Writers and women are always insiders as well as outsiders, their life and work reflects it: Geetanjali Shree at the Hans Literary Festival

Dressed in white kurta and pink salwar, when she rose from her chair and walked to the podium in her ovular sunglasses, all DSLRs in the crowd jolted from their slumber under the festoons and afternoon sun. Clicks drowned the audience’s murmurs at Bikaner House when author Geetanjali Shree was invited to speak impromptu after being felicitated at the Rajendra Yadav Smriti Samaroh, a literature festival organised by Hans, one of India’s leading Hindi literary magazines.

“I think a writer and a woman are always both insiders and outsiders. Her whole life and work always tightropes between these two statuses,” said Shree. Winner of the International Booker Prize 2022, she began her literary journey with the magazine initiated by Premchand in 1930 and had Gandhi on its editorial board. Noting that the Booker win changed her “life overnight”, Shree added, “It expanded my world, and I have met many friends and facades over the last six months. But after travelling worldwide, I have understood that what your own fraternity means to you is unparalleled.”

Her words kicked off the festival, titled “Stri Srijan ka Saara Aakash”, loosely translated to ‘The Boundless Sky of Female Creation.’ The three-day event that took place from October 28 to 30, was the first of its scale by Hans that featured 75 speakers, hosted guests from around the country, and organised seminars focusing on women writing their way around violence, injustice, backsliding of women’s rights and protest movements. The festival was several months in the making, its preparation beginning back in June, according to famed Kathak dancer Rachna Yadav, daughter of renowned writer Rajendra Yadav, who revived Hans in 1986, after it was shut down in 1956 due to financial strains. Now the owner of the publication, Rachna noted that since the language of this literature was Hindi, sponsors were few and difficult to come by. “It’s not that bigger lit fests don’t feature Hindi literature, it’s just that Hindi and other regional languages tend to get sidelined there,” says she, adding, “That’s why we wanted to organise an event in the heart of Delhi, where English-reading audiences from all over the country come and listen to our speakers.”

From the left – Devyani Bharadwaj, Jay Jadwani, Savita Singh, Anjali Deshpande, Sujata, Vrinda Grover, and Urvashi Butalia. (Credit: Nitin Mehra)

Among the writers speaking on the first day of the festival was Mridula Garg, Sahitya Akademi-awardee and author of several novels and short story collections, including Miljul Man (2013). She spoke of the category confusions that plague literature academia and how those have affected women’s writing. “When we talk of women’s literature, we only talk of women’s rights, but women’s literature was never limited to that one subject. It was twisted and forced into seeming that way. Whenever women have faced domestic and foreign injustices, they’ve stood against it and risen above it, changed politics and protested. This is a war not by men on women, but on all oppressed communities,” she said.

Sanjay Sahay, editor of Hans, said, “(This fest to celebrate women’s literature is happening at a time when) women are being pushed back in society yet again, when democracy is stealing women’s rights. But women will snatch them back, and it won’t be because men are granting them a favour.”

The myriad human experiences accessible only to women are understood by all of society because of literature written by women, said novelist Ashok Vajpeyi, adding that “they have never demanded that the community examine their art less seriously or with lower standards.” He stated, “Mahadevi, Subadhra Kumari Chauhan, Mrinal Pande, Usha Priyamvada, Alka Saraogi, Geetanjali Shree, each of these women has created a new language and done something for literature that their male counterparts have not.”

On Hans’s contribution to India’s Hindi literary landscape, Anamika, a popular feminist novelist, critic and social worker, said, “In the publications before Hans, writers often came from upper-caste middle-class backgrounds and even if they were influenced by Marx, their language had Gandhi’s sentiment of civil disobedience. The stories were sweet-tongued and the writing transformed into a message of ‘live-and-let-live’, especially among women writers. But Hans changed the demographic of writers getting published. The stories of Dalits, Adivasis and women in search of better income who came from small villages and lived in jhuggi-jhopri clusters started coming out. Their struggles found voice in Hans. And so the language had to change as well… Earlier a woman heard political stories through the filtered narrative of men. Now the woman was standing on the street herself, was going to forums herself. Women like Rajat Rani Meenu and Sushila Takbaure started writing and expanded our world and family.”

But the pandemic hit Hans hard. “Our circulation went down because many distribution channels shut down. Hawkers and magazine stands closed down, shifting to things like mobile repair shops,” says Rachna. But the attempt to revive sales to pre-pandemic levels is on, with Rachna paying special attention to reach out to audiences over social media. “Our digital and hardcover circulation is going up, and we are selling issues on our website as well. While our strongest audience is in the Hindi-speaking belt, Hans is the only Hindi magazine that goes to subscribers down in south India, to the Northeast, and internationally.”

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