Half the Sky

True, a writer cannot be created but an atmosphere for intellectual development can be. On what has been an exceptionally arduous journey, a petite lady Sheela Barthakur has been spearheading a “silent cultural revolution” among women in Assam. When she had initiated the Sadou Asom Lekhika Samaroh Samiti (a women’s literary forum) several years ago, few people understood what she was up to. She recalls how, in the early 70s, she was turned down when she had requested the Asom Sahitya Sabha for a berth for women in a youth programme it was organising. Shortly thereafter, in 1974, Barthakur, then a lecturer at Darrang College, made a proposal to a small gathering at Tezpur for a separate literary organisation for women.

“The common meeting grounds for its members have been its more than 21 state-level conferences held so far. In each of these sessions, they try to deal with the socio-economic problems of the women of the area.”

This was the germ from which the Samiti evolved, going on to become the pioneering organisation it is today, with a long list of accomplishments to its credit. The movement, which had started with just two members, now has more than 60,000 members in over 208 branches of the organisation all over Assam. It also has branches in Calcutta, Shillong, Delhi and Dimapur. The Samiti has attained immense popularity because it has not confined itself only to the women writers who have already carved a niche for themselves. The forum encourages women even in remote villages to express themselves, be it through a poem, a letter, a story or a small speech at a public gathering. It’s more a forum where a woman can discover herself. The Samiti has motivated women in the different branches to initiate their own publications with local financial support. The various units of the Samiti work in a democratic manner, which is a unique phenomenon in the country.

The common meeting grounds for its members have been its more than 21 state-level conferences held so far. In each of these sessions, they try to deal with the socio-economic problems of the women of the area. At each of these, hundreds of women camp in local schools and colleges and participate in the reading sessions, seminars and book fairs, the Samiti organises. In what can be called a rare sense of sisterhood, these women throng these annual sessions and engage in lively discussions, debates and deliberations. Jaya Choudhury, a member said, “I seem to have imbibed a new sense of empowerment and discovered a new self by participating in these sessions. Earlier, I was very reticent and could never mix with people. I used to write poems but never had the guts to acknowledge them in public. Now I have started giving public lectures and even read out my poems in front of a group of interested readers.”

During these annual sessions, the Forum also tries to usher in social changes in the lives of women. Barthakur recalls an unpleasant incident during their session at Barpeta in 1988. “We had gone to the satradhikar of Barpeta satra with a petition to allow women to enter the main temple premises which had been banned to us for ages. But, the temple authorities incited a group of women to physically assault us,” she says.

Lekhika, the mouthpiece of the samiti, has helped create many new women writers. The Samiti has edited 15 editions of the Lekhika, and has carried biographies of several women writers who have almost sunk into oblivion. The Samiti also has to its credit the editing and compilation of the complete works of three eminent women writers — Nalini Bala Devi, Dharmeswari Devi Baruani and Sneha Devi.

However, the Samiti’s landmark publication is the four-volume ‘Lekhikar Jibani’, chronicling Assam’s women writers from the 15th century to the present. Gathering the material for this was often an uphill task because, as Barthakur points out, “people till the 19th and even the 20th centuries did not think it worthwhile to chronicle the lives and preserve the works of these writers.” They often had to ravage through old trunks and boxes to find the writings by the prolific women writers of that era. The family members of these women were oblivious to the hidden talent of these women writers and did not seem to show keen interest in preserving their works either.

The Samiti has also been actively involved in campaigns for women’s rights, and its members actively react to the state’s social and political problems. Says Leena Deka, who is the vice-president of the Samiti’s Nalbari chapter, “We hold monthly meetings where we organise reading sessions for budding writers. We also provide flood relief and organise protest rallies against atrocities on women.”

The Forum has also been trying to usher in peace through the power of the pen. After a horrific bomb blast triggered by the banned outfit United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), killed 10 school children and 3 women on Independence Day in Dhemaji in 2004, the town’s branch of the Samiti brought out a volume of writings in tribute to the slain. Samiti member Binita Garodia, who is the principal of the Dhemaji Girls’ High School says, “It was our way of finding solace, both for ourselves as well as for others. We have tried to discover a new way of talking about non-violence.”

Teresa Rehman is an award-winning journalist who chronicles the lives of ordinary people in the seven states that make up the North-East of India. She was born in Shillong and started her journalistic career in Delhi before returning to report on the untold stories of a region marked by state-sponsored violence against its people and a strong sense of neglect and alienation from 'mainstream' India. Winner of two 'Excellence in Journalism' awards.

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