In 1972, John Berger wrote in his landmark book, Ways of Seeing, about how women are objectified in the arts. In 1975, the film critic Laura Mulvey coined the term, “male gaze“. She was referring to how women are depicted, in both the visual arts and literature, from the male, heterosexual point of view as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. This sexual inequality, Mulvey posited, reinforces the asymmetry of socio-political power between men and women by representing women as dominated, passive objects and men as dominant, active viewers.
In the film medium, this male viewer has three perspectives: the man behind the camera; the other male characters within the story; and the male viewer/spectator looking at it all. In the literary arts, the male gaze has, similarly, three perspectives: the male writer; the other male characters within the story; and the male reader.
It is the above literary male gaze that Rakhshanda Jalil has focused on in assembling a new anthology of short stories, Preeto & Other Stories, by modern male Indian writers and translated from Urdu. As a writer, literary critic, historian, and literary translator, Jalil has published at least 15 books and many scholarly articles and journalistic essays. This anthology is yet another excellent addition to her longstanding and ongoing contributions to Hindi-Urdu literature and culture.
In her introduction, Jalil writes about her main goal with this anthology:
For the purpose of this study, I wanted to make a selection from modern writers. In a world where more women are joining the workforce, where ever more are stepping out from their secluded and cloistered world and can be physically seen in larger numbers, I was curious to see how, then, do male writers view and consequently present or represent the women of their world. […] I wanted to pick this thread, of men seeing women as inhabitants of the same world that they live in.
She goes on to give a useful overview of how women have been portrayed in Urdu short fiction (starting with the realistic fiction of “the four pillars of the Urdu short story”: Saadat Hasan Manto; Ismat Chughtai; Rajinder Singh Bedi; Krishan Chander) and poetry by both male and female writers. This is important context-setting, because it is the literary heritage of the writers featured here.
Each of these writers has been selected by Jalil primarily because he wrote extensively, if sometimes idealistically and sentimentally, about women. The women protagonists vary from young girls to old women. The range of settings extends from the rural to the urban. Almost all of these works are also of the social realism genre — with themes like incest, extra-marital affairs, marital abuse, single motherhood, asexuality, male-female friendships — with just the faint touches of the fantastic here and there. The prose styles are a wide-ranging mix: from ornate to folksy to journalistic to interior monologue.
The point-of-view narrator in most of the stories is a man who focuses his gaze on a particular woman: ‘Woman’ by Bedi; ‘Preeto’ by Chander; ‘Shonali’ by Rifat; ‘Wedding Night’ by Ratan Singh; ‘Awaiting the Zephyr’ by Ashraf; ‘Driftwood’ by Deepak Budki; ‘A Bit Odd’ by Izhar Ahmad Gulzar; ‘Asexual’ by Ali Abbas Husaini; ‘The Well of Serpents’ by Shah Alam Siddiqui. (This story is in a collection titled ‘Bain’ meaning lamentations. The story had the same title too but the translator changed it to ‘The Well of Serpents’.) Considering this sub-group of nine stories together, one gets the impression that the writers, realizing they need to look beyond the flaws and frailties of a woman’s beauty (often a youthful one) and morality, fixate perhaps a bit too much on her strengths and virtues.
Where the story is narrated from the woman’s point of view, it shows how she is subjected to and responds to the male gaze around her. Such is the case with Gulzar’s story ‘Man’, ‘A Heavy Stone’ by Ehsas, ‘The Unexpected Disaster’ by Haque, ‘Ash in the Fire’ by Samad. This handful of stories also illustrate how it isn’t simply men who struggle to look beyond their narrow, stereotyping lens. The women in these stories are also grappling with their own conditioned and internalized male gaze.
There are two related questions we must ask of such anthologies. First: what do such stories tell us about how literature both reflects society (of its time, at least) and influences it? Second: does such storytelling help to humanize women so that we see them as active characters driving plot and storyline rather than primarily supporting/enabling the male characters to do so?
Certainly, all the variants of the male gaze presented in these stories are still deeply prevalent in many parts of India even today. Patriarchal ideologies and gender power differentials continue to drive social value systems such that they reinforce male entitlement and privilege and deny female agency. Due to this, while almost all the women in these stories are central to the plots and storylines, they are still shown primarily in relation to the men in their lives rather than acting independently of them. Unfortunately, this latter phenomenon can also be observed in recent award-winning, much-lauded Indian fiction — even, in some cases, that which is written by women writers, as described in this essay (Scroll.in, 25 November, 2018).
So what of such woman writers, their women characters, and their women readers? One of Jalil’s earlier anthologies — a 2007 work titled Neither Night Nor Day (HarperCollins India, 2008) — had focused on 13 contemporary Pakistani women writers to explore how they viewed the place of women in the world. Women too, often, look at themselves through the eyes of men. Last year, Lili Loofbourow published an insightful essay about this at the Virginia Quarterly Review, coining the narrative corollary of the male gaze as the “male glance”. Going beyond the long-time tradition of “grading aesthetics on a gendered curve”, she writes:
If our ability to see detail in a woman’s face is magnified by our visual habits, our ability to see complexity in a woman’s story is diminished by our reading habits. […] The male glance is how comedies about women become chick flicks. It’s how discussions of serious movies with female protagonists consign them to the unappealing stable of “strong female characters.” It’s how soap operas and reality television become synonymous with trash. It tricks us into pronouncing mothers intrinsically boring, and it quietly convinces us that female friendships come in two strains: conventional jealousy or the even less appealing non-plot of saccharine love. The third narrative possibility, frenemy-cum-friend, is an only slightly less shallow conversion myth. Who consumes these stories? Who could want to?” […] The male glance is the opposite of the male gaze. Rather than linger lovingly on the parts it wants most to penetrate, it looks, assumes, and moves on. It is, above all else, quick. Under its influence, we rejoice in our distant diagnostic speed. The glance is social and ethical the way advice columns are social and ethical, a communal pulse declaring—briefly, definitively, and with minimal information—which narrative textures constitute turgid substance, which diastolic fluff. This is the male glance’s sub rosa work, and it feeds an inchoate, almost erotic hunger to know without attending—to omnisciently not-attend, to reject without taking the trouble of analytical labor because our intuition is so searingly accurate it doesn’t require it.
The tendency to look, assume, and dismiss many female themes and tropes in fiction without taking the trouble of analytical labor is universal, of course. In a country like India, it is many times worse because the movie and TV industries carry more influence than literature in almost every regional language. In the film medium, the male gaze and the male glance both remain firmly-entrenched — the latter more insidiously so. Though a new wave of women scriptwriters, producers, directors, and actors has been effective in bringing about some refreshing changes, progress has been slow. The recent #MeTooIndia movement has proved this by not yet resulting in significant consequences for any of the long-time and well-known (among the whisper networks, at least) sexual harassers. If anything, some of the women who have raised their voices to call out such men or support other women are dealing with adverse impact to their careers.
In the literary world, a handful of male writers have been called out for their longstanding egregious behaviors. But the publishing ecosystem, smaller and more incestuous than the movie/TV ecosystem, also does not promote or reward transparency and outspokenness. As long as such entitled and privileged men continue to direct and dictate the country’s artistic productions with impunity, we cannot hope for any meaningful lessening of the male gaze and its many associated socio-political problems.
Given all of the above, the impact of the rare collection or anthology like Jalil’s here is likely to be very limited. What is needed, in India is an entire slew of such literary works both in English (whether original or translated) and in the regional languages. It would be more powerful if these works came from women writers with different perspectives. For this to happen, publishers and editors will need to be more flexible about what they consider “saleable” or “serious” literature. Readers the world over, not just in India, will need to demand more such works. Further, we all will need to be more self-aware of our cognitively lazy reading habits.
A few words about the translations: While the technical range of the selected stories varies greatly due to the preoccupations and skill levels of the original authors, the quality of the translation work is notable (with the exception of the odd copyediting error here and there.) All the translators — including heavy-hitter names like Daisy Rockwell, Nabina Das, and Rakhshanda Jalil herself — have ensured clarity, accuracy, and fidelity without watering down the original author’s intended ambiguity or cultural references. That said, one of the usual challenges inherent in translated anthologies with multiple writers and translators does show up here: a few language inconsistencies across different stories.