When a Respected Author Becomes an Accidental Feminist

When a Respected Author Becomes an Accidental Feminist

By Sanjena Sathian


Because not all feminism looks the same.

By Sanjena Sathian

That phrase of Virgina Woolf’s to describe the conditions under which a woman must write — a room of one’s own — has been run ragged by overuse. But it is the heart of the latest novel by an author who has, critics say, written the “first feminist novel” in her language. 

Meet Ila Arab Mehta, a novelist from the north Indian state of Gujarat. Her mother tongue is spoken by over 50 million people worldwide, not all of them living in the homeland. Gujaratis are famously successful businesspeople who’ve migrated to the U.S. and the U.K. in droves. Their language also happens to be Gandhi’s, and their state birthed India’s current prime minister.

Mehta is one of the best-known and most respected authors working in Gujarati today; sales of her books are small but respectable in a regional language. She is “very gifted,” says award-draped Gujarati poet Prabodh Parikh. At almost 80 years old (she won’t tell me exactly, giving me a scolding look, her pretty, light eyes flickering), Mehta has gained some national attention for writing books that appeal to progressives hungry for literature that prioritizes women’s stories, reconciles Hinduism with Islam and generally offers a counterpoint to the conservatism for which Gujarat is known. (See: Prime Minister Modi and the controversy that dogged his time as chief minister of the state, over whether he allowed communal violence between Hindus and Muslims.)

Fifteen days after Mehta’s husband died, her children brought her a chair and a table and a pen and said, “Pick up your life and write.”

Dressed in a sari and clasping my hands in a grandmotherly fashion, she tells me, “I have written the first feminist novel in Gujarati!” I ask if that was intentional. She throws her palms up in the air and shrugs with a bit of delight. I’ve just heard her speak on a panel with a whip-sharp modern writer from Mumbai a few decades younger than her. Well-meaning, she noticed aloud that his male protagonists were very “strong and aggressive,” whereas the main character of her latest novel, a woman, is “very calm.” He bristled. “Let’s not use such gender binaries, OK? Just because you have a dick doesn’t mean you’re a dick.” It wasn’t clear whether Mehta absorbed the impact of those words, their academic whiff or their crudity.

But her latest accoladed novel, Fence (Vaad in Gujarati), is acclaimed in part because of what its readers see as revolutionary: It follows the story of a young Muslim woman, Fateema Lokhandhwala, who just wants her own home. And not one that’s wedged into a Muslim ghetto; one that allows her independence and self-respect, religion aside. “I’m not wanting to upset anyone,” Mehta tells me. “Just to tell a story. I’m not wanting to create any kind of controversy.”

Ilamehta authorphoto

Ila Arab Mehta

Source Author Photo

Mehta’s translator, Rita Kothari, says that although gender politics are at the heart of Mehta’s writings, she falls prey to a “certain kind of bourgeoisie ethos which is not comfortable claiming its own feminism.” Gujarati readers, Kothari says, are not readers who are “comfortable asking very difficult questions.” Mehta’s familiar writing style, which is not very demanding on the reader, as Parikh puts it, isn’t a bad thing. It allows Mehta to reach more people, to entertain. But still, she operates within limitations: Parikh bemoans the lack of a literary culture out of Gujarat, unlike the northern state of Bengal or Kerala in the south: “Gujaratis don’t read much,” he says. “They’re comfortable making money, eating good food and traveling all over the world.”

Yet Mehta is asking very real questions: She was inspired to write Fateema’s story when she read a piece from a Muslim woman who wrote to a Gujarati magazine about how difficult it was for her to find a house. From there, Mehta, who lives in Juhu, a posh neighborhood in Mumbai, rather than her home state, began reading about Islam, asking “Why this prejudice?” As the novel grew from a short story, she incorporated more elements of the real world, as when Fateema’s brother is drawn to radical Islam.

Mehta, the daughter and sister of well-known novelists, began writing in college and was a literature professor until marriage and two kids pulled her out of the workforce. She says she never wrote about “the usual Gujarat things.” She is well-traveled and has penned works on Israel, Bangkok and London; her daughter lives in Antwerp, she brags. A story set in London smells deeply modern: A woman emigrates to the U.K., following her new husband, only to find that he is already living with someone. She stays on “to struggle.” 

She does know the experience of some struggle, having paid her way through college by writing radio dramas and tutoring. And, of course, motherhood is its own limitation on writing. But her children were supportive, she says. When she was two chapters into writing Fence, her husband passed away, “peacefully, of age-related problems.” Fifteen days later, her children brought her a chair and a table and a pen and said, she recalls, “Pick up your life and write.”

Now, it’s clear she’s enjoying the gaze of the approving feminists a bit. I ask what she wants to write next. She says she’s interested in the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic, and what it says about women. And also: “This question of Alpha Woman. Who is she?”