The art of preface: Woman, Body, Desire in Post-colonial India

For two days a week that I spend working at a university, I spend a part of my time reading preface of books and digging archives. If a preface gets my attention and is compelling enough, the book gets read for sure. Jyoti Puri’s Woman, Body, Desire in Post-colonial India (Routledge) is one such. The label post-colonial has sounded uneasy in this brief period of academic pursuit. However, when some thinkers, authors and researchers use it, in their hands, it seems worth a thought. The idea of women, body and desire isn’t as appealing as the context in which Puri sets it. The author’s preface reads a fine piece in a researcher’s personal ethics, honesty and humility with which the research framework and material is presented. She writes,

Despite the personal and cohort-based experiences of middle-class womanhood in post-colonial India that I bring to my work, this book is not about me or a narrowly defined peer group. Specifically, it is about the 54 middle and upper-class women who took the time to speak with me about various aspects of their lives. More broadly, this book delves into the tensions of female bodies, desire, womanhood, and social class, and the kinds of hegemonic codes that regulate these aspects of the 54 women’s lives.

This clarity of motivation appears remarkable for my inexperienced eye. Perhaps this is how it is supposed to be written.

It has been difficult to agree to claims of authors in women studies (or writing in feminism) because of the biases that the authors tend begin with, some of which consistently places women as the oppressed and that as a universal truth. As I write this, I am conscious that taking names or citing works can be problematic. The observations that feminist literature makes on women and their subjective experiences can be valid and for authors’ to make. However, the transition from those observations to claims is where discontent lies. Puri’s book is noteworthy and makes me write about it because this is the kind of writing that I think can do a lot of good for the cause of feminism and to the discipline of women’s studies. For instance, Puri writes,

This book is about understanding these categories of experience and self-definition from the viewpoint of women’s reality.

The categories in context are female bodies, desire, womanhood and social class. She closes the preface with –

I hope that this book will be of use to an audience interested in issues of womanhood in contemporary India but also to an audience interested in grappling with the tensions of gender and sexuality across diverse social settings.

The tensions of gender and sexuality has been a continuing interest, which perhaps originated in personal experience. In contemporary feminist writing anger comes across as the most immediate motivation. This can be a genuine starting point. But I have felt that it clouds perspective, as much as the ability to reason. And therefore, emotive feminist literature hasn’t been able to set forth coherent thought as much as they have weaponized anger and rage. This position to write from isn’t productive at all, if not destructive. The point of this post is to keep, for a later reference, the writing style and presentation of ideas, which convey a tempered position than a reactive one, as well as a kind of humility and refined reason that is hard to find in feminist literature published since 2010.