gender Posts

“Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas get Ignored in an Economy built for Men” by Katrine Marcal, translated from the Swedish by Alex Fleming

Bestselling author Katrine Marcal’s latest offering, Mother of Invention: How Good Ideas get Ignored in an Economy built for Men ( William Collins, HarperCollins India) is very clearly about the importance of women in contributing to specific economic systems that have gone on to transform social behaviour/history. It has been a sexist understanding, recording and reading of histories that have credited men with the success of certain innovations, whereas Katrine proves with her detailed readings of some of the historic global events has been that the contribution of women was undeniable. Unfortunately, it was not understood sufficiently, recorded or interpreted by men who designed, controlled and managed systems. Take for instance, the absurd case of the seamstresses and Nasa’s inability to approve the space suit, even though they could see that it was far superior to the rest. Their internal assessment recorded that no other suit even came a close second. Yet, because there were no engineers on the job, recording the designs that the women were creating using 4,000 pieces of cloth and using a single-hole sewing machine to ensure precision of their lines, NASA rejected the space suit. It was only after the manufacturing company chose to hire a team of engineers to “translate” a perfectly understable sewing job into gobbledygook, that the NASA top brass was satisfied and gave their approval to the space suit which was eventually worn by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they walked on the moon! Meanwhile the seamstresses themselves scoffed at the pages and pages of material and said they did not have the time to wade through it. The point the author makes is that because sewing was considered a “soft” skill, irrespective of the fact that it had existed for as long as civilization, but was mostly perceived as a woman’s expertise, it was dismissed. It did not have the masculine touch of being presented in technical jargon and thereby making it seem worthwhile. I was reading about Benz and his invention of a horseless carriage and how he was stupid about exploiting it commercially. It required the brilliance of his wife, who sneaked out the car from their garage with her teenage sons, and then drove it to visit her mother, 90 miles away. They drove at the top speed of 16 miles/hour, with many breakdowns along the way. One of them requiring her hat pin to fix. In another when the brakes were heating up, she stopped at a cobbler and asked for a leather strap to be put around the brakes. She reached her mother’s home triumphantly 15 hours later. Many of her innovations of that day are still used in cars. And also thanks to her proving that the horseless carriage could be driven and was safe, the machine became a commercial success. But no one remembers her name, they only remember her husband, who soon became the second half of “Mercedes Benz”.

Her name? Bertha.

How is that for a gendered perspective on an age-old story?!

There are many more such stories in the book. Also a fascinating overview of recent theories about economies from a gendered and a non-gendered perspective. Katrine Marcal dissects these popular statements/books by male “thought leaders” such as Yuval Noah Harari, Jordan Peterson, Nassim Taleb et al. She concludes that it is imperative to include women in narratives because the moment it is done, the ground beneath us shifts and a new and a truer history emerges.

Katrine has a nuanced reading of the importance of women in history. She has really done a fine job of rescuing women and done them a massive service. She has balanced the accounts as it were to show how integral they are part of any economy. They are equal contributors in making society successful and businesses successful, thereby being essential contributors to the economy. There is a wonderful account in this book on the history of venture capitalism and whalers of the nineteenth century and how many of those concepts have been transplanted decades later to modern businesses. Sadly though, in more cases than one would like, these venture capitalists continue to igmore the contribution made by women to various economies. This is a gender balanced reading of economic history. By this narrative, Katrine is trying to upend the sexist narrative of economy that has been passed through generations and conveyed as the absolute truth.

It is a good book. Much along the lines of what Angela Saini has done for science, Katrine Marcal has done for women and innovation.

1 August 2021

Malala Yousafzai, British Vogue, June 2021

In the June 2021 issue of Vogue ( British edition), Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai has been interviewed. It is a good interview as it puts the spotlight on a young twenty-three-year-old who is at the crossroads of her life, figuring out the eternal question — “what next?” Many questions are asked and a lively conversaion ensues until the silly question of relationships is posed by the interviewer. Malala’s response to it has resulted in a significant amount of trolling on social media platforms.

She isn’t sure if she’ll ever marry herself. “I still don’t understand why people have to get married. If you want to have a person in your life, why do you have to sign marriage papers, why can’t it just be a partnership?” Her mother – like most mothers – disagrees. “My mum is like,” Malala laughs, “‘Don’t you dare say anything like that! You have to get married, marriage is beautiful.’” Meanwhile, Malala’s father occasionally receives emails from prospective suitors in Pakistan. “The boy says that he has many acres of land and many houses and would love to marry me,” she says, amused.

Pakistani author, Bina Shah, wrote a fabulous post on her blog The Feminstani about this interview. Here is an extract:

Well, shit. Pakistani social media alighted upon this quote as if they were kites in the sky who had spotted a particularly tasty scrap of meat. If they were looking for something with which to bludgeon her to death, they found it: in the musings of a young woman who’s still trying to figure things out, things that confound the best and brightest of us, and the stupidest of us. “Should I get married or not, and why does there have to be marriage in the first place” is a question we’ve all asked ourselves, if we’ve got a single ounce of intelligence in our brains. (at 48, I know I ask myself the same question, and up to date neither have I found an appropriate answer nor a suitable candidate. And yet I still hope to get married some day.)

I don’t want to go into the nasty comments, the Z-list actresses who came out with statements against Malala, or the taunts of “un-Islamic” and “Zionist agent” that were showered upon Pakistan’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, one of its few Oxford graduates, and possibly the only girl in Pakistan to have been shot in the head and survived. They called her ugly, and that of course she wants a partnership because she’s too ugly to have a husband (in her interview, Malala said that men propose marriage in e-mails to her father all the time). The usual round of accusations and bizarre conspiracy theories — it’s a drama, she wanted a foreign passport, she was chosen by Jewish overlords to become Prime Minister of Pakistan — came out. In short, we’ve been on this rodeo before.

Also useless is to point out to the Pakistanis howling that Malala’s remarks on marriage are unIslamic that the concept of marriage in Islam, while strong and emphasized as part of Sunnah, has been fairly flexible over the centuries. A valid marriage contract written down on paper is not actually required; just a verbal agreement with witnesses will do (if we want to be very literal about it). In its early years, Islam also allowed sexual relationships with women you are not married to, but are “those whom your right hand posesses” — ie female prisoners of war, and concubines (for men only, not for women who own male slaves). A practice of temporary marriage, i.e mutah, was allowed at one point, which would then be dissolved after an agreed-upon amount of time had elapsed.

Some of these practices were established for reasons of practicality, and some of them have been abused rather than treated as the exceptions or temporary situations meant to give rights to children born out of the traditional marriage scenario. Some of these practices have been abolished, or outlawed in the modern nations where Islam is practiced. Many of these practices continue in secret. The evolution of a written marriage contract is a modern invention made in order to safeguard certain legal rights of the participants, as well as to be able to register marriages in records and databases. But there was once a time when nothing more was required for a binding partnership than two people saying in front of two witnesses that they wanted to be together as spouses.

Marriage is in short not the solid brick house that Pakistanis want to build and entrap two people in forever, regardless of their feelings, their needs, wants and desires. It is exactly what Malala expresses a little clumsily in her interview: a partnership with a door that either partner can open to leave any time she or he wants, with good reason. The Quran is clear that spouses are meant to be a comfort to one another, to have affection for one another, and to guard each others’ privacy and secrets. But it forces no one to marry against their will. If Malala is not ready to marry, and if she is never ready to marry, then she is within her rights not to do so.

In response, I wrote an email to Bina. Here is an extract from it:

It will be interesting to observe how Malala breaks her childhood shackles and really comes into her own. She is 23. So young and yet has achieved so much. For now the Vogue article has highlighted the struggle that a desi girl of her age has to face. The problem in this particular case is that Malala is a role model for girls across faiths and countries. She is a feminist icon. Whether it is the Pakistani male  or any other Muslim man or any other man for that matter, they simply cannot handle such a confident young girl like Malala. Offering to marry her because the suitor owns immense property is a sham. The man is eyeing the Nobel Laureate as a trophy to forever house in his home and probably improve his social worth. Most desi men, across our fractured borders, have the same conservative mindset. 

If Malala had to truly break shackles and live her life according to her terms, then it is no one’s business to question her sexuality, her choice in partnerships or the kind of arrangements she opts for. Alas, she is caught between two worlds — the public image and the conservative Pakistani Muslim community. She has to straddle these worlds. 

The Vogue question about relationships was unfortunate but it holds true for any celebrity. Journalists cannot resist asking women celebrities about their sexual life and their marital status. It is what makes the papers sell. So for me, this interview with Malala, is more than her being representative of a Pakistani Muslim girl, but being an icon/representative of this new generation of girls. They have been exposed to so much more information about being empowered, what it takes to be an empowered girl, facing the violence, making choices and being articulate. This is what defines these young girls. Unfortunately, the desi girls who belong to this generation are also weighed down by other baggage such as the expectations of their families and wider circle of “settling down”. 

I remember when my Dadi would go on and on about it, I always felt as if being married was like being evicted from Paradise and like Satan as described by Milton in Paradise Lost, plummeting through a neverending blackness. It is as if achieving married status was the be all and end all of life. Whereas in my reckoning, I was just beginning my life and did not need to be burdened by such questions. It really mucked up many years of my life. When I finally chose, I chose on my own terms, no one else’s. Even so, it was a late marriage by everyone’s reckoning. 

You are so right about the backlash Malala has faced for her response. This is the first of many she is going to face. This silly statement of her’s will haunt her for years to come, it will be dissected in polite and not-so-polite circles as how could this seemingly polite, young girl, who (as you point out) covers her head with a dupatta, can have such strong ideas. Well, of course she can. You and I know from firsthand experience that we may dress in our desi clothes but hell, no one can ever mentally shackle us or presume to do so in any other way. It bothers folks. We don’t necessarily strut about wearing the latest Western fashions but we do have some of the most modern ideas of living. I bet you have come across many desi girls who wear the latest hip-hop clothes, but heavens, they spout the most conservative attitudes towards women.

Malala has to negotiate this space on her own but I sincerely hope that she has some good guidance regarding gender. She needs to engage in conversation and figure this out for herself. It was an unfair and loaded question. She should not have been asked it as it seems as if the interviewer was seeing only a young girl of marriageable age. Sad. The kid has won a Nobel Prize, for heaven’s sake. Give her her due. She has survived a bullet wound to the head and has managed to recover sufficiently to attend classes. How many people are fortunate to be able to do that after a head injury? 

Perhaps this is what was needed. A furious questioning of these attitudes, the desire to let the younger generation express themselves freely without being burdened by “traditional” customs and this is beyond the borders of Pakistan. It is a universal truth. In many, many ways, times have changed considerably, especially for girls and women. This is a debate that will rage for some time given that a celebrity like Malala Yousafzai has expressed her opinions about it. But for now, this is accompanied by hashtags such as “Shame on Malala” trending on Twitter.

Instead of shaming the young girl, the journalists posing these prying questions about the celebrity’s relationship status should be shamed.

5 June 2021

Daughter by Court Order

The Supreme Court of India has given a tremendous boost to the rights of women in families, holding that daughters cannot be deprived of their right of equality. In a judgement earlier this week, the Supreme Court ruled that daughters will have equal coparcenary (joint heirship) rights in joint Hindu family property even if the father died before the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005.

The struggle of women in India to have independent identities and to rise above patriarchy runs deep, but the status of women fighting for their rights is not often represented in literature. However, a seminal bestselling book of 2014 raised the issue of patriarchy and the fight of a single mother to establish her identity in the face of power, money, deceit, and treachery. Ratna Vira’s debut novel, Daughter By Court Order, is the story of a woman fighting for her right to be recognised as a daughter. This is a must read and it explores with sensitivity and frankness the real issues that women in India deal with.

12 August 2020

“The Letter Q: Queer Writers Notes To Their Younger Selves”

“The Letter Q: Queer Writers Notes To Their Younger Selves” edited by Sarah Moon and contributing editor, James Lecesne, is an anthology of letters by award-winning authors and illustrators such as Armistead Maupin, David Levithan, Amy Bloom, Jacqueline Woodson, Brian Selznick, Bill Clegg, David Ebershoff, Eileen Myles, Michael Cunningham, and Arthur Levine to name a few. It is an interesting anthology where the letters have a markedly controlled tenor that is probably nowhere close to the confusion and mixed feelings they experienced as youngsters. As adults the contributors are expected to exhibit some maturity and share experiences in a measured tone. Having said that it is hard to believe that while recalling their past and writing to a younger self, raw wounds were not opened once more with accompanying emotional upheavals. But the editors seem to have managed to cap it all and produce an anthology that is readable and is able to communicate calmly with its intended audience. In all likelihood it will work for teenagers as well as counsellors, educators and care givers too. This book has been edited by Sarah Moon in collaboration with James Lecesne, founder of The Trevor Project, an organization’s dedicated to preventing LGBTQ teen suicide. This is a book meant to be read. Share it. Discuss it. Use it as a conversation starter.

29 October 2019

Tuesday Reads ( Vol 9), 15 October 2019

Dear Reader,

There is a sudden deluge of books being released to coincide with the ongoing Frankfurt Book Fair, the mecca of publishing and of course, as a run-up to Christmas/ gifts. Some of the big name releases that have happened in recent weeks have been Ann Patchett’s incredibly stunning The Dutch House and Jio Talentino’s absorbing collection of essays called Trick Mirror. There have been other books too like Melinda Gates The Moment of Lift, Candace Bushnell’s Is there still sex in the city? Or the absorbing but light biography of The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves by Andrew Lownie.

Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House is such a beautiful book that it is impossible to describe. I read it weeks ago but could not bring myself to spoil the heartbreakingly fabulous experience of reading it. It is historical fiction for it is set at the time of the second world war in Philadelphia. It is about two siblings –Danny and Maeve– whose father, Cyril Conroy, a landlord, made it supremely rich through sheer hard work and wise investments. As a result he was able to haul his family out of impoverished circumstances to buy a magnificent house with its contents built by Dutch immigrants – the VanHoebeek. It is an unsettling experience for their mother who soon abandons their family to mysteriously vanish from their lives. It is said she left for India. Meanwhile Cyril Conroy marries again. This time a woman with two daughters. The stepmother in true fairy story style banishes the children from the home once Cyril dies unexpectedly. Maeve and Danny learn to fend for themselves. Slowly putting their lives back together. Years later they reflect upon their childhood. As Ann Patchett points out in an interview with The Guardian that we are embarrassed by grief, and The Dutch House is multi-layered because of the varieties of grief it addresses. Every time leaving a large gaping hole even in the reader’s heart but a sense of yearning to read more. It is a stunning novel which will haunt one for a long time to come. It is bound to find a place on the longlist of next year’s Women’s Prize.

New Yorker staff writer Jio Talentino’s Trick Mirror is a collection of her essays published previously. It is a combination of reportage and memoir. It is not easy to read at one sitting for its very thought provoking ideas on feminism, sexual assault, universities, wedding festivities etc. It is such a wide range of subjects that she tackles, always with an incisive feminist outlook, that it becomes immaterial after a point that many of her observations are based on very local and personal experiences. This is the beauty of essay writing that if the ideas discussed in the essay resonate with readers beyond a specific geographic landscape – beyond Trump, UVA in Charlottesville etc– and cut through borders of all kinds to have the desired impact of evaluating and challenging one’s thoughts, then it is extremely powerful writing. There are two excellent reviews of Talentino’s book — “Songs of my Self-Care” by Jacqueline Rose in the New York Review of Books ( 10 October 2019) and “Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino review – on self-delusion” by Lidija Haas ( 2 August 2019).

Billionaire Melinda Gates’s The Moment of Lift is a curious little book. The Gates couple are known for their philanthropy and have been in the public eye for years. They are very guarded about their private life which is fair. For instance, when their children were enrolled in school it was using their mother’s surname rather than their father’s more famous last name. This strong desire to withhold their personal space from the public eye in the memoir is also fair except that it makes the tenor of the book very bland. There are glimpses of the tussle Melinda Gates may have had with herself in making what are seemingly “simple” decisions such as venturing into the promotion of contraceptives for women. Given her very Catholic upbringing where her mother attends mass five times a week, this could not have been an easy focus area for Melinda to pick for her philanthropy. There are many instances in the book that while it is obvious Melinda Gates has the privilege to access information easily, she remains a reserved individual who does not allow any glimpses than are absolutely necessary into her private space. Justifiably a fair choice except that in a memoir that functions more than just an account of her life but is more like a publicity statement for her magnificent work in women’s healthcare. These barriers to her privacy as well as to the information that she is being shown that can cause complications creating a very insipid book for its statistically rich in data but bland in context. Her ambiguity about expressing herself strongly about her Catholic upbringing with the reality she sees in the poverty stricken parts of the world. Or for that matter her problematic narrative of India which seems very focussed on it being a casteist Hindu society with absolutely no mention whatsoever about the syncretic cultural fabric of this democracy.  Even the heavy sprinkling of anecdotes cannot relieve the boredom, this despite the celebrity buzz with even President Barack Obama releasing videos supporting the book. Having said that there is one incident that Melinda Gates refers to in her book of a little girl child of a scavenger’s community in Kanpur. The child was bold enough to ask the Gates Foundation delegates for a teacher. This is a perfect match to a beautiful wordless picture book called Puu published by Scholastic India.

The other big ticket release recently has been the unauthorised biography of the Mountbattens – Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India who oversaw the independence of India and Pakistan—one of the many prestigious positions of authority he held. He was also Prince Philip’s cousin and instrumental in insisting that the British Royal family taken on the name “House of Windsor”. The Mountbattens is written by Andrew Lownie and based on extensive research, interviews with family members as well as those who knew the Mountbattens well. Lownie even acknowledges Queen Elizabeth II for granting access to her archives as part of his research. So for the first time there are accounts of Lord Mountbatten’s career, his mistakes and successes as well as of bisexuality (denied by the family). The “detailed” account of Lady Mountbatten as the poor little rich girl, who was the richest heiress of her generation when she married Lord Mountbatten is equally focused on her promiscuity as it is with all other details of her life. There are photographs, an extensive bibliography, footnotes and a detailed index. The book has plenty of anecdotes that make for a rollicking good read except that it all falls apart towards the end when Lownie acknowledges that the Mountbatten’s myth is managed by exercising control at the archives in Broadlands or closed under Ministerial Directive at the Hartley Library. All said and done it is a book that makes for an interesting read and will probably be optioned for a film or a TV miniseries very soon for its got all the razzmatazz that will go down well with a global audience of a period drama.

In a similar vein is the memoir that Candace Bushnell has written after crossing sixty — Is there still sex in the city? It is a light and superficial read about a woman worrying about money and life even though she and her girlfriends can afford to own homes at the Hamptons, New York. Privileged women can offer quite a bit through their memoirs as they are privileged not just in financial security but have easy access to information, data, statistics — which increasingly have a price barrier to them. Thus offering a broader perspective on issues that preoccupy women as they become older. Issues like marital relationships, separations, losing dear friends, how to come to terms with old age, healthcare, having the energy to be with family and friends, increasing loneliness, managing busyness of life etc. Of course there will be vast degrees of differences between those in different points of the socio-economic scale but certain learnings are the same. Oh well! It is an opportunity lost with Candace Bushnell’s memoir.

More later,

JAYA  

15 October 2019

Interview with Neha J. Hiranandani on “Girl Power!”

Ever since the phenomenal success of Rebel Girls some years ago there has been a proliferation of books tom-tomming about the achievement of girls/ women, many of whom whose contribution to their respective sectors has been silenced for an extremely long time —an unforgivable act. Yet with the popularisation of movements like #MeToo and the visibility of such girl-centric literature in popular culture has made a remarkable case for many more such books to appear. The danger lies falling into the trap of emulating a successful formula and creating a damp squib or creating a triumphant collection such former journalist Neha J. Hiranandani’s feisty Girl Power!

It is a challenging task to visually and succinctly represent a core idea, more so an idea that seemingly goes against the “norm”. And this is why Girl Power! is so magnificent. It stands out from much else that in this space for it puts together beautifully a profile that has charmed the author. It is as if the woman whom Neha Hiranandani is writing about has really moved her in some way. Otherwise the absence of living legends such as activists Aruna Roy & Medha Patkar, writer Arundhati Roy, historian Romila Thapar, wrestler Vinesh Phogat etc remains inexplicable. For there seems to be no other explanation, save Neha’s subjectivity, for this very disparate collection of women profiled in Girl Power!

Neha Hiranandani’s fascination for her project manifests itself in the funky descriptor she offers after every name. It is super cool, so in keeping with the loud, assertive and sparkly book cover as if to say, “We women are proud of our achievement and are here to stay!” It effectively communicates her passion with younger readers.

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Neha J Hiranandani is a writer whose columns have appeared in The Indian Express, Huffington Post, NDTV, and Vogue among others. She holds degrees in Literature and Education from Wellesley College and Harvard University.

Here are lightly edited excerpts of an interview conducted via email:

1.How did the idea of doing Girl Power! come to you?

My 7-year-old daughter, Zoya absolutely loved Rebel Girls. As a mother, I was so happy to see her being inspired by incredible women from around the world. But then one day she came to me clutching her beloved copy of Rebel Girls and asked sadly “Does India only have two rebels?” pointing to Mary Kom and Rani Laxmibai. Of course I immediately wanted to tell her all about the phenomenal women that India has had – our rule breakers, our mavericks, our smashers of ceilings. We spent the next few months discovering these women together. It was magnificent! I quickly realized that these were stories that all our girls – and even our boys – should hear.

2. There is a deluge of women-centric profiles in the market. Why is Girl Power! special?

I was very lucky to work with an incredible artist – Niloufer Wadia – whose illustrations have brought these stories to life. Unlike other books which follow a standard ‘one-page text + one-page illustration’ format, Niloufer and I wanted the text and the illustrations to work together. And so, every page of Girl Power! has the story and the artwork talking to one another which makes for an incredible reading experience.  That, and I think the selection of women is very special!

3. How did you identify the women profiled in the book? Whom did you have to drop from your original list and why?

This was easily my favourite part of the project! I was clear that this wasn’t going to be just a list of accomplished Indian women – the women in this book had to be mavericks, ceiling smashers! And so I set about finding the stories and really, what stories they are! Every story made me feel me proud to be Indian all over again. You will meet a spy princess who parachuted into France, a warrior queen who defended India from the Portugese six times! There’s Subhasini Mistry who worked as a maid before winning a Padma Bhushan for healthcare, and Chandro Tomar, the octogenarian sharpshooter, popularly known as Revolver Dadi. Of course, there are some household names as well including PV Sindhu and Priyanka Chopra.  But personally, I am very proud of the untold stories. They were so exciting to discover!

I have tried to be as inclusive as possible. Girl Power! includes stories from across the country, across industries and across time periods. I also tried to pick stories that had an identifiable ‘Kodak moment’ that could be written coherently in 300 words or less. This is easier said than done, especially given that all of these women have led very layered and nuanced lives!

With that said, I am the first to admit that this is not an exhaustive list – that would run into volumes and is well beyond the scope of this project.

4. The descriptor used as a subtitle in every chapter encapsulates the spirit of the woman profiled vividly. For example, “Raga Rockstar” for M S Subbulakshmi, “Accidental Entrepreneur” for Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, “Rule Breaker” for Dakshayani Velayudhan, “Inspirational Archer” for Deepika Kumari, or “Daredevil Doctor” for Anandibai Joshee. How did you come up with these fascinating descriptions?

These women have led such interesting lives, it would be a failing on my part to not give them interesting descriptors!

5. Girl Power! comes across as a broad sweep of profiling women across socio-economic classes giving the impression as if popular stories were incorporated. What kind of research methodology did you employ particularly what were the oral histories that you accessed?

This book will always be special to me for so many reasons. And perhaps, the most important one is that it connected me to many incredible people – men and women – who I’m grateful to have met. Apart from the internet research and the scouting in libraries, I knew that many of the stories were going to come from conversations. And so they did! Over cups of tea in the most unlikely of places – from railway stations to parks – I have spoken to people about the women who have moved them, inspired them. Some of the stories didn’t work out because I couldn’t confirm their factual accuracy but others did. For many parts of the book, I wanted to move beyond the well-known women and tell stories of ordinary women who have done extraordinary things. It was in that quest – of finding the ordinary-extraordinary woman – that our unmatched recounting of oral histories became important. Sometimes, it’s just about having the conversation!

6. Every chapter consists of a sprinkling of quotes by the women profiled. Such as ‘As long as I moved around with Mankeshaw [her husband], people did not take me seriously,” said Homai Vyarawalla, the photographer or “No field of work belongs to any gender”, says Harshini, the firefighter or actress Priyanka Chopra attributes her success to following the three Fs – “by being fierce, by being fearless and by being flawed”. Where are these quotes from as there are no bibliographical details provided?

Along with the team at Scholastic India, I was meticulous in making sure that every fact was double-checked. Many times this meant watching several documentaries for a 5 word-quote or finding obscure books and articles in dusty libraries. While there is no bibliography in the book, we have maintained an exhaustive back-of-house bibliography! So for instance, the quote by Homai Vyarwalla is from an article in the Hindu, the one from Harshini Kanhekar is from an interview with Jovita Aranha, and the one by Priyanka Chopra is from a lecture she gave on ‘Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Chasing a Dream’ at a Penguin event back in 2017.

7. Some profiles make passing references such as to Amrita Shergill’s “South Indian trilogy” or Dipa Karmakar’s “new book” or to a “rifle club” in Chandro Tomar’s neighbourhood which her granddaughter was attending – all very intriguing and remains unexplained? Was it a deliberate intent on your part to leave these as is to encourage inquisitive readers to delve into some research of their own?

Absolutely! This book gives a quick insight into the lives of these incredible women. It provides the ‘hook’ of an interesting time in that woman’s life to lure the reader in. The ultimate idea is that a child finds that ‘Kodak moment’ interesting and says “Hey, that’s cool I didn’t know that but now I want to find out more.”

8. How important is the picture book format to communicate with young readers particularly when it is a critical idea such as challenging rules, mostly patriarchal, to pursue your dreams?

I think it’s critical! Visuals go a long way in keeping a young reader interested and this is especially so in a format like Girl Power!’s where the text and illustration talk to each other on every page.

9. With this book are you addressing both boys and girls? What impact do you hope to create?

One might assume that this book is only addressed to young girls. That would be a terrible mistake. In fact, if anything, I think this book is critical for our young boys. For far too long, our boys have seen us in certain roles – as a mother, as a wife etc. It’s time for them to see Indian women succeeding in places that were traditionally demarcated as ‘men only zones’ – as wrestlers, as scientists, as entrepreneurs! If nothing else, it will help them understand what’s coming down the pike in the future!

10. Were these stories tested on younger readers before publication? If so what was their reaction? Did you incorporate any of their suggestions in the manuscript?

My daughter and her friends were invaluable as I wrote Girl Power! Those kids were my first editors! During play dates, I would read out entire stories and meticulously comb through their suggestions. Many profiles – such as Rani Abbakka – were rewritten on the basis of these editorial inputs! Several times, the kids wanted more details on an event or character that they found interesting. So for instance, in the Rani Abbakka profile, they wanted to know exactly how she defeated the Portuguese armada. That’s when I knew I had to include the part about how Abbakka secretly gathered her best soldiers in the middle of the night. The kids were fascinated when I told them that Abbakka instructed her soldiers to attack with hundreds of coconut torches and agnivaan– flaming arrows dipped in oil – all at the same time. The arrows lit up the night sky setting the Portuguese ships ablaze. These inputs brought so much colour and detail to the profiles and I’m so grateful to the kids! I think it was those inputs that have sharpened the profiles and created the final product.

11. Did you work closely with the illustrator? Did you help the illustrator select an image upon which to build the illustration?

Niloufer Wadia is a wonderful, prolific illustrator who can handle many different artistic styles with ease. I did make suggestions for some profiles; for example, Bula Chowdhury is an ace swimmer who once said “I should have been born a fish.” And so for Bula, I asked Niloufer if we could create something dream-like with Bula in the waves, half-woman and half-fish, almost a mermaid. That is easily one of my favourite illustrations in the book. For other profiles, Niloufer created something breathtaking on her own; Priyanka Chopra’s illustration is half from an iconic Hindi movie in traditional Indian attire and half FBI agent, a character from her show Quantico. That was all Niloufer!

12. Would you describe yourself as a feminist or as someone who feels strongly about women’s issues?

To my mind, there is no other way to be!

To buy on Amazon India: https://amzn.to/2MI0zN9

14 October 2019

Scholastic India’s Pride list ( Oct 2018)

Scholastic India has just announced a fantastic collection of LGBTQ titles meant for young adults. Conversations about sexuality at the best of times are a difficult space for parents and educators to negotiate with teenagers but when it comes to having frank and open conversations about the gender spectrum then many folks are flummoxed. This Scholastic India list is a tremendous selection to begin with. The Scholastic group having accrued nearly a century of book publishing experience understands and is sensitive when it comes to making books, especially for young adults. So this is a fine selection of really powerful, thought-provoking and well written books exploring gender issues. Here is a peek in to what Scholastic India has to offer.

3 October 2018 

 

 

 

 

“I’m a REAL Boy” by Clayton Koh

The idea of masculinity which dominates across societies around the world is that of a heterosexual male oozing testosterone. The moment a male shows signs of being away from the “norm”, then the person is ridiculed. It is particularly difficult explaining to little boys that it is perfectly acceptable to be who they are, the choices they make whether in dress, speak or how they conduct themselves. People can be cruel. Children pick their cues from adults and are extremely vile. They are blunt in their actions and words towards children they do not recognise as “acceptable” or as has been dinned into their little minds.

This is where picture books like Clayton Koh’s I’m a Real Boy are extremely useful.  Every single episode in the story undermines the “norm” while slowly impressing upon the young reader that it is perfectly acceptable to be yourself. You could be scared of the dark, to be picked last for the school team and yet resolve to do my best, to make choices like wearing pink or baking or playing with girls in the playground or standing up against peer pressure. There is nothing wrong in these decisions. By doing so the story validates for the young reader the choices they make. The layout of the picture book is fascinating for it has all the prescriptive behaviour for little boys such as being a superhero, being rough and macho, playing with boys and their “boy toys” like trucks, being the team leader and sports captain, wanting to play war games etc.

Clayton Koh is an elementary school teacher who loves to swim, knit, paint with watercolours, kickbox and read. In an interview with The Star Online about I’m a REAL Boy he said:

[He] got the idea to write the book, which he also illustrated, during his final year at university.

“As part of my honours programme, I was required to do a research thesis before graduation. I chose the topic ‘Modern Masculinity’ and how masculinity deve­loped in Western societies over the decades and also cross-culturally,” explained Koh, whose parents are nurses.

“Boys feel a lot of pressure to conform to what society expects of them. Girls as well, but the feminist movement helped change that and broadened their potential,” said Koh, 23.

He added that men have always dominated the political, economic and employment sectors, therefore they face less discrimination in terms of getting equal rights or job opportunities.

“But in terms of interests or ­certain careers that men can pursue, there are certain mindsets and perceptions.”

He also felt that men were “not allowed” to express their emotions freely, which can lead to suicide and depression, and that many do not seek help until it is too late.

“So I decided to research these issues, put it in a kids’ perspective and hope this will reshape the way society thinks about masculinity,” said Koh, who emigrated to the United States with his family when he was three.

Now here is a true story posted on Twitter by @BijlaniDiksha about her younger cousin who was being ridiculed by his “stereotypical alpha-male centric household” for being a “chakka” (transgender).

Later Diksha adds:

Children (and adults) need to talk about sexuality and gender. This is exactly why there is a crying need for books* like I’m a REAL Boy to be read, shared and circulated, perhaps even translated in multiple languages.

Clayton Koh (text and illustrations) I’m a REAL Boy Scholastic India, Gurgaon, INDIA, 2008, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 32. Rs 80

22 June 2018 

Read more on “Literature and inclusiveness” ( Nov 2016)

Panel on “The Business of Books: Is there a Gender Gap in Publishing?”

(L-R) Aditi, Aarti, Rashmi, Jaya, Shantanu and Arpita

( Update: An expanded version of this blog post was published by Times of India on their website on 16 March 2018.)

To celebrate Women’s Day, ShethePeople organised a day long Women Writer’s Fest at Instituto Cervantes, New Delhi on Saturday, 10 March 2018. There were a range of fascinating panel discussions organised. I was moderated the midday session on “The Business of Books: Is there a Gender Gap in Publishing?”.

The panel consisted of eminent publishers such as: Aarti David, VP – Publishing, SAGE India; Shantanu Duttagupta, Head of Publishing, Scholastic India; Arpita Das, founder Yoda Press and co-founder Authors Press; Aditi Maheshwari-Goyal, Director, Copyrights and Translation, Vani Prakashan; and Rashmi Menon, Managing Editor, Amaryllis. The panel was a good representation of different kinds of publishing as they exist in India/ world today. SAGE is a multinational firm specialising in HSS (Humanities and Social Sciences) academic books and journals. Scholastic is a multinational firm specialising in children’s literature and is widely known for its direct marketing initiatives like school book fairs. Amaryllis is the English language imprint/firm launched by the Hindi publishing firm Manjul. Manjul Publishing is known globally for publishing the Hindi translation of Harry Potter. Recently Amaryllis announced its collaboration with HarperCollins India to distribute their books. Vani Prakashan is a family-owned business specialising in Hindi literature across disciplines and was established by Aditi’s grandfather. They also publish translations of international literature. Yodakin is an independent publishing firm co-founded by Arpita specialising in gender, social sciences academic books. They were the first to launch an LGBTQ list in India. A couple of years ago they announced a collaboration with SAGE India to co-publish titles. She is also the co-founder of a self-publishing firm called Authors Press.

The conversation which ensued was fascinating with anecdotal experience about publishing. Aarti David spoke of her entry into publishing after being told by a HR consultant that now she was the mother of a two year old child it would be very difficult for her to get a job. Fortunately the person who interviewed her at SAGE India for the post of an executive assistant was the legendary publisher, late Tejeshwar Singh. After the interview he offered her a post in the marketing department. She has never left the firm. In fact there is gender parity at SAGE evident at the senior management level too. Of course as Arpita pointed out this has to do with the insititutional culture given that one of the co-founders of SAGE is Sara Miller McCune.

Rashmi Menon asserted that this was a complicated topic as depending upon which layer of publishing function one viewed there were gender gaps to be seen. For instance in her experience gender gap was noticeable in every top layer of management but much less in the editorial departments of a publishing firm.

Arpita Das was very clear that a gender gap existed as she rightly pointed out, “Always ask who controls the money?” She too shared some powerful examples of how gender equations work within firms and the publishing eco-system. Unfortunately in her experience after many years of being a publishing professional none of these deeply embedded attitudes have disappeared or are showing any signs of lessening. To illustrate this point she spoke of the male messenger in her first publishing job who had been entrusted with the task of taking their final manuscripts to the printers. At the time of handover this person would stare at the chest of the editor who inevitably was a female. Once Arpita called him out and asked him to look directly in to her eyes and speak. Ever after that all her handovers to the printer had mistakes. Even now, years later, she finds that these scenarios are repeated with her younger colleagues and she is still having the same arguments.

Shantanu Duttagupta was the only male publisher in a women dominated panel. He was also the only publisher to be representing children’s literature which is more often than not viewed largely to be the purview of women editors. He was clear from the outset that the gender gap in their firm is rapidly narrowing. In fact according to a recent statistic released by their HR department nearly 60% of their employees are women. This includes departments that are otherwise not viewed traditionally as women-oriented roles like production, accounts, and sales. He also reiterated that in his opinion this gender gap was in all likelihood being corrected by the ever growing list of books by women where the gender role plays were being discussed, demonstrated and subverted. Classic example of this being Scholastic’s bestseller the Geronimo Stilton series that are written by an Italian woman and then translated into multiple languages.

Aditi had a fascinating perspective to share. Vani Prakashan traditionally sells in the Hindi-speaking belt of the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In her experience publishing firms established outside the metros in tier-2 and tier-3 towns as well as in the villages are increasingly being managed by women. They are even responsible for printing, publishing and promoting their books. Selling it in the market while balancing a baby on their hip. Nothing deters them from continuing with the business of publishing books. Even at their own firm it is her mother who is responsible for ensuring the GST is filed on time, the office is opened on time, all branches of the firm work efficiently with the employees clocking in on time and leaving on time too. Her mother plays an integral part of the daily running of the firm. But as Arpita pointed out that in many family owned business the role of the woman gains importance which may not necessarily be the case in corporate systems.

After listening to the various perspectives I shared my own experience in the industry. I shared how in the past nine months since the new taxation policy of GST ( 1 July 2017) was announced it has become amply clear how the business lines in this industry are divided. I say this from personal experience at having witnessed and/or participated in events that have been about the business of publishing. Soon after GST came into effect I chaired a panel discussion of tax lawyers with publishing professionals. For the first time in my career (and I have been associated with this industry since the early 1990s) I witnessed a gathering representing finance, production, and editorial. There were people from independent publishers to multinational firms. There were self-publishers. There were language publishers. There were trade, children’s literature and academic publishers. Both men and women were present with men outnumbering the women. In the past year whenever I have attended policy meetings, had conversations about the business of publishing, attended the recently concluded 32nd International Publishers Association Congress and researched for my reports on the book market of India, I have inevitably come across more men than women in key decision-making positions. By “key” I mean designations where the professionals have the authority to comment upon their firm’s business models, income-generating streams, focus on business of making money in an industry which traditionally survives on razor sharp profit margins or those who are at a liberty to speak on behalf of their companies. Having said that there is a perceptible shift in this gender composition of firms to see women workforces in accounting, sales, and production departments and some are distributors and buyers for book retail chains and increasingly men in editorial departments. This gender disparity is “reversed” where the feminisation of the creative side the publishing ecosystem is visible. Increasingly there are more and more women writers, translators, designers, freelance editors, typesetters, reviewers, bloggers, publicists, and booksellers. These creative spaces are where there is less money to be made upfront. Also it is work that can be done juggling other responsibilities like domesticity and caregiving. This part of the workforce is as critical as all the other aspects listed above but is underpaid because  a) they are perceived as being a part of the gig economy and b) because of an inherent gender bias their labour is undervalued since the costs of production are “contained” within reasonable limits. After all the end product, i.e. the book is a price sensitive commodity, even though in my humble opinion every single book is akin to being a design product and needs to be recognised in this manner. Frankly everyone ( irrespective of gender) involved in this publishing ecosystem needs to recognise the importance of being critically aware of how the business of publishing needs to be aligned severely with the creation of books and knowledge platforms. It is probably then that some form of gender parity may begin to creep into the industry. Green shoots of it are already noticeable with some key positions being held by women. Having said that feminisation of the editorial and creative community continue to exist. To my mind this appalling given how the evaluation of this industry is growing in leaps and bounds. According to the latest figures released by Nielsen Book Scan the Indian Book Market is valued at $6.5bn. This is an industry that creates something of value based upon the creative output of others, ie the authors.

So yes, I sincerely believe there is a gender gap in publishing, particularly when it comes to the business of books. There are many, many more strands I can pick up in this discussion but due to constraints of time I am unable to do so.

All said and done it was a fabulous session that according to the wonderful organisers, Kiran Manral and Shaili Chopra, not only went down well with the audience but also gained a lot of traction over social media. If it had not been for the competent emceeing of Saumya Kulshreshtha we would have continued chatting on stage for hours. There is so much to say on the topic!

13 March 2018 

 

 

Of Bitches

11 October 2017 is International Girl Child’s Day, declared by the United Nations. The idea is to raise awareness of issues facing girls internationally surrounding education, nutrition, child marriage, legal and medical rights. The celebration of the day also “reflects the successful emergence of girls and young women as a distinct cohort in development policy, programming, campaigning and research.”

But what happens when the young woman gains consciousness in a world where many of the structures are still very patriarchal; they inform and dictate many relationships and policies. Feminism, particularly women’s movements, of the 1960s onwards have influenced young girls world over. Women learned how to express themselves in a manner that enabled them to be heard. Slowly and steadily the impact was discernible in different spheres. In publishing too for the first time women’s presses were being set up. Virago and  Kali for Women were established. The magazine Ms was launched by Gloria Steinem. Women in Publishing was established at this time by Liz Calder, one of the co-founders of Bloomsbury. In India for the first time Status of Women Report ( 1975) was released. There was definitely a shift in perceptions and constructive action was being taken. Soon publishers worldwide recognised the growing importance of giving a space in their lists to women’s books — either by women or for women.  In living memory there has been a dramatic shift with now there being more and more women authors being published.

In this context there are three collections of essays that I read recently — Bad Feminist ( Roxane Gay), Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults ( Laurie Penny) and The Bitch is Back ( ed. Cathi Hanauer). These three books can be yoked together not only for their feminism but also that they mark the manner in which the feminists conduct themselves, the choices they make and how they evolve as individuals. Some of the older feminists as those sharing their experiences in their essays included in The Bitch is Back comment upon living their feminism by negotiating their spaces regularly and thereafter making peace with the decisions made. The common thread running through all these essays is how challenging at times it can be to find the same sense of equality and entitlement that men of diverse backgrounds seem to have in all societies. Women have to negotiate their spaces and stand by their choices, at times it is not easy, but feminism has granted this at least — the space to negotiate and as some of the older women discover it is also about making peace with having your own identity. There are two particularly fine essays that encapsulate and address many of these issues in The Bitch is Back — “Trading Places: We both wanted to stay home. He won. But so did I.” by Julianna Baggott and “Beyond the Myth of Co-Parenting: What we lost — and gained — by abandoning equality” by Hope Edelman.

These books are meant for everyone and not necessarily for feminists. Read them. Discuss them. Share them and not just with the girls in your circle as they come of age. It is a way of seeing. Hopefully reading about alternative gendered perspectives will enable a healthy debate in society and contribute to the transformation of traditional patriarchal structures of thinking.

11 October 2017 

 

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