SHE is considered the Judith Butler and Virginia Woolf of contemporary Oriya literature. And yet for her, feminism is not just about battling male hegemony. For Dr Sarojini Sahoo, an award winning Oriya writer, feminism is linked with the sexual politics of women. She refutes the limits that patriarchy places on female sexual expression and identifies women’s sexual liberation as the real motive behind the women’s movement.
Most of Sahoo’s works candidly probe sensitive topics such as sexual attraction, physical desire, lesbian relationships, rape, abortion, infertility and menopause from a female perspective. " I write on these topics to begin a discussion on female sexuality and help bring about change," says Sahoo, who is admired for breaking sexual and cultural taboos through her writing.
Sahoo has had an illustrious literary career. She is the first Oriya writer to have a novel translated and published from Bangladesh. Gambhiri Ghara (The Dark Abode) was a bestseller in Bangladesh when it was published under the title Mithya Gerosthali. She has published nine anthologies of short stories and seven novels. Her stories have been translated into Bengali, English and French. She is also perhaps the only Oriya woman writer to have dealt with lesbian sex in her story, ‘Nepathya’. Sahoo has been conferred with the Orissa Sahitya Academy Award in 1993, and the Jhankar Award in 1992.
Hailing from Dhenkanal, a small town in Orissa, Sahoo teaches at a college in Belpahar in Jharsuguda district. Talking about what made her probe the subject of sexuality, she reminisces, "As a child, my father dressed me up like a boy as he desperately wanted to feel like the proud father of a boy. It was his bad luck that I was born a girl. Once, a philosopher friend asked me whether this had had any impact on my sexuality later in life. Such questions could not be asked in India, because here any query about sexuality cannot be shared publicly, and moreover, it is an offence to ask a woman questions like that." But the question definitely got Sahoo thinking.
The celebrated writer believes that sexuality in literature grew with feminism. And as a feminist, she discovered that for women sexuality is as essential as financial independence. Known for her bold interpretation of female sexuality, Sahoo says, "I have been writing since the 1970s. Once I wrote a story about a young girl, which appeared in a reputed Oriya literary magazine and attracted readers immediately." During the 1980s, after her marriage, she wrote ‘Rape’, where her protagonist was a woman who dreamt about having sex with someone she did not know very well. "It created a huge controversy. It was hard for some Oriya readers to digest the fact that a woman could write about women’s sexual desire," she recalls.
Although at that time Sahoo was writing extensively on women’s lives and their sensibilities, she was unaware of the feminist theories on gender that were emerging across the world. It was the writings of Butler and Woolf and Radclyffe Hall’s ‘The Well of Loneliness’, that compelled her to think about sexuality and feminism. But she emphasises that her sense of "eastern feminism" is quite different from the one perpetrated by western feminists.
According to Sahoo, while in the West, feminism is an ideology, which has a "negative and restrictive view of sexuality and an anti-male bias," in India, feminism is more in relation to recognising a woman’s equal status in all respects. She notes in one of her essays, Motherhood and Sexuality that "feminism does not aim to destroy the family structure or to attack the emotional bondage of love and passion. Feminism should aim at creating a new world with a new perspective of equality and humanism."
Sahoo’s celebrated novel, ‘Upanibesh’ (‘The Colony’), was the first attempt in Oriya literature by any woman to focus on sexuality as a part of social revolt. Most of Sahoo’s protagonists have moved away from being self-sacrificing women to becoming independent female characters, searching for an identity. "I think that’s the main difference between fiction written by me and those written by my predecessors in Oriya literature," she says.
Married to eminent Oriya writer, Jagdeesh Mohanty, Sahoo is effusive in her praise for her husband, "As a writer, he has always remained by my side whenever I’ve had to face any controversy because of my writing."
However, Sahoo has not received similar support from society at large. Her work has invited severe criticism from detractors. "It is risky for a woman writer to deal with these themes, yet someone has to bear this risk of accurately portraying women’s feelings — the intricate mental agony and complexity which a man can never feel." Her novel ‘Gambhiri Ghara’ was first a short story written for a special issue of an Oriya periodical. However, just before publication it was rejected and she was asked to submit an alternative. When she inquired about the reason for the rejection, the chief editor told her that he would talk to her husband about it. "This comment irritated me. And I decided to transform the short story into a novel," she recalls.
Besides being an accomplished writer and academic, Sahoo is a mother of two, regularly writes her own blog — ‘Sense & Sensuality’ — and is the associate editor of the magazine, ‘Indian Age’, where she writes ‘Own Essence’, a serial column. She says, "I have a few hobbies like gardening, reading and writing. And so I remain busy with my home and my books."
Sahoo recently returned from Gujarat after the release of her new book, a second English translation of her Oriya stories. "Although I blog and write the serial column in English, I have never thought of writing my stories in that language. A writer can express herself best in her own language. It’s sad that regional writers are not represented properly in global literature."
Writing on the sexuality of the Indian women and advocating women’s rights are what give this writer the greatest satisfaction. But like a true free spirit, she refuses to be restricted by labels. "I think it’s more important to be a complete human being than a writer or a feminist. But I also realise the reciprocal nature of living and writing. I believe that living gives you material for writing while writing helps you to interpret your existence in a meaningful way. I live, I write, I grow." — WFS