On March 16, the English translation of Sarah Joseph's Malayalam novel Budhini, was announced as the winner of the first edition of SheThePeople Women Writer’s Prize. Translated from the Malayalam by Sangeetha Sreenivasan, Budhini reimagines the incident that followed the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to Jharkhand in 1959, to inaugurate a dam across the Damodar river.
To welcome the PM on his arrival there, the Damodar Valley Corporation had chosen a fifteen-year-old girl, named Budhini — and welcoming the leader meant garlanding him. This had lead to her village ostracising the girl — they saw the garlanding as an act of marriage.
In a conversation with Lounge after her book won the award, Joseph talks about what the prize — founded by Shaili Chopra, mentored by author Shashi Deshpande and curated by author Shinie Antony — means to her; how she heard of the incident that inspired the novel, and what inspired her into activism. Edited excerpts.
Your thoughts on winning the prize?
In the male-dominated, mainstream literary world, women’s writing is always considered secondary or complementary writings. The best of our writers get only a marginalized space in the main literary frame because they are women. Thus the idea of a Women Writer’s Prize (addresses the gender imbalance that needs to be talked about).
How did the book Budhini come to be?
The first time I ever heard about Budhini was from a friend, Civic Chandran, a poet and social activist. This was at a seminar organised by the River Protection Forum, Chalakkudy, maybe in 2014. In his speech, he mentioned Budhini’s story as an example of how lakhs of people, especially poor farmers and Adivasis were chucked out from their lands and became homeless in the name of India’s development project since 1947. I felt that Budhini represents the uprooted people and the submerged farmlands and forests that went missing during the great nation-building process. I also read an article written by Chitra Padmanabhan, published in The Hindu,‘Recovering Budhni Mehjan from the silted landscape of modern India’. In it, she narrates the girl’s tragic plight and the sufferings she faced. That, I think, was the beginning.
What are your earliest memories of being associated with literature?
I entered the literary world by writing poems, when still in high school. Some of these poems got published in significant periodicals like Mathrubhumi Weekly and the NGO Anweshi’s magazine, Sanghaditha. I moved on to more expanded versions of writing. I felt a short story was a more convenient medium to express my feelings and experiences. I was an ardent reader as a student. Eventually, reading brought me to the world of writing. Those were the days when visual media was not popular and so reading was the only source of amusement. Slowly my reading habits evolved and the beauty of the language, aesthetics and a sense of righteousness prompted me to write.
You have had a keen engagement with both women’s rights and the environment—what we now call eco-feminism. How did your writing move towards it?
We can tell a story in many ways. If you are telling it from a woman’s perspective it will become a different narration—the language, idioms, images, style, proverbs and even words become distinct. The words may highlight a new world. It was my realisation about women’s rights and the environment that compelled me to create fiction from women’s as well as the environment’s perspective.
Tell us about your involvement with activism and with founding Manushi.
I was a college lecturer when Manushi (a feminist organisation in Kerala, started in the 1980s) was formed with the help of some of my colleagues and some of our students. It was done as a protest against the increasing rate of crimes against women in Kerala, and dowry-related persecutions. That was my first step towards activism. When Kerala’s writers, thinkers, environmentalists and scientists joined hands to protect the Silent Valley forest in the 1970s, I actively participated. That was how an environmental vision started developing within me. The study-oriented research after that provoked me to partake in the people’s strikes in many parts of Kerala. I have worked with the Adivasis and transgenders and maybe that is how the activist in me grew.
Why should women write more?
It is important so that they can analyse the world from their own perspective. The order and values identified and determined so far in war, environmental destruction, development, marginalised people, freedom, marriage, sexuality, family love and sex are male-dominated. Women are biologically different and their experiences in a gender-based society are very different from men’s experiences. The way women writers approach and interpret language, values, ethics and aesthetic laws from their viewpoint would change the current literary trends.
Medha Dutta Yadav is a Delhi-based journalist