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Recovering Women's Lives

Urvashi Butalia

By Parvathi Menon
Leftword, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 160, Rs. 95.00

Edited by Leela Gulati and Jashodhara Bagchi
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 274, Rs. 340.00

By Brinda Karat
Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 2005, pp. 304, Rs. 275.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

In the prologue to her brilliant book, Women on the Margins, historian Natalie Zemon Davis (better known for The Return of Martin Guerre) describes an imaginary confrontation with the three women whose lives she seeks to rescue from obscurity. What does she mean, they ask her and each other, by first hunting them out and then placing them next to each other ? ‘I’ve read it,’ says one, speaking of the book, ‘I’m scandalized. Imagine her enclosing me in a book with such godless women.’   ‘What do you mean?’ asks the second indignantly, protesting that she is not godless at all. In fact, she asserts that God has always been on her lips. ‘You can’t understand a word I wrote,’ she adds. ‘I am completely out of place here,’ says the third, ‘ these women were not lovers of nature… this is not my setting.’   Confused, the author begs her protagonists to give her a chance. She’s trying to write about gender hierarchies. ‘Gender hierarchies ?’ asks one, ‘What are gender hierarchies ?’ So she tries to explain, elaborating on gender, and hierarchy, and margins, and silence, and adventure. It’s the adventure of their lives that she wants to describe. ‘It sounds to me, historian Davis, as though you’re the one who wanted adventure,’ says woman No. 3 And Davis agrees, saying, as countless feminist historians have done, ‘I wanted to write of your hopes for paradise on earth, for remade worlds, since I have had these hopes too…’. She wanted to write about what it felt like to be in the margins, she says, and they pooh pooh the idea. But she persists, ‘Give me another chance,’ she says, ‘read it again.’   No such debate is likely to take place among the women we meet in two recently published books (Breaking Barriers: Stories of Twelve Women by Parvathi Menon and A Space of Her Own: Personal Narratives of Twelve Women edited by Leela Gulati and Jashodhara Bagchi), or indeed between them and their authors, although the exercise they engage in is similar in many respects. Parvathi Menon profiles twelve women, all from within the Left movement, constructing short profiles on the basis of interviews, and occasionally on the basis of published material or fragments of papers and speeches. The exercise Leela Gulati and Jashodhara Bagchi are engaged in and whose results they offer here is somewhat different. Their ...

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