Suniti Namjoshi, The Fabulous Feminist

From Saturday’s Hindustan Times.

Incidentally, if anyone who reads this has a copy of The Mothers of Maya Diip that I could borrow I’d be very grateful. I’m a little horrified that there exists an Indian feminist spec-fic-ish novel that I had never heard of until this past month.

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For many readers of my generation Suniti Namjoshi is one of those writers more often seen cited than read. We’re vaguely aware of her importance in any late-20th century history of Indian writing in English, but the bulk of her work has been out of print and hard to access for a very long time.

Hopefully that will change with the publication of The Fabulous Feminist. This collection contains extensive extracts from Namjoshi’s fiction and poetry to date, from 1981’s Feminist Fables up to her recent, and as yet unpublished work.

Namjoshi’s works often take on and respond to already-existing narratives and are replete with allusion; Aesop, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf are all invoked here. The fable may be a moral-centric form of storytelling, but in the fables that give the collection its name Namjoshi’s morals are complex and biting.

Another feature of Namjoshi’s work that is much in evidence here is a willingness to examine and even to gently mock her own background and identity politics and how they intersect with her feminism. The Conversations of Cow* is a satire on earnest lesbian feminists (Namjoshi confesses to being among their number) but also about being brown in a white-majority culture. Goja contains an honest exploration of class privilege and the question of how far it is possible for a writer in Namjoshi’s position to speak for or about working class women. Each section is prefaced by a short introduction by the writer, illuminating and littered with personal anecdotes.

But all of this brings up the question of editing. The Fabulous Feminist is subtitled “A Suniti Namjoshi Reader” but there’s no evidence of any editorial selection beyond that of Namjoshi herself. It is rather unusual for an author to edit a reader of her own work; to decide, effectively, which parts of a large body of work are the most significant. Some of these choices aren’t entirely felicitous, as when we get three chapters from the middle of her work of speculative fiction, The Mothers of Maya Diip. These longer books are ill-served by the editorial decision to extract from all of the author’s works.

Despite these occasional hiccups, though, The Fabulous Feminist is a joy to read. In an ideal world this book would trigger a Namjoshi revival and we could hope to see all of her work in print again; for now, this is a wonderful substitute.

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*Because I am lazy, the review I sent in, and which got published, had this as “Conversations of Cow”. Apologies.

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