If you were to ask me what my top 10 books about women are, I would think very, very hard, and then give you this:
1. The Handmaid’s tale – Margaret Atwood
2. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
3. A Room of One’s own – Virginia Woolf
4. Second Sex – Simone Beauvoir
5. The Colour Purple – Alice Walker
6. I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing – Maya Angelou
7. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
8. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
9. Yuganta – Irawati Karve
10. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
To be honest, this list is both unfair and incomplete. Each writer influences her readers in diverse ways, in different ways or in some particular way. And each book differs at every read, every stage.
Little Women when read at a school-going 12 is vastly different than it is when you read it now in your 40s. For instance, Mrs March is more likely to affect you than spirited Jo.
Anna Karenina taught me not to be judgemental very early in life, for this character is essentially a victim of societal hypocrisy rather than just her self-doubts or her husband’s chauvinism and self-righteousness.
Another example of this is Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. There are many more books I wish I could tell you about, but which cannot be enumerated in a limiting list.
A woman need not have to read about another woman to know herself and femininity and womanhood better, or vice versa.
Feminism is a conviction, a way of thought, not sex bashing. It is how you are made strong: through rights and opportunities denied to many on the basis of gender.
Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing talk about how usual it is for women to not know or even realise their natural rights. That is the tragedy, the journey, the travails, the tribulations and eventually the destination.
Yet this can come out through contrasts as well. W Somerset Maugham’s short stories The Rain and The Unconquered show the fragility and the strength of the human mind. It is not gender biased. And Philip Wakem is more moving than the woman protagonist, Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. (George Eliot, incidentally, was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans who, writing in the Victorian era, used a male name to ensure that her books were taken seriously.)
I have mentioned one book by Jane Austen, but all her heroines are strong yet susceptible to mistakes. But they slip and learn. That’s why they are so delightful. Anton Chekov’s women characters are often more layered than the men.
In Mahasweta Devi’s short story Draupadi, her Dopdi is again a victim of the politics of gender, caste and institutionalised authority, but she stands unconquered. Searing.
Irawati Karve in Yuganta makes you rethink not just the epic but all its major characters – the supposedly noble and the sublime, whether it’s Karna or Kunti.
A book, frankly, should make you think, not judge.
Feature image credit: Deccan Chronicle