March 23, 2003
The New Indian Express on Sunday

Shreekumar Varma

How do you determine the sex of fiction?

There’s no way you can turn up the sheet and choose between This and That. And yet you have people who swear by their own personal scanning mechanisms. With quiet authority they inform you: “This piece of writing is by a female. You can tell at once by the insight, the sensitivity.” The implication is that the male writer lacks sensitivity, is harsher and maybe needlessly more intellectual or elaborate.

Fiction is an in-house creation. It reflects the kind of person you are, the experiences you’ve had, the people you’ve met and the places you’ve been to. If you are sensitive and aware, your writing will show that to the reader. Which is no reason to generalise and say girls are like this and boys are like that. Having made that point, however — and it’s actually a point against generalisations — we can heave a sigh and turn back and say, “Wow, you’re right, it really is a girl!” Because, in 95 percent of these cases, our home-bred scanners are right. They really can tell.

Which is why a writer like Abha Dawesar takes you by surprise. Here she is, a twenty-something from New York, writing effortlessly about a merry threesome where all participants are “white Caucasians”, and the protagonist in whose voice she writes is male! But Abha is neither Caucasian nor male. Not for a moment would our scanners have guessed the writer’s a lady and of Indian origin at that! She writes with equal passion about heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

The writing flows effortlessly and you are so caught up in the tale that it’s quite a while before you realise how far she’s taken you. It’s then that you realise there are hardly any chapters to curb your flow. And if the final pages that follow the main resolution seem to meander it’s only because she’s being faithful to the uncertainty of her hero’s next step. It’s called The Three Of Us. And you’ll never guess who wrote it. It’s not that it’s sexless writing, you feel certain all along that it’s been written by a male till you re-check the writer’s bio-sketch.

Sticking with the sensitivity of female writers, meet Shinie Antony. She’s from Kerala and has seen places in the course of her journalistic career. Barefoot And Pregnant is a collection of independent stories though certain characters are adventurous enough to cross over from one to another story. Here is a curious combination — a feminine sensibility which sparkles in isolation as it watches (cynically, amusedly or helplessly) the blustering bravado of its male counterpart aligned to a series of often brutally honest reactions to intimate personal predicaments.

The first heroine’s response to her child and the state of motherhood with all its pain, irritants and messy inevitabilities is at complete variance with the common ideal of motherhood that, like the sun, it washes away all the dark clouds of one’s life.

There is one story about a family in the rough and tumble of rural poverty — a drunken father, an unmarried but hopeful daughter and a series of fateful events that leave their lives in tatters. Even as you wince with the pain of their failures you are smiling at the author’s pithy comments and observations. Another one, about a lost son, leaks into a subsequent story of a brother's death and an unexpected love where you are suddenly confronted with familiar characters from previous pages.

The starkness in the lives she describes is dispelled by humour, often atrocious, often dark, but funny all the time. Shinie’s humour is irreverent and her mind sharp. The rapid association of ideas and the wordplay are stunning and quite often remind you of Arundhati Roy. At times, though, the packaging is so dazzling that you look back and find the sense has missed you altogether. Or that a weak situation has been bolstered by declamatory dynamics. Nevertheless, you can hear the author’s mind ticking away long after you’ve finished reading the book.

The Girl Brigade is alive and kicking. In fact, it looks as if it’s ruling the roost right now. While the boys are probably hiding behind their forthcoming books, the girls are up and about.

We’ve had Cauvery Madhavan and Indu Sundaresan come down to India recently from Ireland and the US respectively on reading sprees. The former’s account of an exotic bus tour that progressively exposes the cracks in a marital relationship (The Uncoupling) and the latter’s curiosity that lets her peek into the life and times of Nur Jahan (The Twentieth Wife), are different and interesting enough to draw and hook the initial readership. They are both articulate and market-savvy and are eager to be accepted by their native country.

At the readings they engaged pleasantly with the audience and laid bare their inspirations and provocations. (During the second reading, someone commented: “A week after the twentieth wife, we have the uncoupling!”) It is clear that the two women have set out on well-planned careers, knowing their route and gauging their readership.

I don’t really know why I have clubbed these two writers together, perhaps it is because they are both women and there are many similarities in their approach to fiction-writing despite the obvious difference in subjects. Perhaps it is because of the way they both come across as competent professionals. Perhaps it is because they are both expatriate writers. (Or perhaps it’s simply because they came and read within a week of each other.)

The Girl Brigade is admittedly unique. And easily recognisable. They do bring a certain sensitivity to their interpretation of life and relationships that can be identified as being distinct from the male perspective. Risking another terrible generalisation, I’d go so far as to say that the male writer tells stories while the female writer maps relationships. It is when they cross over that your interest sparks. What Rushdie began and Roy nurtured is now being kept alive by a host of practitioners including old faithfuls like Ghosh and Seth, and the middle-order consisting of Upamanyu Chatterjee, Amit Chaudhary and the like.

And then there is the new task force, the latest legion. This, I feel (even without the aid of a statistician), belongs largely to the Girl Brigade. They are out there and at it, and there's more to come. And since we are generalising anyway, the future looks pretty pretty.

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The girl brigade