Indian-origin literary icon Suniti Namjoshi has cemented her presence as an ardent poet and fabulist and an exceptionally resilient feminist and queer-rights advocate over many decades. Born in Mumbai in 1941, Namjoshi is a poet and fabulist who, through her works, has challenged the ideas of female and queer representation in South Asian culture.
Namjoshi’s career trajectory went through major changes, and she converted a successful career in public administration into one in academia. She completed her doctoral thesis on Ezra Pound and lectured in the Department of English at the University of Toronto in the 1970s and 80s, a time when she began publishing some of her earlier feminist writings. One such book is her 1985 novella, The Conversations of Cow.
The book’s concept is a powerful mixture of essays and fables that examines the self-inserted characters of Suniti, a lesbian feminist, and Bhadravati, a cow. It is insinuated that “The Cow” is the representation of the mythological character of Kamadhenu, or ‘the cow who fulfils all desires’ (kama meaning desire and dhenu, cow). It draws upon Hindu mythology, where cows are considered sacred. Bhadravathi, however, is a lesbian Indian immigrant in Canada, much like the protagonist, Suniti, but in the form of a cow. She is all that Suniti wishes to be—an unashamed Indian lesbian who uses American mannerisms and is comfortable in her identity. More than all, Bhadravathi is surrounded by a strong group of lesbian friends; the cow is brave, audacious, and accepted by her peers.
Through the deeply ingrained values of equality and queer representation in her literary pieces, Suniti Namjoshi has long been representing the core values of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for Reduced Inequalities. Her works focus on the political and social equality of the sexes and individuals of various sexual orientations, especially in inherently conservative societies, aligned with the ideas fostered by the UN.
Namjoshi spent a year in England during her sabbatical from the University of Toronto from 1978 to ‘79. In an emailed conversation with The Poetry International, she emphasized how this period changed her view of literature. “There was the sense that a strong feminist movement existed, and for a writer, this meant that there was an audience—a readership—to whom I might make sense. That was enormously exhilarating, and it allowed me to think, explore, and and to write,” she said.
In a 1985 interview with English author Gillian Hanscombe, Namjoshi said that her book, The Conversations With Cow, is “concerned with identity and alienation, and one of the things that happens with identity is that it is demolished utterly.” She explains that the protagonist Suniti “has no past” and “exists in the continuous present,” highlighting her Canadian experience. “I am not sure that a Western person would be willing to demolish identity so thoroughly,” she said, indicating that her roots in a religious Indian society pushed her to destroy her birth identity to find herself.
However, Suniti’s explorations of a lesbian identity did not end there. Through her works like Because of India: Selected Poems and Fables and Goja: An Autobiographical Myth she presents the dilemmas of a lesbian poet in a heteronormative environment, powering the way for queer characters to be represented in literature as equally and casually as their heterosexual counterparts. In her work The Jackass and the Lady, she attempts to declassify textual evidence to understand the origins of homophobic tendencies in male-centric societies, concluding that boundaries on alternate sexual identities are often imposed to maintain standard patriarchal societies.
In 1987 Namjoshi departed the University of Toronto to become a full-time writer and an active participant in Canada’s women-focused and LGBTQ political movements. Her work has heavily focused on the intersectionality of her identity - especially that of a South Asian immigrant, feminist and lesbian. “The feminist analysis applies equally to any underprivileged group or the less powerful,” she said in an interview with The Hindu. “It only shows how the powerful work to keep the status quo. Now, questioning that is important, and necessary. If wanting a fairer, more decent society is being feminist, then I’m a feminist.”
Eventually, Suniti moved to the United Kingdom to become a research fellow at the Centre for Women’s Studies at Exeter University. Today, she lives with her partner, Gillian Hanscombe, in Devon and works as a full-time writer.
Literature has always played a special role in reducing stigmas surrounding various groups of people in a society - giving them the voice, representation and equality they deserve. Writers like Suniti Namjoshi have fought the standard notions of society for generations, and with their continued contributions to the realms of literature and art, they lead the society towards a world of more acceptance, diminished discrimination and reduced inequalities.