As the title suggests, Ellen Brinks’ book ‘Anglophone Indian women writers 1870-1920’ is a study of Anglophone literature written by five prominent Indian women writers during the colonial British Raj. Brinks’ divides the book into five chapters dedicating a chapter for each writer chronologically.
The charm of this book is the way in which Brinks has created a space to take a fresh look at the works of the Indian women writers with new enquiry. For instance Brinks questions, ‘how did these women learn English to such a degree of fluency? What made these women choose to write their literary works in English? Who were their imagined audiences? How were their works received? and ‘how would the study of these writers adjust our understandings of the cultural positioning and politics of Indiana women under colonialism? In an attempt to answer some of these questions Brinks presents context, detail and complexity that allow her to answer these questions thoughtfully.
The first chapter is about Toru Dutt and her translations of the Sanskrit Vedic text, Dutt is thought to be amongst the earliest Indian women writers, some of her translations include ‘Vishnu Purana’, ‘Dhruva’, ‘The Royal Ascetic and the Hind’ and ‘Savitri’. Here, I think Brinks writes an informative and detailed account of Toru Dutt’s life (1856-77) and presents her writing in the context of the time in which she wrote. Brinks captures some of the complexities that Dutt may have experienced during her short lived life, gleaned from letters she wrote to her friend in England, the letters capture the shift from seemingly being a pro-European to becoming more protective of her India. I especially liked Dutt’s translations of Savitri a narrative to symbolise ideal wifehood, where once women in the Vedic time possessed freedoms that are now lost.
The second chapter is dedicated to Krupabai Satthianandhan, and more specifically her novel called ‘Kamala: a story of Hindu life’ (1894) described as ‘a realist novel that records female agency’. Again, I learned a lot about the context in which Satthianandhan was writing from, Brinks uncovers the parallels in the novel with the famous child marriage case of Rukhmabai which dates back to 1884. The novel deals with concepts of women’s agency, extended family conflict, infidelity, natal family, marriage and education.
The third chapter takes a look at Pandita Ramabai’s (1858-1922) essays on famine which provides an intimate account of the struggles of the Indian famines of 1873-7 and 1896-1901. This chapter deals with poverty, famine, widowhood, trafficking and prostitution and child marriage. Brinks identifies the shift and change of Ramabai beliefs which is reflected in her writing for instance her aim prior to the 1890s was to challenge the Hindu patriarchal systems on educating upper caste child widows, this later evolved to include ‘socially ostracised and homeless women’ after her experience with the famine which left many destitute. Ramabai’s writing offers a personal account of education and economic empowerment of Indian women, and the treatment of widows in her two famous essays, ‘theory of Indian women (1883) and the high caste Hindu women (1887). Ramabai’s essay ‘Famine Experiences 1887’ and ‘to the friends of the Mukti schools and mission (1901) – speaks about the experiences of famines in India. This chapter provides a lot of information on the famines, recounting the failures of the British administration and increased trafficking of women.
All the while Brinks does a good job in drawing together similarities and contrasts between the five writers. In chapter four, an account of Cornelia Sorabji’s life and work, Brinks details Sorabji’s days spent in Oxford from passages extracted from her letters home, describing Sarabji as an adoptive Indian child and daughter to imperial British families where she was taken in by and who she socialised with during her time in England. The chapter includes Sorabji’s take on Kipling and Flora Annie Steel’s writing on India and highlights the strengths and weaknesses of their work, overall, however she finds they fail to depict the ‘real India’.
Lastly, chapter five is called ‘The Voice of India: Sarojini Naidu’s Nationalist Poetics’ presents some differences with Sorabji, in that Naidu places herself in the context of Mother India, gaining independence from imperial powers, unlike Sorabji, who is not at all interested in forming bridges between the Indian and British cultures. Naidu’s writings are rooted inwardly, towards the diversity of India. What is interesting to learn in this chapter is that most people would not know of Naidu’s literary works as it is overshadowed by her political activism.
In conclusion Brinks departs from a limited explanation for why Indian women wrote in the English language, a dominant explanation has been a way to show assimilation to western cultural values, an alternative explanation Brinks offers in this book is that by using English language, they were able to in a sense undercut dominant orientalist authority on India, Indian women, Indian culture, and colonialist translations of Sanskrit texts.
This book goes beyond describing the writers as just converted Hindu women – a process linked with colonialism, in fact this book highlights the very complexities that were being experienced by some (probably higher caste/educated) Indian women based on Ramabai, Dutt and Satthianandhan experiences, a lifelong attachment to certain traditional aspects of Hindu culture manifested in one way or another even after conversion to Christianity. This is an example of how Brinks offers a detailed, more diverse account into the lives of Indian women reformers but also highlighting the complexities they (must have) negotiated across time, space, culture and religious barriers.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in India, feminism, Indian literature, and Indian colonial history, they would be coming away with knowledge on Hindu law, Hindu religion, insight into the politics of translations of Vedic scriptures, national reform agenda, colonialism, the imperial project and of course a chance to really celebrate the works and lives of the five prominent Indian women writers.
Jaya Gajparia is Ph.D candidate with the Arts and Human Science department at London South Bank University. She is currently working on her doctorate research on urban gender poverty in Mumbai, India where she adopts alternative methodologies to locate everyday experiences of gendered poverty. The research is funded by the Institute of Social Science Research (ISSR) (2011 -2014). Jaya has also worked for a number of years in the voluntary and community sector in England working on disability, age, gender, and human rights projects and has held several volunteer positions working for charities in India, Cambodia and England.