Purdah - an anthology: Edited by Eunice de Souza

Two years ago, I spent a night and a day in the women's quarters of a very cloistered Muslim community in Southern Tamilnadu. Since they trace their lineage to one of the Prophet's acolytes, they have always maintained very strict rules of purdah so that there is no occasion to fear the diluting of this bloodline.

For a night and a day, I did all that I was asked to do so. Using the woman's alley to go from one house to the other. Swaddling myself in a dupatta in the heat and even drawing it over my head. Letting the women use me as an excuse to fulfill their desire to go to the beach and then riding in the back seat of an autorickshaw which was partitioned off from the driver's seat with a thick black curtains that ran along the sides as well. With peep holes in the curtains so that we may know where we were going, we rode the hundred meters to the beach. I went wearing the night as veil and escorted by a gaggle of women in their burkhas, young children and two burly men And later, having drawn our fill of the sea breeze, I allowed them to shut and barricade the door of the room I slept in from the outside.

I have always prided myself on the fact that I fear nothing. For the first time, I knew what fear was after that night and a day; to be trapped in a life that was so bound by norms and conventions.

In the anthology of Purdah, I knew I would chance upon some of that. But I had also hoped for more. An intimate understanding of what it is to live life in a cloister. To be allowed neither will nor space perhaps. Of times gone by and the now. The book blurb suggests as much 'The focus is primarily on purdah as a 'lived' experience. What was it like to live in seclusion? What did the women do with their time? What did they know of the outside world?'etc

Instead the Anthology begins with what is titled as the Western Accounts section. Long and tedious, occasionally shrill and often just plain boring, this section of Mrs Missionaries and Do-gooders has little to recommend it save Louis Rousselet's description of the Bhopal monarchy and the very clinical but extremely engrossing account of Osteomalacia in Kashmir, a disease almost restricted to 'purdah ladies'.

The Indian Perceptions fares no better. Barring Maithili Rao's superb and erudite essay on Screen Images, most of the other extracts or essays in this section tend to ramble on making me wonder at every point what it was that I did wrong in this life or previous ones to have to suffer this....

Fortunately, the anthology picks up after those first two sections and the first Person accounts if not exactly riveting did have an occasional lightness. It is only when the final section called Literary Evocations begin that the claim made of offering the 'lived' experience' makes an appearance. Whether its is the marvelous story The Curtain by Yaspal, or Lajwanti by Rajinder Singh Bedi or an extract from the novel Anandi Gopal by S.J. Joshi or the extract from Iqbalunnissa Hussain's Purdah and Polygamy: Life in an Indian Muslim Household, the implication of Purdah is etched clearly and with an understanding of what it must be to let Purdah dominate the warp and weft of life.

The book's dust jacket claims 'this book will be an important resource for scholars of cultural studies, gender studies', and I agree. Academics who perhaps have learnt to suppress their discomfort at having to endure lackluster prose might perhaps be able to wade through this bulky volume hoping to discover a nugget of some undiscovered detail they haven't chanced upon before. As for the general reader, I would suggest, skip most of it and just read the Literary Evocations....the truth even when disguised as fiction is the truth and is often more readable

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