SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 13 JANUARY, 2018
Shoi Mela Boi Mela: Women Against Violence
Few outside Kolkata are aware that the city hosts one unique event that does not happen, to our knowledge, in any other part of the country. It is called Shoi Mela Boi Mela which is a two-day fair and book exhibition held every year in the month of January.
Founded by noted academic, scholar and author Nabaneeta Sen, Shoi Mela Boi Mela celebrated its 14th anniversary this year and was held at the city’s cultural complex Sisir Mancha alongside the book fair that took place at the Gaganendra Pradarshanshala next door. This year, the theme of the festival was Creative Women Against Violence. This year, noted women’s organisation Swayam collaborated with Soi Mela to co-host the event.
Every year, the festival invites and felicitates two significant women writers, poets, playwrights and scholars from other parts of the country so that the creative endeavour does not remain confined within West Bengal and to Bengali creativity in word and picture.
In 2014, the organization felicitated Urmla Pawar and Shashi Deshpande. Urmila Pawar (b. 1945) received an MA from the University of Bombay and for many years worked in the department of labor welfare for the government of Maharashtra. She is the author of two acclaimed short story collections, Sahava Bot and Chauthi Bhint. With Meenakshi Moon, she has coauthored a book on the role of women in the Dalit movement. She is also a former actor of radical Marathi theatre and a playwright.
Shashi Deshpande who writes in English and based in Bengaluru does not need introduction. Daughter of the renowned Kannada dramatist and Sanskrit scholar Shriranga, Shashi has authored around a dozen novels, several short story collections, four books for children and one book on essays. She has won many awards including the Sahitya Academy Award and the Padmashri.
This “mela” is accompanied by a wonderful book exhibition comprised of books – non-fiction, fiction of all kinds, poetry and plays authored by women eminent, known, relatively new and women making their debut into creative writing. Around seven new books were released on the first day marking the debut of blooming poets, playwrights and fiction writers on the city, all in Bengali.
This year, Soi Mela, the word “soi” meaning “female soulmate” commonly used between two childhood female playmates or confidantes, invited two eminent women writers, poets, namely Kamla Bhasin and Mrinal Pande who flew down from Delhi to participate in a very interesting, interactive discussion on the topic. Bhasin is an Indian developmental feminist activist, poet, author and social scientist. Her work spans 35 years, focussed on gender, education, human development and the media.
Pande has the distinction of being the first ever woman to become the first woman editor of the Hindi daily Hindustan and later headed Prasar Bharati. Her creative works span the entire media from print to television to digitalized world of communication. “Creative Women Against Violence.”
Joining them were two eminent women. One of them was Irom Chanu Sharmila, also known as the Iron Lady from Manipur who went on fast for 16 long years as her way of demanding the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). She began her fast in Malom on 5 November, and vowed not to eat, drink, comb her hair or look in a mirror until AFSPA was repealed. But the Act that was applied to several states in Assam since November 1990 continues to function in several North Eastern States.
The other guest was Anita Agnihotri, not only was a high-ranking bureaucrat with the Government at the centre till she retired last year, is also a crusading poet and author of short stories and novels originally written in Bengali and translated widely across the world in English, German, Swedish and many Indian languages.
Agnihotri draws inspiration for many of her stories from the have-nots of this country – the landless peasants, the migrant workers, the abandoned wives, the unemployed. Yet, she does not fall into the trap of ‘reporting’ – this is fiction that serves better to illuminate India than most ‘factual’ pieces could. Both her poetry and prose are distinguished by a delicate but acutely observed response to nature, genuine commitment to social issues and a love of people who have faced existential difficulties with dignity and grace.
The moderator, Antara Deb Sen, is no less an eminent litterateur and journalist in her own right. She founded The Little Magazine, an independent journal of ideas and letters, the first Indian magazine to focus on contemporary South Asian literature and offer it in English translation. She is also a literary critic and translator, a newspaper columnist and commentator on the media, society, politics, culture and development.
The discussion on Creative Women Against Violence began on the right note with Mrinal Pande stating that patriarchy was at the root of every kind of violence against women. She added that violence is structured into patriarchy and that individual violence, social violence and institutional violence are all interconnected that together perpetuate and promote violence of all kinds, including invisible violence mainly against women. Bhasin took over from Pande to sing her famous creation – the azadi chant, that can be sung in chorus by everyone in a collected crowd. This was sung by the JNU rebel leader Kanhaiya when he rose against the unfair and humiliating treatment on some class of students by the JNU administration. The chant originated as a feminist number against patriarchy. It was evolved and popularised by well-known feminist Kamla Bhasin in the women’s movement all over south Asia. The “Azaadi” number dates back to 1991, at the Women’s Studies Conference in Kolkata’s Jadavpur University.
When a young man from the audience asked Bhasin in what way can men rise against violence against women and patriarchal practices, she made a very interesting point. She said that men should help women in all their multiple activities such as looking after small children, feeding them, cooking and cleaning and doing everything that is deemed to be the duty and responsibility of women, then men will begin to understand what the woman have to go through mandatorily everyday just because they are women.
Irom Sharmila made a pertinent point by saying that it was necessary to address the issue of violence against women on an all-India based and taking into consideration the cultural, linguistic and other differences between and among different regions and their people. Several members of the audience requested that an interpreter be provided to Irom Sharmila because she wished to express herself in her own language.
Anita Agnihorti who has written short stories, novels and papers on displacement and development issues even though she has been a bureaucrat said that being an officer and yet writing on issues that often went directly against the same government always placed her in a position of conflict when she wondered which side she was on – the administrator’s side or on the other side. “I often try and look at how the displaced see at the State. Being an administrator is my job, and I am committed to it, and try to deliver with efficiency and competence. Now that I have retired, I am happy spending much of my time writing and travelling through villages and meeting people.”
The discussion was followed by a question-and-answer session and closed with another chant in Bengali by Bhasin that played on the phrase “aamra shobai boli” which literally translates as “we all say” but as it went along, the word “bali” in the chant assumed the other meaning of the same word meaning sacrifice.
This writer’s only problem is with the adjective “creative” used as a prefix to the word “women” in the theme title. Does not this word ghettoise only writers and exclude other women who are not writers? Is the housewife also not a creative woman, or the domestic maid or the small businesswoman? Does not juggling with everyday wants with very little money to provide for an entire family demand a lot of creativity on the part of the woman who is invisible and lost in the world peopled by women who write or perform or sing or dance or act? Think about it Soi Mela and hope this is corrected in the future.