and Ethics and anything that is ethically frustrating — violence, for instance, or the instinct to rule, dominate and grab the lion’s share from resources and opportunities — is aesthetically frustrating too. Excess seems to be the root cause of the human peril today and our kind of Womanism aspires basically to evoke not only an equitable distribution of resources and opportunities but also the right blend of justice and compassion, rights and commitments leading to samrasya.

Samrasya presupposes the gradual awakening of the Feminine Principle, that nascent energy sleeping silently, like a little girl, in the inner recesses of our being. In realised women and dheerodatta/sublime men this softer and calmer aspect of Being sits awakened with a smile of bliss. Just because of this, they seem to be radiating peace, and yet, it is easy to accept them as mental models because they seem not to have descended from “up above the world so high”. Tracing their lives, we can easily realise that they too are human beings, only gradually they have risen above all blights (the unbridled Kaam, Krodh and Lobh), gradually they have learnt not to retaliate or react and patiently they have waited for so long, working hard, unseen, unnoticed towards the right balance, the equipoise or the Samyak Drishti as Buddha called it.

The idea behind the whole principle of the change of heart or human revolution proposed by Buddhist scholars like Dr Daisaku Ikeda and even by the Rd Dalai Lama, can be best summed up in the metaphor of a lake. If we really want our offenders to mend their ways, we must create situations where they are given a chance to examine how ugly they look in an agitated state, how distorted an image their violent or greedy or lusty-self projects, and such a situation can easily be created by learning to remain as calm as a lake. The sudden glimpse of this unagitated, all-encompassing lake in the eyes of the person they are trying to boss over and humiliate, can hold a mirror to their distortions and help them take a vow to improve their conduct. If we choose to become a bowl of boiling water, we lose the potential to reflect anything. To my mind, at least at the micro-level, this Buddhist principle works wonders, and because most of us (women artists and writers) believe in building a bridge between the micro and the macro, the personal and the political, a good point to initiate psychological warfare is this Buddhist notion of human revolution.

The key point to remember is that you can’t change the world without inspiring change in the people around you, and this inspiration is generated only when your whole being is aglow with the grace that dawns upon you when you sublimate, slowly and painfully you rise above your own basic instincts/tragic flaws/hamartia.

Concrete Objectives and Action Plan:

1) Revisiting Classics

Pashyantee is aimed at exploring this Feminine Principle in classics from multiple perspectives that the different schools of Feminism offer, especially the Liberal, Radical, Marxist, Post-Colonial, Gandhian, Ambedkarite, Eco-Feminist, Black and SouthAsian streams. What is referred to as Womanism in the non-Western world is a life-affirming Force, the Pran-dhara or the Elan Vital quietly flowing through the inner folds not only of Nature but also of Vak, of the Para, Pashyantee, Madhyama, and Baikhari aspects of Speech. The idea is also to deconstruct the aporia floating in the hidden dimensions not only of Marxist, Gandhian and Ambedkarite texts but also in the key texts motivated by Hindu, Tao, Sufi, Islamic, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and Christian world views. Whatever has sustained itself on the earth for so long must have some substance in it, and it is sensible to explore that. Dismissing religious texts without examining the aporia with patience and love has often proved detrimental. It is important for us to realise that religion can’t be wished away. In fact, it is too serious an affair to be left in the hands of the Fundamentalist forces.

2) Building Bridges across Cultures and Promoting Samrasya through Intertextual Dialogues

It goes without saying that as a movement and a formalised discourse, both Marxism and Feminism trace their root to the West, but as a method of reflection, they have travelled far and wide, especially to the seats of ancient civilisations, such as India, China, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the whole Arab world.. Like Shelley’s 'West Wind' these literary theories have titillated many seeds sleeping in the deeper layers of their cultural memory Feminism in Asia has seen many avatars, and in India, China, Middle East, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Japan, Korea, Philippine, Thailand and even in the corporate headquarters like Singapore and Hong Kong, it has constantly staged psychological warfare against atrocities of all kinds, that too without shedding a single drop of blood. Struggling incessantly against both the local and the global challenges of war, terror, jingoism, mass exodus and forced dislocation, ecological crisis, lack of awareness and resources, denial of human right and distributive justice in general, this womanist ideology has led many mass movements too. In the Indian Subcontinent, one may recall, women had added distinct energy to Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement against the Colonial Rule.

3) Exploring Local Resources through Translation

Though the journal, Pashyantee, hopes to publish discursive material from all the world over, our focus would be on South Asian literature in English or Hindi translation. The supporting team of brilliant young writers and translators has been the main driving force behind the endeavour but we definitely look up to our esteemed Advisory Board and Resource Persons for providing us access to the best possible material

Why Hindi?

Hindi was the language of Freedom Movement in India. Most of the leaders had consciously chosen to speak and write in it. It was believed that some kind of a link language (other than the language of the colonial masters), was desirable in this vibrant country of multiple mother tongues. Hindi emerged as the natural choice at that point of time basically because of its inherently democratic structure which places words from all kinds of registers—tatsam, tadbhav, deshaj and videshaj on the same pedestal.

Its open-hearted inclusiveness helped it emerge also as a major tool of translation. When Mahadevi Verma (the veteran Hindi Poet of the early years of Chhayavadi Modernism or Romantic/Gandhi Modernism) joined as the Editor of Chand in 1932, she published articles in Hindi which reflected on experiences of women in the West after World War I. Interestingly, these articles are composed in Hindi with regional inflections and have been published without much editing. For instance, when a Gujarati woman writes in Hindi, she gives it a Gujarati flavour. Similar examples bring a spectrum of “Hindi -s” touched by Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu flavours. This whole idea of core Hindi with a tasty seasoning with local herbs gains greater significance in the light of the language debates of the twenties.

About this time the Hindi—Urdu debate was at its peak. Women’s journals, both the Persianized and the Sanskritized versions, staged the arguments freely. Open to vibrant debates with the feminist writers in the West, the Hindi language items came dressed up in many variations Just as saris are tied in different styles in different parts of India, Hindi also showed varieties of possibilities in arranging chunnats and pallus. An editor like Mahadevi Verma made no attempt to bulldoze the variations in the name of standardizing them in an assumed “correctness”. Her own editorials were, however, in chaste Hindi of the Allahabadi guava flavour. That she was amenable to the diversity of Hindi is in itself an important part of the story.

To underscore the politics of language and translation at that point in time, I would like to bring a strange fact of publication history to notice. Mahadevi Verma’s ‘Shrinkhala ki Kadiyan’, an independent collection of feminist articles, was published way back in 1942, seven years before Simone de Beauvoir’s significant book ‘The Second Sex’ was published in France. It comprised editorials to the ‘Chand’ and was as revolutionary a document as ‘The Second Sex’ but such is the politics of translation in the world, and such the politics of reception in the literary world that no one bothered to translate Mahadevi Varma’s work in English, the dominant language of intellectual discourse. It is fair to recall that ‘The Second Sex’ also waited for four years to be translated into English and much longer to gain full-throated acclaim. Is it then the destiny of women’s writing the world over? Turning to Mahadevi’s groundbreaking work, one should appreciate that she had published brilliant reflections on issues like ‘Women and War’, ‘Economic Independence of Women’, ‘Women and the World’ etc. and yet these passed largely unnoticed

One of the primary objectives of Pashyantee is to reach out to sister languages, and we are beginning with Hindi. It goes without saying that Translation Artists would be the key players in this endeavour and we are seeking help from creative translators who would retain the flavour of the original, local herbs.

Why Pashyantee?

Pashyantee, the name of this womanist journal, denotes, in Bhartrihari’s linguistic philosophy, the point where word and meaning merge, indistinguishably in the Ardhanareeshwar mahamudra.

In his treatise 'Vakyapadeeyam', Bhartrihari identifies four layers of language from the gross to the esoteric. Of the four layers of the linguistic subconscious that Bhartrihari talks about at length in 'Vaakyapadeeyam', we have chosen the second layer as most suited to our articulation of the Feminist Principle. From the inner folds of our Being “Pashyantee” is supposed to gush forth like the Ganga descending from the peaks of the Himalayas. In the journal too our endeavour would be to bear a calm witness to the flow of consciousness, experience, mind and body, seeking the appropriate language that male-dominated societies have failed to create.

Keeping the inadequacy of the existing patriarchal language in mind, we do acknowledge that the task of translating, deconstructing or offering the modern bhashya of the womanist texts in “standard” English or Hindi is not that easy. In breaking divisive rocks and clearing stumbling blocks from the language of the Boss, we will have to perform the tough job of the woman labourer in Nirala’s famous poem ‘Wah Todti Patthar’.

But who is afraid of hard work? At least women are not. With our immense faith both in the dignity of labour and the joint force of sisterhood, we take up the challenge, looking forward to the vibrant synergy of our team of masterminds, young scholars, old friends, major artists, women publishers, singers, dancers, theatre activists, filmmakers and eminent women writers from different Indian languages. They will be the lifeline of the journal. I am not taking names because, in my part of the world, sakhies are not addressed by official names, and the river of silence keeps them eternally bound together.

Why now?
Sweet are the uses of adversity! Because all binaries are born together, almost like Siamese twins,
every challenge is an opportunity too. Now is the time to join hands! As I say this, I am aware of the
irony of the Corona times which prompts everyone to keep others at an arm’s length! Every phone call
reminds you to wash your hands, but let’s not wash our hands off the great opportunity of coming
closer at least online. At least up in the air let us build an open-house, a home without walls where
anyone can walk in to rest under that old banyan tree in the angnaiya which art, literature and
philosophy shall never cease to be. That is the Akshayawat that survives the severest deluge and
homes-in all creatures, great and small, providing them the leafy, maternal base for a new take-off.