“Men distance themselves in autobiographies that are ‘success stories and histories of the era’, focused on professional lives while women’s life writing emphasises personal and domestic details and describes connections to other people,” writes feminist scholar Estelle Jelinek in the introduction to Women’s Autobiography, Essays in Criticism. She goes on to say that men aggrandise themselves in autobiographies while women seek to authenticate themselves in stories that reveal self-consciousness and a need to sift through their lives for explanation and understanding. “Men shape the events of their lives into coherent wholes characterised by linearity, harmony and orderliness. Irregularity, however, characterises the lives of women and their text which have disconnected, fragmentary patterns of diffusion and diversity.”
Jelinek also challenges the fixed lens of social goals, material success and power through which personal narratives are seen. Unlike mainstream scholarship, Jelinek values the cracked format, discontinuity of language and lack of historical coherence of women confined to private spaces. An autobiography or a memoir is a travelogue of one’s past, an attempt to trace the footprints of experiences which are woven in the life of a writer and it makes a great difference in both social and literary terms when the autobiography is written by a woman. A woman’s writing about her own being is socially and culturally taken as her body in public, which has always been seen through a different lens than a man’s body. Therefore, to expose one’s personal life is not yet common. The first thaw of this frozen compliance was observed when Simone De Beauvoir came up with the memoirs of her unconventional life, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. “By writing a work based on my own experience I would recreate myself and justify my existence. At the same time I would be serving humanity: what more beautiful gift could I make it than the books I would write,” De Beauvoir said.
This is the reason behind the lack of sufficient autobiographies written by Sindhi women writers. There is hardly an autobiographical account by a woman that reveals the subjective depth and emotional heights present in the memoirs of Shabnum Gul, My Sunflower. The author of many books, both of poetry and short stories, Gul appeared as a playwright in 1989 on the Sindhi literary scene and the same year she wrote her first short story. Her first collection of poetry, Akhri Lafz (The Final Word), appeared in 1993, Unjantal Shehr jo Naqsho (The Map of an UnknownCity), a collection of short stories, came out in 1995 and Muhnjo Sooraj Mukhe (My Sunflower), a memoir, is her latest book. However, Lehran jo Geet (The Song of Waves), a collection of radio plays, Tanha Pal (Solitary Moment), another book of short stories and a comparative study of western poets and Shah Bhittai are under publication.
Though knowing that to pen a memoir or to make public the accounts of a personal life is a difficult task for a woman writer and that the merging of the public and the private may play mayhem in the social life of any famous woman, Gul didn’t hesitate to write about the emotional and psychological up and downs in her life. However, she admits that some aspects of her life are still untouched in the book.
The memoirs revolve around her two children and the sensitivity of family relationships is very much central to the text. My Sunflower is not well-planned; essentially, the sudden death of her newborn baby and the suffering in its aftermath pushes Gul to write her daily accounts. The trauma causes Gul to hallucinate, suffer from insecurity and fury, and feel detached from world of realities. “Whenever I saw toys or children I felt bursts of pain which would sweep me away into a state of oblivion. At that time I begin to write my feelings as a mother who has lost her world of hope, world of stars, of moon, clouds and fairies.”
When after six months Gul conceives another child, the long period of depression and anxiety begins all over again. Being all alone, confined to an apartment with restricted movement, Gul again psychologically connects to world of phantoms, fears and fantasies. “I was divided into the past and present and was afraid of losing the second child too,” she says.
In the opening chapter of My Sunflower Gul portrays herself suffering the symptoms of a breakdown during her second pregnancy. Reading the entire account one starkly feels the absence of youth, of the touches of love and of follies in the text. But this seems to be a result of a conscious attempt by Gul as sensual and sentimental love is still considered a no-go area for women in Sindhi literature. Instead, to highlight the prohibited and profound emotional sentiments and intimate relations, Gul uses the figure of a mother as a metaphor to decipher insecurities, fear, distress, infuriation and annoyance within family relations which push children to pessimism.
“I found insecurity lurking behind [my mother’s] eyes throughout her life,” Gul writes. “We missed her in her presence. She was a dreamer. She was restricted from continuing her studies and had to face many traumas and turmoil in her life. She felt a sense of rejection and threat because at that time people received daughters with reluctance. I saw many creative aspects in my mother; she was a tremendously good singer; her art work was amazing. Unfortunately, whatever she dreamt of for her life she couldn’t translate into reality but I was able to do it with my writing. In this manner, I fulfilled her dreams.”
Childhood becomes a curse when a child has to be a silent spectator to an unhappy relationship between the father and the mother. Similar was the case of Gul’s childhood. She writes, “the wounds of childhood turn into scars in adulthood.” Having witnessed mistrust and fractured relationships, Gul’s dream revolves around the ideal concept of home: “I feel love for an imaginary home that was in my thoughts since my childhood. I had a romantic concept of my room, a sanctuary for my wandering thoughts. In the rough weathers of my life, I felt the importance of the home where I spent my childhood, as a strong pillar facing blows of winds and rainstorms. I wanted to save it at any cost from thunderstorms. I love happy homes where children can feel safe and secure. This is a reason I have a soft spot for all homes, whether they are the homes of dreams which reside in the eyes or real homes standing on earth.”
At the peak of pessimism, to dream is the only way for Gul to strengthen herself and to lead her life. Therefore, she never gives up dreaming and seems ever ready to pay the cost: “I am not the realistic one but live in dreams … for me, my eyes are only to dream … but this is the age to be realistic, it doesn’t suit to dream … knowing that there is only pain for dreaming eyes.”
For Gul, words are not mere terms to fascinate minds but the real motivators and builders of broken faith and fractured beliefs. Words are her power. Her words and writing gives her confidence which she wants to transfer to her daughter: “The pessimism in my life is the byproduct of the environment around me,” she says, admitting that the act of dreaming pushes her to a world of splendour and beauty.
“In the ugliness of life, I always tried to find aspects of beauty. The dreams which are killed under the dark shadow of senselessness and suppression and preserved in morgues, these dreams under dead eyes give me an incentive to write. I like dreams. They float into eyes and like the lotus, seem beautiful. Under the silken flounce of eyelashes flicker these dreams as beams giving testimony of life. But when snatched from the eyes, these dreams disappear and in the perturbed lines of the eyes they remain as an unexpressed twinge. And I longed to read unsaid words. They took me to the depths of pain where, drowning, I couldn’t find the shore.”