Book Review: An Indispensable Weaving of Women’s Words

Co-edited by Reema Ahmad and Semeen Ali, the thought-provoking anthology Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts, published by Red River, rests upon a unique combination of deftly gathered 360 pages of fiction, non-fiction, poems and artworks from over 70 women writers, poets and artists.

These valuable contributions of contemporary voices – raw, vigorous, lively and engaging – struggle to cauterise the repression and liberate women from restraints that prevent them from using their voice. The lopsided view that only men are allowed to make rules is well interrogated and maps are redrawn for women to be more coherent, reclaim their bodies and energy to transform their ambit.

Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts
Edited by: Reema Ahmad and Semeen Ali
Red River, 2022

Gyno criticism, a concept introduced by Elaine Showalter in the 1970s, refers to women as spinners and weavers of text related to women’s experiences. Ahmad and Ali’s eclectic selection of narratives, poems and artwork successfully interrogates sterile customs, of mute women soaked in routine, transgender and cis women seeking fulfilment, body shaming of growing adolescents, marital rape, incest, domestic violence. The recurrent abuse becomes a cleansing force against the oppressor, morphing voiceless dry tongues into vocal bravehearts.

Ahmad endeavours to keep the spirit and intensity of the anthology alive in her titular, bilingual introductory poem:

‘Some space/where I squeeze myself in/ making room in dark nights/ digging corners for myself /with the two tools I have/this dry tongue and this brave heart.’

(Raat ke andhere mein apne liye/Kai kone  khodti/Mere pass bas do auzaar hain/ye meri khushk zubaan/ aur bebaak jigar)

Debolina Dey expels the ‘rage of knot from her body like a scream’ in the verse, ‘The body remembers rain‘ and in part two finds herself ‘in love with words more than any lover she had.’

Chirantana Mathkari proudly proclaims, ‘the sun chooses to throw the spotlight on me/Oh! how the rays hit through the barriers of the woods! / I bask in them, until I feel important.’

Namita Bhatia reflects how, ‘I pass time/and Time passes by me/till a moment gifts me.’

Manmeet Narang’s bilingual poem ‘Patilanghan’ is a bold take on infidelity where a woman proudly confesses loving, ‘a dream, you cannot wake me up from/ even if you tried.’ Through a poem untitled, Zehra Naqvi lashes out loudly to voyeurs eyeing female anatomy and pitches her voice against the male gaze, focusing solely on mammaries as objects of desire: ‘Our bodies will be ours and we will reclaim them’.

Michelle Ann James offers a prayer to end poems where ‘women succumb to blows/their bodies for men/where forgiveness is a habit/but their daughters train their voices never to quiver.’ In ‘Devi, Woman’, Lina Krishnan unceasingly calls out to women to ‘step out of frame/ to break the mould/for too much devotion can be cloying.’ The vulnerable goddess is infinitely sad yet urges women to defend themselves from the blows of the world.

In a well-crafted narrative by Amrita Singh, If You Haven’t Been There, You Haven’t Lived, the  pandemic finds it way and spoils the eagerly awaited trip of Ira to visit her ‘pushtaini pind’ across the border. The silence of Partition that consumed her family for two generations remains unbroken but the failed arrival keeps dreams alive.

A delightful short story by Fatima Hijas, Irani Chai with An Old Classmate, stands out because of its sheer visual quality and a feisty protagonist Juwariyah. Sukla Singha transports readers to Manipur, in That ‘90s Show: Blood, Shit and Other Things’ exploring Meitei customs only to discover the magic that makes a mother bold and boisterous.

Aratrika Das believes in the limitless possibilities in Our Kitchen, with her son by her side, embracing vulnerabilities in their modest kitchen, chopping, cleaning, cooking and serving together; learning how to accommodate others as he watches and dreams of becoming a master chef.

In a powerful article, Bijaya Biswal speaks about cis women, the pain and alienation of exclusivity and their buoyant spirit despite adversities. Rajni Mishra’s, Man On The Bus, is about a woman’s sexual arousal after she was touched by a man on the bus. Her marital life is a permanent masquerade. Her restless desires are enflamed after the touch while she questions herself, ‘Why didn’t she stop him!’

Kusum Choppra scans groups of women at an overcrowded platform with a nagging conjecture – ‘Am I amongst these?’ She ends with a rhetorical question about joining femmes from foreign countries, proud in handling coronavirus and finds herself among them. Aashna Jamaal writes with great imagination and verve, stunning readers by the rich detailing about the environs of protagonist Zareen who proves to the world that the job of a butcher in an abbatoir is not an exclusive male bastion but that a pacche shraakh, the carving knife for slaughter placed in the hands of a girl can be used with equal flourish.

A delightful mystery by Rituparna Sengupta, The Case Of The Stolen Flowers, with the thief’s chutzpah, lack of candour and veiled insolence, adds liveliness to the fascinating collection. Ketaki Dutta’s An Obscure Life poignantly discusses the dreams of a girl to open a music school in her impoverished locality while failing to assemble the broken strings of her life. Sonali Punja’s  No Cages for Little Birds sorts uptight relations between two sisters and how they bury past demons, fully aware that a the young girl in their charge should not be incarcerated at home as they did.

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The rich palette of emotional outlets canalised as artworks and photographs in the well-illustrated anthology portray an inalienable sympathy for the female body. The visual entropy on canvas maps women and their traumatised sexuality – subject to assault, subject to anguish – within their thresholds or without. Showcasing her virtuosity, Nida Zehra, in her paintings, ‘I Pot You Back to/in Life’ and ‘Stardust’ depicts forms of female valorisation. The barrenness inter-layered within a woman bloom as the flowers proliferate. The more the blossoms grow, the more strength she draws to face reality.

Rituparna Dey articulates a woman’s prerogative to deal with her sexuality in her colourful two-part series, The Two Ms. Women have to claim their bodies with their personal vocabulary, whether they want to marry, have babies or stay single. Sneha Biswas flaunts the apparent attractiveness of a desirable woman through the female gaze, a woman looking at another woman. Sonali Pattnaik’s pictorial presentation ‘Converse’ depicts a volatile life within a woman’s body, ardent in desire to recover the inalienable right to pleasure of the body and healthy dialogue.

Namita Bhatia carries on this theme of companionable bond between women to invest in emotions of sisterhood and heal, to endure life’s complexities. Ima Faisal’s ‘Mystery Woman’ is emblematic of selfhood claims of a woman protagonist who sees herself evolving while remaining indifferent to the world. The pictorial works of Sonali Pattnaik, Zeenat Khair, Upasana Chakraborty and Teena Gill come out as major expressions of resistance, observing and responding to offensive touches, searing glances and corrosive remarks with firmness and inner calm of a woman who breathes and expands in her proverbial melancholy. In ‘PCOS’, Upasana Chakraborty wraps a barbed wire around a woman’s stomach, showing her in searing pain whereas Zeba Rizvi in ‘Chiloe’ shows Mapuche women singing songs of sisterhood together.

An ardent desire to gain speech, to recover dignity in a predatory world and to keep the transactions of bodily desires in their hands is what this indispensable book explores. This seminal work offers an antidote and re-energises not only battered women but also exhorts women in all walks of life. As Ali stresses in her closing note,

“To get up, brush off the grime and dust and take the day by its horns.”

Mamta Joshi is a writer, poet, translator and an animal activist residing in Allahabad. She has been writing and reviewing for leading national and international e-magazines. She has also been writing stories for children in the Kumaoni language.

Featured image: Pixabay