oral history Posts

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

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich)

38077-vnmgcbvbbz-1469206831Second-Hand-Time_150_RGB-682x1024(My review of Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time was published in Scroll on 23 July 2016 with the title” Imagine the tragedy of abandoning Communism without knowing how to live with capitalism”. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/812306/imagine-the-tragedy-of-abandoning-communism-without-knowing-how-to-live-with-capitalism. I am c&p the text below too. )

Nobel Prize winner (2015) Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets explores what the aftermath of the fall of USSR meant for ordinary folks. Svetlana is a Belarusian journalist who was born in Ukraine, writes in Russian and lived in Paris for nearly 11 years before returning to Minsk to be with her daughter and granddaughter. According to the New York Times, “she had left to protest the regime of the Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and curtailed press freedom. She said she planned to remain in Minsk and hoped the Nobel would give her some protection and freedom to speak her mind.” Based on interviews carried out between 1991 and 2012, the book was published in Russian in 2013, with the first English edition coming out in 2016.

By the little people consists of a series of transcripts of interviews. Sometimes these are structured thoughts, sometimes ramblings and sometimes monologues. Rarely does Alexievich intrude with comments or even an introduction to the speaker. At most, a reference to the person or the memory being recorded will be acknowledged in the chapter heading, such as “On Romeo and Juliet…except their names were Margarita and Abulfaz”. No wonder Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen calls the 2015 Nobel Prize winner a “memory keeper”.

According to Bela Shayevich, the translator of Second-Hand Time, the book is “an update of 19th-century Russian literature for the 21st century.” People read Russian novels not for the happy endings, she added, but “because there is great catharsis in great pain and then something that is sublime.” Listing it as part of her Summer Reads 2016 in The Guardian, Marina Warner called it “a Greek tragic chorus of memories about the Soviet Union”.

The stories we hear add up to something close to a dystopia created by Communist indoctrination. Having subjected the former Soviet citizens to almost an artificial reality, the regime incapacitated them from understanding the transformation of their society after 1989, when Communism began to fade.

“My mother is not going to help raise my daughter…I won’t let her. If she had her way, my child would only watch Socialist cartoons because they’re ‘humane’. But when the cartoon is over, you have to go out on the street, into a completely different world.” As an ex-Army officer who had fought in Afghanistan told Alexievich, “It’s important to write it down while there are still people around who remember it…we’d work the night shift, unloading train cars, or as security guards. Laying asphalt. The people working alongside me were PhDs, doctors, surgeons. I even remember a pianist from the symphony. …socialism is alchemy.”

What also emerges tragically from these accounts is the fact that ordinary people did not even have the skills to survive in the post-Soviet landscape, after the disintegration of the USSR. They had been brought up to believe in dreams such as the motherland. This is a constant lament in the book – the inability of many people to understand basics, such as what is real money, how it operates, and the value of it. Many did not know how to earn a living in the new socio-economic system, and rapidly sank into poverty.

Distilled testimonies

In an interview to the Dalkey Archive Press when her book Voices from Chernobyl was published, Alexievich said she sees her work as witnessing. She repeated this in her interview to The Millions: “I’m interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven’t had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened.”

In the opening chapter of Second-Hand Time, Alexievich writes of her intent to document the Communist collective memory, which recalls Pravda, Little Octoberists, parades, Solzhenitsyn, Komsomol, and allegiance to the motherland: “In writing, I’m piecing together the history of ‘domestic’, ‘interior’ socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul. I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, the individual. It’s where everything really happens…It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is. There are endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people.”

An insight into her fascinating methodology reveals a practice not uncommon amongst those who document oral histories. According to Alexievich, she “selects one out of five interviews, and that one makes it into the published book. For each person I record four tapes or more, making 100-150 printed pages, depending on the voice, timbre and the pace of the oral story, and then only about ten pages remain…”

So the seeming chaos of individual narratives has a strong underlying sense of structure, much like the ordered chaos of Darcy’s garden in Pride and Prejudice. These stream of consciousness testimonials are the common form of recording oral narratives, particularly of women survivors, of a traumatic experience. The form is a testament to the writer’s sensitivity as a listener, allowing the interviewee to speak openly and without fear. These are experiences that, Alexievich is quick to remind us, formed “a large part of our lives – more, even, than love. Thus, the Russian experience of suffering acquires particular value.”

“I grew up in a dissident family…in a dissident kitchen…My parents knew Andrei Sakharov, they distributed Samizdat. Along with them, I read Vassily Grossman, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Dovlatov, listened to Radio Liberty. In 1991, I was, of course, in front of the White House, in a human chain, prepared to sacrifice my life to prevent the return of Communism. Not a single one of my friends were Communists. For us, Communism was inextricably linked with the Terror, the Gulag. A cage. We thought it was dead. Gone forever. Twenty years have passed…I go into my son’s room, and what do I see but a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital on his desk, and Trotsky’s My Life on his bookshelf…I can’t believe my eyes! Is Marx making a comeback? Is this a nightmare? Am I awake or am I dreaming? My son studies at the university, he has a lot of friends, and I’ve started eavesdropping on their conversations. They drink tea in our kitchen and argue about The Communist Manifesto …Marxism is legal again, on trend, a brand. They wear T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara and Lenin on them. [ Despairingly] Nothing has taken root. It was all for naught.”

The blurb on the dust jacket begins: “What if you could tell history through the countless voices of ordinary people who lived through it?” It is as if in one fell swoop the editors have negated the very existence of the discipline of subaltern history while using the very same idea. Maybe Alexievich’s preferred definition of “witness” would have been more appropriate.

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich) Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. Pp. 570. Rs 699

A paragraph that could not be included in the published article for reasons of length is reproduced below: 

In the case of Soviet society, in seven decades, they went from the Romanov era, Bolshevik Revolution, CommunismRussia-Putin-sworn-in-again ( Stalin et al) and then post-1989 hurtled completely unprepared into a capitalist economy society soon to be dominated by Putin. As Simon Sebag Montefiore says in his magnificently detailed and stupendously rich history of The Romanovs: 1613-1918 says: It is ironic that now, two centuries after the Romanovs finally agreed a law of succession, Russian presidents still effectively nominate their successors just as Peter the Great did.” ( pxx-xi). And yet Putin, the Russian president’s state symbol is the two-headed eagle that was of the Romanovs too. This direct linkage to the royal period of Russian history refuses to acknowledge the communist era except for the trifle detail of Putin having been an ex-KGB officer, the secret police of the Soviet Union.

Simon Sebag Montefiore The Romanovs: 1613-1918 Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 746. Rs 1299 ( Distributed by Hachette India)

“Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century” Eric Hobsbawm

“Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century” Eric Hobsbawm

Fractured Times

Fractured Times is a series of lectures delivered by Eric Hobsbawm at the annual Salzburg Festival. Those published in this book, were written between 1964-2012. (He died on 1 Oct 2012.) This is a book of reflections, thoughts and comments about what happened to culture and society, especially after 1914, a society and a time that was never to return. These lectures document the tectonic shifts that occurred in the cultural fabric of society. The devastating impact that the two world wars had on society was fundamental. Hobsbawm’s basic premise is that the art and cultural fabric of a society are inextricably linked to politics. It is impossible to dissociate one from the other. ( “For enjoyment of art is not purely a private experience, but a social one, sometimes even a political one, especially in the case of planned public performances i purpose-built settings and theatres.”) So post-1914 the society (at least in Europe and UK) was transformed in that the women’s movements flourished ( ironically a country that had two powerful women on its throne, did not give its women citizen’s even the basic rights. The suffragettes had to demand it), the publishing of books developed into an industry with the establishment of some of the biggest trade publishers such as Allen Lane’s Penguin Books, the first oral history societies were founded in the late 1960s ( “Studies of historical memory are essentially not about the past, but about the retrospect to it of some subsequent present.”) and education. His views on the publishing industry are fascinating — “The book, revolutionised in the 1930s by Penguin and Gollancz, was almost certainly the most effective form of intellectual diffusion: not to the mass of the manual working class for whom the word ‘book’ still meant ‘magazine’, but to the old educated and the rapidly growing body of the aspiring and politically conscious self-educated.”. Or earlier in the book, he says “Even a good deal of literature, especially the classics, remains in print, and much good new writing is published that would never pass the profit threshold set by the accountants, because of non-market decisions.”

There are plenty of nuggets of wisdom that have been distilled and delivered in these lectures. Here is a man who thought, analysed and presented with confidence. Every single book of his is a treasure trove. The ease with which he presents history, complex ideas without their seeming to be so, and his analysis is always a delight to read. For instance his reflection upon how the fashion industry more or less predicts the trends for the following season accurately, but the book trade bumbles its way through. And yet both are heavily dependent upon markets that formed by subjectivity and at times irrational sensibilities. So why does one industry get it right over and over again and not the other? Hobsbawm’s comments on the relationship between the market and culture are sharp and precise. “From the point of view of the market, the only interesting culture is the product or service that makes money.” In his opinion, post-1970s the wealth available for nurturing the arts has grown explosively, all though it does come with a lot of provisos. But he also cautions the rapid transformation that the cyber-age has wrought. It is “so fast, so dramatic, and so unforseeable”. The chapter on “Why hold festivals in the twenty-first century?” has to be read. Hobsbawm is convinced that festivals are multiplying like rabbits. According to him, “festivals have become a firm component of the economically ever more important complex of the entertainment industry, and particularly of cultural tourism, which is rapidly expanding, at least in the prosperous societies of the so-called ‘developed’ world…there is a great deal of money to be made these days in the culture business.” For him “the genealogy of today’s festivals begins with the discovery of the stage as the cultural-political and social expression of a new elite that is self-assured and bourgeois, or rather recruited according to education and ability instead of birth.”

In a similar fashion “in the post-industrial age of information, the school — that is, secondary an tertiary education and beyond — is more decisive than every before, and forms, both nationally and worldwide, a unifying element, not only in technology, but also in the formation of classes….What is needed is a usable educational programme aimed at the community of educable youth, not only within a country or a cultural circle, but also worldwide. This guarantees, at least within a particular area of intellectual cultures, a certain universalism both of information and of cultural values, a sort of basic stock of things that an ‘educated person’ should know.”

Eric Hobsbawm was a thinker. As Julia Hobsbawm says about her father in the FT — “Food he could do without; ideas not.” ( Financial Times, April 2013. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/0dbd14de-a7c0-11e2-9fbe-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2VL2W2xf6 ) A man like him will be sorely missed. Fractured Times, his last book to be published is like the others before it, worth reading over and over again. Every time there is something new to be discovered in the lectures.

Eric Hobsbawm Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century Little, Brown, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, Hachette India, 2013. Hb. pg 320. Rs. 699

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