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     Volume 6 Issue 42 | November 2, 2007 |

   Cover Story
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A Roman Column

The Company of Women (Part 1)

The Gathering

Neeman A Sobhan

Gloria Steinem (R) with the writer at the Delhi Colloquium

Nine months have passed already and I am still waiting for another event which could displace the memorable Delhi trip I undertook in February, as the highlight of my year. 2007 has been deemed 'annus horribilis' by many within my circle of friends and family who suffered major crises and losses. But even in an 'annus mirabilis' I would consider being invited to a gathering of South Asian women writers to participate in a colloquium to be a special event.

Last November, a short story of mine, 'The Last Letter', published in an anthology of English writings by Bangladeshi writers ('From the Delta' edited by Niaz Zaman) caught the attention of the Indian publisher Ritu Menon of Women Unlimited, a feminist publisher and co-founder of the first feminist publishing house in India, Kali. I received an invitation to participate in 'THE POWER OF THE WORD: South Asian Women Writer's Colloquium' organized by Women's WORLD, an international organisation concerned with gender-based censorship. Ritu Menon, who heads the Indian chapter, organised the three-day conference at the India International Center from Feb 21-23.

I accepted the invitation with delight, and when I saw the list of participants I felt privileged to find myself in the company of so many extraordinary women. The special guest was to be the legendary Gloria Steinem, American feminist icon from the sixties. The list of participants included Nabaneeta Dev Sen, the grande-dame of Indian Bangla literature, Fahmida Riaz, the courageous feminist Urdu poet of Pakistan, our own out spoken Taslima Nasrin, and one of my favourite English language writers from Pakistan, Kamila Shamsie. These were the names I recognised at the start; little did I know that within the period of three intensive and pleasurable days I would make the acquaintance of a much longer list of writing women whose talents and personalities would bowl me over.

I arrived in Delhi on the 20th of a crisp February morning, greeted at the airport by someone holding up a placard with my name. The sight was as heartwarming as the blooming red Polaash trees outside and all over the city waving their banner of welcome to both spring and me as I was driven to the Habitat World Hotel.

The moment I entered my cosy room and saw the welcoming letter lying on the bed inviting participants to a pre-colloquium dinner and informing us of transport and meal arrangements, I knew I was in the hands of an efficient team, but I didn't yet know the full extent of the organising skills of Women's WORLD's convenor Ritu and her tireless co-workers Niharika Gupta, Ratna Sahai and Ammu Joseph that would create for us a seamlessly functioning conference of almost 40 women, where not a hitch appeared to mar its pleasurable and purposeful agenda.

I went down to the American Diner downstairs, ordered the complimentary breakfast and made some phone calls to friends to hold them at bay till the conference was over. In the lobby I met two of our four-member Bangladesh contingent.

One was our 'apa', the person we considered the captain of our team: the dynamic Niaz Zaman, professor of English literature, who apart from being a writer and translator is well known as the editor of numerous anthologies of Bangladeshi literature in both English and in translation (her latest anthology of writings by both Indian and Bangladeshi writers, 'Arshilalta', is currently in the market), and a publisher of creative writing in English: writers.ink. The other member was Shabnam Nadiya, a prolific short story writer, poet and translator, whose name pops up in any anthology of Bangladeshi writing one happens to open.

The fourth member of our team would arrive later, appearing on our horizon like the evening star, not just appropriately after dark at the dinner party but befitting her literary stardom exuding an aura of international celebrity-hood that has been thrust on her by the umbra of fatwa and exile. In the next three days I would see her more closely and understand her predicaments and positions better. It was a rewarding experience, to meet Taslima Nasrin and listen to her speak from the heart on the opening day. Given her recent traumatic encounter in Hyderabad at the hands of fundamentalist reactionaries, I extend her my sympathy and hope the attackers who went against the spirit of the freedom of speech and expression are brought to justice. It is to be noted that Women's WORLD has filed a petition in the High Court in India, seeking the dismissal of the 4 legislators who led the attack, and the disqualification of the political parties to which they belong. It's due to be heard shortly.

But that first morning in the lobby, I was still to meet Taslima Nasrin along with many other writers. For the moment I chatted with some of the early arrivals who were going to or coming out after breakfast, like Zubeida Mustafa, the Pakistani journalist whose editorials in the Herald I had read with interest and admiration for their liberal political views.

I left the cool of the hotel to wander around the Habitat Center and its grounds, basking in the mild sunshine. Returning, I saw taxis driving into the porch of the hotel, bringing other participants from the airport. I entered the foyer to retrieve my room keys when my eyes fell on a pretty young girl in kameez and straight pajamas reclining on an arm chair by the receptionist's counter. As I started to walk towards the elevator something about the innocent school-girl face nagged me. I knew that face. Just as the lift clattered and arrived, so did my memory. I turned back and walked up to the figure. "Excuse me, but aren't you Kamila Shamsie?"

NEXT WEEK: The Company of Women-2 : The Warbling


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