The image of women in South Asian novels has undergone a change in the last three decades. Throughout this period, women writers have moved away from traditional enduring, self-sacrificing women toward conflicted female characters searching for identity. The interests of women writers have changed with South Asian society and its relationship with the West. This trend in writings by South Asian women clearly appears if onecompares the images of suffering women in Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve and Meera Mahadevan's Shulamith to recent subversions and expansions of the traditional image in works by Chitra Fernando, Anita Desai, Kamala Das, Sara Suleri, and Anees Jung. In contrast to the main women characters in Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve and Mahadevan's Shulamith, female characters in the 1980s assert themselves and defy marriage and family strictures. Chitra Fernando's collection of short stories Three Women, like Anita Desai's In Custody, portray women who want their individual worth realized and attempt to break through the suffering that traditional society offers them. The most recent books, of the last three years (1986-1988), explore an educated woman's search for identity and meaning -- in autobiographical form, as in Kamala Das' My Story or in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days, or combining autobiographical and ethnographic form, as in Anees Jung's Unveiling India: A Woman's Journey.
Traditionally, marriage for women -- except in certain matriarchal tribes in the south that remained unaffected by the Aryan invasion that began in 1500 B.C.E. -- has entailed a most submissive feminine role. Although a woman ideally had power as a mother, as a wife she submitted to her husband and his family. Only recently have South Asian women in the dominant patriarchal tradition started to question aspects of this role, or decided against marriage altogether.
In Image of Woman in the Indo-Anglian Novel, Meena Shirwadkar claims that, following the changes in Indian society, novels have started to progress from depicting women characters solely as epitomes of suffering, womanly virtue to portraying more complex, real characters.
Tradition, transition and modernity are the stages through which the woman in Indo-Anglian novel is passing. The image of traditional woman, the Sita Savitri type, was at once, easy and popular. . . . In
Shirwadkar's study, published in 1979, criticizes a literary tradition still overshadowed by the traditional, suffering ideal of womanhood. This ideal has persisted in culture permeated by religious images of virtuous goddesses devoted to their husbands. The Hindu goddesses Sita and Savitri still exist as powerful cultural ideals of women in
[The god] Rama's wife Sita exemplifies the behaviour of the proper Hindu wife, devotedly following her husband into forest exile for twelve years, and eventually, after being kidnapped for a time by the evil Ravanawhom Rama finally destroys, proving her wifely virtue by placing herself on a lighted pyre. . . . Throughout