Modern Indian Women Writers in English

by Antonia Navarro-Tejero

The efforts of several generations of Indian authors writing in English have resulted in international success, particularly since the publication of Midnight's Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie, and the Indian novel in English has finally been accepted as an important literary endeavour. Indian women writers have begun to gain recognition, largely thanks to Arundhati Roy winning the Booker Prize for The God of Small Things in 1997. Behind this success lies a social history, and a body of other work to which little critical attention has yet been paid.

This is a sample article from The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914 edited by Ian Mackean. For more details click here The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914
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Traditionally, the work of Indian women writers has been undervalued due to patriarchal assumptions about the superior worth of male experience. One factor contributing to this prejudice is the fact that most of these women write about the enclosed domestic space, and women’s perceptions of their experience within it. Consequently, it is assumed that their work will automatically rank below the works of male writers who deal with ‘weightier’ themes. Additionally, Indian women writers in English are victims of a second prejudice, vis-à-vis their regional counterparts. Since proficiency in English is available only to writers of the intellectual, affluent, educated classes, a frequent judgement is made that the writers, and their works, belong to a high social strata, and are cut off from the reality of Indian life. The majority of these novels depict the psychological suffering of the frustrated housewife, this subject matter often being considered superficial compared to the depiction of the repressed and oppressed lives of women of the lower classes that we find in regional authors writing in Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu, and other native languages.

English formal education in India

English education was introduced to India in the nineteenth century, serving as an ideological force behind social reform and control. There was an imperial mission of educating colonial subjects in the literature and thought of England, a mission that in the long run served to strengthen western cultural hegemony. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Education Minute of 1835 is regarded as a crucial document in this history. His arguments were based on an assumption of the innate superiority of English culture, a key sentence in his Minute being:

[we] must at present do our best to form a class of interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.

The establishment of English colleges in India led to the creation of an English-educated, and predominantly Hindu, elite, who eventually became critical of both their own religious orthodoxies, such as the caste system and child brides, and of British rule. The British-style education also had the effect of linking Indian writers to literary traditions of the West, enabling Indian writers writing in English to reach an audience in Europe as well as in India.

In the nineteenth century, both progressive and orthodox reformers supported female education in India, believing that social evils could be eliminated through education. However, the concept of education was limited to producing good homemakers and perpetuating orthodox ideology, as women were believed to support the traditional values of Indian society. Christian missionaries and British rulers, especially in Bengal where the British had made their first inroads in the mid-nineteenth century, started girls’ schools, and in the 1880s, Indian women started to graduate from universities. The vast majority of girls, however, did not attend school, as education for women was mainly confined to the larger towns and cities.

The English language in India

Many critics see the use of the English language in India as one among many postcolonial mimic activities, resulting from the imposition of the English language as a part of British colonialist intervention in Indian education, language and literature. In India, some critics see the hegemony of English language and literature as a form of continuing cultural imperialism. Others argue that the widespread use, prestige, and expansion of English in India in recent decades are attributable to the post-war hegemony of the United States rather than to the British Empire, that is, its growing global currency as a medium of communication.

However, the English language can alienate a text from its culture of origin, a view put forward by the Indian author Shashi Deshpande. She bases her argument on the idea that the English language is in some ways harmful to Indian culture not because it is the language of the ex-colonizers, but because it has become the language of the privileged, elite classes in India. She admits that when she writes in English she is aware that her work will reach out to only a few English-speaking readers, most of whom will be thinking the way she does. The problem is that if an author writes in English with the purpose of changing social traditions, the language excludes the women whose involvement is most needed, English having no place in those women’s daily lives. Another problem is the fact that writing in English also means using a language which most, or at least many, of one’s characters do not speak. However, for many Indian authors English is no more than the medium through which they express themselves, and through which they can reach an international audience.

Indian women authors

Prior to the rise of the novel, many Indian women composed poetry and short stories in Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada. Women were the chief upholders of a rich oral tradition of story-telling, through myths, legends, songs and fables. Once literacy began to filter through society, those stories were transformed into poetry and drama. The novel was not at first a common form, perhaps because the majority of women had less access to education than men. It was not until prose began to be used in the late nineteenth century by Bengali writers who had been exposed to European culture that the novel form took hold in India.

The volume of Indian literature written in English is smaller than that written in the various regional languages, and spans a smaller range of time, having only commenced with the spread of the English language and education. But in the last two decades there has been an astonishing flowering of Indian women writing in English, the literature of this period being published both in India and elsewhere. The authors are mostly western educated, middle-class women who express in their writing their discontent with the plight of upper-caste and class traditional Hindu women trapped in repressive institutions such as child-marriage, dowry, prohibitions on women's education, arranged marriages, suttee and enforced widowhood.


Toru Dutt (1856-77) was the first Indian woman poet to write in English, and her work depicts archetypes of Indian womanhood, such as Sita and Savitri, showing women in suffering, self-sacrificing roles, reinforcing conventional myths in a patriotic manner. Her first book, published when she was twenty, was a book of verse translations from French, A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields: Verse Translations and Poems (1876).

Kamala Das originated a vigorous and poignant feminine confessional poetry, in which a common theme is the exploration of the man-woman relationship. This style was subsequently taken up by other women poets such as Gauri Deshpande, Suniti Namjoshi, and Chitra Narendran.

The predicament of a single woman, spinster or separated, has also been a prominent theme in women’s poetry. Tara Patel shows in Single Woman (1991) that in the harsh reality of the world, the quest for companionship without strings is a difficult one. Anna Sujata Matha in Attic of Night (1991) writes of the trauma of separation and the travails of a separated woman. Poetry for her seems to be an act of transcendence of agony, in the name of survival. But the image of woman she projects is strong and determined, and she argues for a sense of community, justice and companionship.

While in women's poetry we hear the voice of the New Woman’s definition of herself and a quest for her own identity, we hear the conventional male voice and see a conventional, often negative portrayal of women, in men’s poetry. An example is the six volumes of Nissim Ezekiel’s poems, which depict women as mother, wife, whore, sex object or seductress.


Many Indian women novelists have explored female subjectivity in order to establish an identity that is not imposed by a patriarchal society. Thus, the theme of growing up from childhood to womanhood, that is, the Bildungsroman, is a recurrent strategy. Santha Rama Rau’s Remember the House (1956), Ruth Prawar Jhabvala’s first novel To Whom She Will (1955) and her later Heat and Dust (1975) which was awarded the Booker Prize, and Kamala Markandaya’s Two Virgins (1973) are good examples. Sex is implied in these novels, but depicted more explicitly in Socialite Evenings (1989) by Shobha De, in which she describes the exotic sex lives of the high society in Mumbai.

As in poetry, the image of the New Woman and her struggle for an identity of her own also emerges in the Indian English novel. Such a struggle needs support structures outside the family to enable women to survive. Nayantara Sahgal uses this theme as the nucleus of Rich Like Us (1986). Other novels, such as Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli (1977), look more towards issues of traditional Indian culture, particularly the debate on female education. Another example of the western educated female protagonist’s quest for her cultural roots is Githa Hariharan’s The Thousand Faces of Night (1992).

A number of Indian women novelists made their debut in the 1990s, producing novels which revealed the true state of Indian society and its treatment of women. These writers were born after Indian independence, and the English language does not have colonial associations for them. Their work is marked by an impressive feel for the language, and an authentic presentation of contemporary India, with all its regional variations. They generally write about the urban middle class, the stratum of society they know best.

Many of these authors, such as Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in The Mistress of Spices (1997), use magic realism in their novels. Suniti Namjoshi stands out for her use of fantasy and surrealism, and Anuradha Marwah-Roy’s Idol Love (1999) presents a chilling picture of an Indian dystopia in the twenty-first century. Other novels deal with various aspects of college life, such as Meena Alexander’s Nampally House (1991), and Rani Dharker’s The Virgin Syndrome (1997). Another theme to emerge is that of the lives of women during India’s struggle for independence, as seen for example in Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters (1998).

In the field of regional fiction, four women writers, Arundhati Roy, Anita Nair, Kamala Das, and Susan Viswanathan, have put the southern state of Kerala on the fictional map, while the culture of other regions has been represented by other women writers.

Anita Desai, in her psychological novels, presents the image of a suffering woman preoccupied with her inner world, her sulking frustration and the storm within: the existential predicament of a woman in a male dominated society. Through such characters, she makes a plea for a better way of life for women. Her novels have Indians as central characters, and she alternates between female-centered and male-centered narrative. Her later novels, written since she moved to the USA, reveal all the characteristics of diasporic fiction, that is, a concern with the fate of immigrants, and a growing distance from the reality of India, which is viewed from the outside.

As early as 1894 in Kamala, Krupabai Satthianadhan explored the cultural clash suffered by a Hindu woman who is given a western education in India, and the experience of being caught between two cultures has remained a prominent theme in writing by Indian woman. There are many Indian women writers based in the USA, Canada, Britain, and other parts of the world. Some are recent immigrants, while others, such as Jhumpa Lahiri, are second generation immigrants. These authors write about their situation in cross-cultural contexts - states of 'in-betweeness'.

Expatriate representation has been questioned on several counts. Most expatriate writers have a weak grasp of actual conditions in contemporary India, and tend to recreate it through the lens of nostalgia, writing about ‘imaginary homelands’. Distancing lends objectivity, but it can also lead to the ossification of cultural constructs, and even if memory is sharp and clear, the expatriate is not directly in contact with the reality of India.

The East/West confrontation, or the clash between tradition and modernity, is the impulse behind the works of acclaimed migrant writers, such as Meera Syal, Anita Rau Badami, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Uma Parameswaran, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Anjana Appachana, and Kiran Desai.

The theme of migration that leads to self-discovery, with a negation of the traditions of the country of origin, is a recurrent one among migrant authors, Bharti Kirchner’s Shiva Dancing (1998), Ameena Meer’s Bombay Talkie (1994), and Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989) being good examples.

Short stories

Alongside poetry and novels, many collections of short stories, and anthologies of works by Indian women around the world have appeared, such as Truth Tales (1986), Truth Tales 2: The Slate of Life (1990), Other Words: New Writing by Indian Women (1992), Right of Way (1988), Flaming Spirit (1994), and The Inner Courtyard (1990).

Conclusion: the changing image of women in Indian fiction

The Hindu moral code known as The Laws of Manu denies woman an existence apart from that of her husband or his family, and since the publication of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Rajmohan’s Wife in 1864 a significant number of authors have portrayed Indian women as long-suffering wives and mothers silenced by patriarchy. The ideal of the traditional, oppressed woman persisted in a culture permeated by religious images of virtuous goddesses devoted to their husbands, the Hindu goddesses Sita and Savitri serving as powerful cultural ideals for women. In mythical terms, the dominant feminine prototype is the chaste, patient, self-denying wife, Sita, supported by other figures such as Savitri, Draupadi and Gandhari. When looking at these narratives silence/speech can be a useful guide to interpreting women’s responses to patriarchal hegemony. Silence is a symbol of oppression, a characteristic of the subaltern condition, while speech signifies self-expression and liberation.

The image of women in fiction has undergone a change during the last four decades. Women writers have moved away from traditional portrayals of enduring, self-sacrificing women toward conflicted female characters searching for identity, no longer characterized and defined simply in terms of their victim status. In contrast to earlier novels, female characters from the 1980s onwards assert themselves and defy marriage and motherhood.

Recent writers depict both the diversity of women and the diversity within each woman, rather than limiting the lives of women to one ideal. The novels emerging in the twenty-first century furnish examples of a whole range of attitudes towards the imposition of tradition, some offering an analysis of the family structure and the caste system as the key elements of patriarchal social organization. They also re-interpret mythology by using new symbols and subverting the canonic versions. In conclusion, the work of Indian women writers is significant in making society aware of women’s demands, and in providing a medium for self-expression and, thus, re-writing the History of India.

Author: Antonia Navarro-Tejero, Ph.D. Antonia Navarro-Tejero is an Associate Professor at the Universidad de Cordoba (Spain) and formerly a Visiting Professor at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad (India). She holds a Ph.D. in English (Indian women authors), and has published widely on caste and gender issues in India.

This is a sample article from The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914 edited by Ian Mackean and published by Hodder Arnold. For more details click here

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