patriarchy 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

An interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakurni about “The Forest of Enchantment”

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni and I first met some years ago when I had to interview her at CMYK bookstore, Mehrchand market, New Delhi. Ever since then we have remained in touch and I have enjoyed reading and interviewing Chitra’s books published over the years. This time too I read The Forest of Enchantment and discovered that the book was unexpected. Given below is an extract from our email correspondence as a background to the interview that follows.

Dear Chitra,

It has been such a pleasure to read your latest novel, The Forest of Enchantment. It was unexpected too. Over the years you have raised readers expectations to create strong women. Women who learn to make choices while in the prime of life or later while reflecting upon their lives as they age. The reader is privy to the heroine’s inner thoughts and formulates for his/herself an image of a strong woman. In the long run perhaps these heroines offer a role model of behaviour to many of your readers. I do not know for certain but I am sure it does have an impact when a hugely successful author like yourself is read worldwide. This was obvious in what you did in Palace of Illusions too. As the author you had inserted yourself many times in the narrative (at least that is how I recall it) but allowed the heroine her ground too. To my mind that was the turning point in your writing. Surely and steadily your heroines through a combination of action and inner thought processes began to evolve and offer a new generation of readers a fresh new way of approaching life. More so when modern life is not so stable anymore and inevitably cuts across cultures and continents. Physical movements happen (a truth many women learn to accept as part of their life’s journey), so the experience of migration while traumatic itself is an experience that the woman has been “trained” from girlhood to foresee and brave. It will happen. It has to happen. At least for millions of those women who are taught in childhood that marriage is a social milestone they must cross. But it is the marital life that you excel in detailing, Chitra.

Then you create The Forest of Enchantment. In the first few pages I felt it was a writer’s treatise on how to approach a retelling of a well-established story. It is oh! so tricky “converting” an oral tradition into the written and fixed narrative on the printed page. Your opening pages are like the opening invocation to the powers-that-be before embarking on a spiritual journey or like a prayer seeking blessings before telling the story as you wish to. It is a story to make your own. It left me with a mixed bag of feelings. Your retelling of Sita’s story comes precisely a decade after your super bestseller about Draupadi, The Palace of Illusions. I was expecting a Sita more along the lines of Draupadi. Gently strong — a quality that one does tend to associate with the two women. And then you create a woman who at first glance comes across as compliant, ever humble and always giving of herself. Exemplary qualities for any individual to possess, irrespective of gender, but these are what Sita is classically associated with. You imbue your character Sita with them as well. The story crafted reiterates this at every step of the way. To read this novel immediately after the #MeToo movement as a reader in the modern age has a disquieting impact. Then I decided to read it from your perspective of writing it. I have no idea if that last sentence makes sense. I decided to drop all my expectations of this book based on your previous heroines and read trying to align myself with your meditative discipline of writing and focused attention to detail, hoping I will learn something new. Perhaps I did. Perhaps I did not. But what I did discover was that it is best to pay heed to Sita, feel to some degree what she experiences, and it is like coming to terms with the battering women get through life. They learn to make their choices but also compromise a lot in the long run for the peace of those around them especially their husbands. It is a conservative approach that many enlightened women may not agree with but at some levels I suspect I understand why you chose this option. Was it a conscious choice to capitulate to an acceptable version of Sita rather than challenge it any way as say Volga has done with her retellings? As I said in my opening remarks that The Forest of Enchantment was unexpected. Nevertheless, it did give my much to dwell upon for which I have to be ever grateful to you.

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Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s reply:

Thank you dear Jaya for reading so carefully and for your very thoughtful comments and questions. I have lots of answers. And also for your support of my work and your friendship from ever since we first met.

Fondly, Chitra

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1.      Why did it take you so long to write about Sita considering you wrote about Draupadi a decade ago?

Sita is a very different character. Where D is flamboyant and direct and headlong in the way she fights injustice, and not above doing wrong things herself when overcome by anger and the desire for revenge, Sita is an old soul and much more complex in her approach to problems. I had to grow myself to understand her particular kind of strength, because I had grown up resisting her as an icon. But hers is the strength of endurance, of never giving up or giving in, no matter how few external choices are available. It is the strength that flourishes and makes space for itself even in the most hostile of environments–much like a tree that grows amidst rocks and stones. It does not stray from its principles. Together, D and S provide Indian women with two complementary ways of being strong and self-respecting in the world. Sita’s way may not seem as exciting at first, but upon reflection one realizes, I hope, that it is the way more suited to, and more doable, for most women–in India and in the world. Because often we, too, are struggling to thrive in unhospitable circumstances. And we, too, would like to be good human beings in the process.

 Sita isn’t defiant by nature, but when faced with dire situations she is perhaps stronger than Draupadi is. For centuries, patriarchy has chosen to interpret her quietness as meekness. I hope I’ve managed to show in my novel that it isn’t so. What is it but her inner strength, and her conviction, that prevents Ravan from harming her once she is in his power? What but her inner strength allows her to stand up to Ram and say that he cannot dictate how she will lead her life, even if he rejects her? She is the one who calls for the fire into which she walks at the end of the battle in Lanka. She is the one who pulls herself together when abandoned in the forest, to promise herself and her unborn sons that she will bring them up as the best of princes–and the best of men, who will know how women should be treated. She is the one who refuses to compromise and speaks her mind in the court of Ayodhya before she chooses to leave this mortal earth and the happiness of queenship, family, husband and children.  She does it because she has deeply-held values and stands up for them. And she does it without anger or vengefulness because she has come to realize that these are destructive–and ultimately useless–emotions. I don’t think Draupadi could have done it.

It took me ten years of contemplation to realize all this. 

2.      Why is the Bengali Krittibasi Ramayan from the fifteenth century your favourite? What are the elements in it that stand out for you as exceptional?

The Krittibasi Ramayan is much more interested in Sita’s inner life and gives us more of her thoughts than Valmiki. It portrays little intimate moments in her life.  It portrays Ravan as a more nuanced character. It also doesn’t shy away from depicting disquieting scenes like the mutilation of Surpanakha in a way that makes us question the act. I was attracted to all these things. 

3.      Did your crafting of your women protagonists drain or enrich you as the case maybe in understanding the character of Sita better?

The immediate writing is draining because it is so consuming. But ultimately, understanding my characters always enriches me. Certainly this is true of Sita’s character.

4.      Sita is beloved to many. Hindus consider her to be the epitome of an ideal woman.  As a result did the creation of her character for The Forests of Enchantment become a tough negotiating act for you? How do you retell a story that has been told for centuries and yet make it so much your own?

Yes, exactly these reasons made this a challenging book to write. As I read and re-read the Ramayana, I felt that we haven’t understood Sita properly. We’ve interpreted her actions in the way that patriarchy finds most useful. I tried to make the story my own by examining–and feeling–Sita’s motives. One simple instance: when she “follows” Ram to the forest, she is generally judged to be a “pativrata” who follows her husband wherever he might go. But really, when you look at the scene in both Valmiki and Krittibas, she is going against what all her elders are asking/telling her to do. Ram, Kaushalya–everyone–says, please stay in the palace. She says, “No. I want to be by the side of my beloved. I want to live the same life, experience the same adventures. I love him and refuse to be parted from him.” It is an action of great agency and rather romantic. So, ultimately, Sita is also very human. Another example: The things she says to Lakshman when she thinks Ram is in danger when he goes after the golden deer! The way she accuses him of desiring her!

5.      When do you stop reading past narratives and create your own?

When I feel they have missed something important. But in the case of our epics, it is important for me to stay with the original story line. Otherwise readers might (rightly) say, “You are just making up this story. It has nothing to do with the ‘real’ Sita.” It is also more challenging to transform the reader’s understanding of a character without changing much of anything external about her life and, instead, illuminating her thoughts and motives. This is why, although I really enjoy and admire writers such as Volga, I don’t want to write that kind of story.

6.      On p.2 of the novel Valmiki says “I wrote what the divine showed me.” Is this a sentiment that you share too with regard to your writings?

I truly believe I couldn’t write even one word without divine help. Like a flute that makes music only when the master musician blows into it. But sometimes the holes are blocked (ego? ignorance? lack of effort?) and the music doesn’t come out sounding so good. Then I have to rewrite!

7.      Will you record your own audio book of this story? If not who would you like to have as the voice actor?

No, I have no interest in doing that. Better to have a professional. I’d love to know who readers think would be a good narrator. 

8.      Over the years has your writing style changed as you tackled the crafting the inner self of your women characters?

Yes, it changes with each book. It has something to do with the subject matter and the narrator. I can’t really explain it. I spend a lot of time in the first chapter trying to find the book’s “voice.”

9.      How have your readers responded to the two books published exactly a decade apart but both dealing with the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics? Any noticeable shifts in readers responses to The Palace of Illusions and The Forest of Enchantment?  

Some readers like Draupadi better, some like Sita more. Many write to me that they have re-read Palace numerous times. But more (hundreds!) of women have written to me saying the story of Sita in Forest has made them weep and changed something deep in themselves. I am grateful for that. 

10.  Your fiction is known to explore the different aspects of love. Do you have a testament of love?

Forest is particularly focused on trying to make sense of the amazing and complicated emotion of love. I think my current understanding of love is what Sita realizes at the end of the novel: love and forgiveness have to go hand in hand. (This doesn’t mean that you will accept wrongdoing, only that you forgive the wrongdoer. In any case, I believe more and more than vengeance is a hugely harmful emotion). And that the best, truest love is between mothers and young children–because they want nothing except to make each other happy. 

10 July 2019

Interview with journalist Snigdha Poonam on her award-winning book “Dreamers”

Snigdha Poonam is a journalist with The Hindustan Times (HT) in Delhi. Her work has appeared in Scroll, The Caravan, The Times of India, The New York Times, The Guardian, Granta and The Financial Times.  Her article ‘Lady Singham’s Mission Against Love‘ was runner-up in the Bodley Head / Financial Times Essay Prize, 2015. She won the 2017 Journalist of Change award of Bournemouth University for an investigation of student suicides that appeared on Huffington Post ( 1 June 2016). Dreamers is her first book. It won 2018’s Crossword Book Award (Jury) for nonfiction and was listed by various publications, including Financial Times and Hindu, as one of the best books of the year. It was also longlisted for the 2019 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction ($10,000) announced by PEN America. ( Read an extract published in the literary magazine, Granta: “The Fixer”, 9 Feb 2015).

Dreamers is a collection of essays of reporting from India’s small towns. The people profiled in it are young and ambitious — representative of nearly 50% of India’s 1.3b population born after 1991. They are confident and want to make their dreams happen as soon as possible and not while away their entire lives boxed in by social indicators such as gender, caste, socio-eco class etc. For many of the individuals profiled in Dreamers these are mere notional barriers meant to be broken. They think for themselves rather than be intimidated by traditional rules of social engagement. As Snigdha says the same themes are repeated of “aspiration, self-improvement and anxiety about their place in the world”. The profiles range from that of a young milkman who became a teacher of conversational English and established a coaching centre to that of a young girl who decided to become a feisty student politician, making history with her election to the Allahabad University student council. These extraordinary profiles were written by Snigdha Poonam after shadowing her subjects over some years.

Snigdha Poonam’s trademark is longform reportage which mostly focuses on investigative stories of issues concerning young India. Stories that hurtle you into the heart of the issue, forever creating a sharply etched mental image for the reader of the places and people Snigdha visits and meets, respectively. Stories that she selects would in all likelihood be missed even when they make front page news like that of the little boy murdered in a school. The slightly different peg chosen by her is to follow the story of the bus conductor wrongly accused of the boy’s murder. A story that not only creates empathy for the impoverished family of the bus conductor but also offers an alternative way of looking at the horrific story that many were chattering about. She seeks stories that should be the hallmark of all journalists but only the brave engage in. Some of her astonishing stories that are available online are written hot on the trail of the predominantly young, aggressive, male Hindu pilgrims called Kanwariyas ( HT, 24 July 2017);  on the women journalists of Khabar Lahariya, rural India’s first feminist newspaper who speak up for women in a notoriously patriarchal belt  ( The Guardian, 30 March 2015), “How the fake-jobs industry scams Indians” ( co-authored with Samarth Bansal, HT, 21 Aug 2017), or on the horrendous clashes that take place over electricity and water in urban pockets ( HT, 30 May 2018).

Here are excerpts of an interview with Snigdha Poonam:

JBR: What prompted this book? Has it been translated?

SP: Starting in 2009-10, I had been writing a series of stories looking at non-urban young Indians’ efforts to adapt to a rapidly changing world. I wrote, for example, about commercial Hindi and Hinglish fiction (OPEN magazine, “The New Heroes of MBA Lit”, 17 Oct 2014), personality development classes ( New York Times, “Developing India’s Personality”, 5 July 2013), and online dating ( Caravan, “Casting the Net”, 1 March 2012). I found the same themes repeating: aspiration, self-improvement and anxiety about their place in the world. In 2014 this led to the idea for a book that would follow the lives of a set of people in small towns: what they want, how they are trying to get there, and what that means for their future and ours.

Dreamers hasn’t yet been translated. It’s out in the US and UK and awaiting publication in China.

JBR: How do you find your stories/subjects?

SP: Other than reading a range of newspapers — Hindi and English, regional and national– I keep an eye out for unusual things everywhere, from SMS spam to wall posters to advertisements nailed to trees.  I travel widely across the country for work and let people tell me stories outside of the reporting framework. I also spend a lot of time digging into the lives of strangers on the internet: on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok.

JBR: How many stories did you write/ follow in order to publish the few mentioned in Dreamers?

SP: I wrote at least ten profiles. Among those that didn’t make it to the final draft were the stories of an FM star in Ranchi, a crime reporter in Lucknow, and a wedding planner in Ahmedabad. I wanted to prioritise stories that showed the effect of time on the people and their actions, so only those made it into the book.

JBR: Has your writing style evolved after having published this book?

SP: Yes. I am far more receptive to details. I try more consistently to draw out the nuances in people’s characters, politics, and actions. I play much more with the material until I have the right narrative structure for a story.

JBR: What do you think are the qualities of a listener? I find it remarkable how you channel the stories with minimal judgement but then offer an opinion/perspective.

SP: I have no other real interest in life than other people, so I can listen to anyone who is telling me anything, and if you listen to people at such length, you are forced to acknowledge that they are more than just good or bad. People are genuinely complicated, with so many intersecting forces driving their views and actions, and the most interesting stories you can tell about them are in the space between the extremes.

JBR: How do you record your interviews?

SP: I no longer record interviews unless it’s more than one person talking to me. Taking notes keeps me more grounded in the moment.  I have a decent shorthand, and I flesh out the whole interaction – from what people said to what I observed – before that day is over.

JBR: Do you in any way feel or become responsible for the people you interview or does everyone move on?

SP: I am more attached to the people in Dreamers than those I meet for regular stories. I talk to them about all kinds of things going on in their lives, from wedding plans to job changes. They, too, ask me about what’s going on with me, my work and my family.  

As a journalist, it’s often not people you keep track of but the issue you wrote about. For example, because I wrote an investigative story about job scams, people write to me from across India about having paid someone money for a job they didn’t get. Every once in a while, I have to chase the police in their respective areas to take action.

JBR: Have you ever followed up on these stories?

SP: Not deliberately. I feel exhausted with the issues of young men and want to engage more with women in the upcoming projects.

JBR: Who is your ideal reader? Have any of your subjects in this book read Dreamers?

SP: My ideal reader is curious and patient.

Some of the people featured in Dreamers have read it. One of them presented a copy to a leading politician, another keeps up with its sale at his local bookshop.

24 February 2019

“Milkman” by Anna Burns

Man Booker Prize winner 2018 Anna Burn’s novel Milkman is about a nameless eighteen-year-old narrator, most often referred to as the “reading-while-walking” girl who prefers to read nineteenth rather than twentieth century literature because she does not like the twentieth century. Milkman is set in a nameless Irish city —-p robably Belfast just as the era is never confirmed. It is about the city caught in the battles between the IRA, the Renouncers and the British Army possibly during the 1970s judging by the clues peppered throughout the story. It is about the girl observing and commenting upon her neighbourhood. Unfortunately she begins to be stalked by the forty-one-year-old “Milkman” — not the real one. ( The IRA delivered petrol bombs in milk crates. ) Then to her dismay tongues begin to wag and even her mother is not willing to believe her — that there is no truth in the rumours being circulated. Immediately after winning the prize Anna Burns was quoted as saying “Although it is recognisable as this skewed form of Belfast, it’s not really Belfast in the 70s. I would like to think it could be seen as any sort of totalitarian, closed society existing in similarly oppressive conditions … I see it as a fiction about an entire society living under extreme pressure, with longterm violence seen as the norm.”

Milkman was many years in the making and is the stuff literary legends are made of. The fifty-six-year-old Anna Burns acknowledging the fairy tale Booker win said “‘It’s nice to feel I’m solvent. That’s a huge gift’” It is an extraordinary novel for very early on in the story it is as if the reader is an invisible companion to the narrator observing the proceedings with insights into how they think. There are large portions of the narrative that are running text, a single paragraph that runs across pages, which at first may seem daunting to read but is not so. Very often Milkman is being referred to as being Beckettian but Anna Burns clarifies in her interviews that she only read Samuel Beckett once her novel had been written. Whereas in fact it would be worthwhile to notice how the form of her prose, the fluidity of it, the mildly digressing style while observing and reporting incidents dispassionately, and at other times conveying neighbourhood gossip and events as is, in a detached dead pan manner, without any analysis is ultimately a very womanly quality.

Milkman is much like the commentary many women inevitably internalise. The novel merely makes visible that which is mostly kept out of public spaces for women as it would be mostly perceived as idle chatter. It is also remarkable how effectively Anna Burns portrays a reading-while-walking girl who is in all likelihood absorbed in her book but is also able to observe the landscape and people around her as she walks past. There is violence which she acknowledges in many interviews post-Booker win were because of the Ireland she grew up in. There is a particularly horrific and violent scene involving the butchering of dogs and left in a pile. In The New Statesman interview she says:

… I remember seeing that as a child. It was down the bottom of our street. I was seven or eight, so I don’t really know how high the pile was, but it did look like a mound of dead dogs, with their throats cut – I couldn’t see any heads, so I thought all their heads were missing. It was one of those images that stay with you.

The remarkable effect Milkman has upon its readers is for its relevance to the #MeToo movement is purely coincidental as Anna Burns has reiterated this novel was completed in 2014, well before the movement began. At the same its powerful impact is for its visibilisation of the silences most women are trained to inculcate. Most often women across cultures are socially conditioned to keep their opinions to themselves and conform to what is expected of them. Also their word is very likely dismissed especially when it involves as in the case of a creepy, older man, a stalker, who also happens to belong to the IRA. So the young narrator gets pushed more and more into a corner with everyone including her mother disbelieving her about the false rumours being circulated about her and the milkman. Also by resorting to use the interior monologue style of writing for most part of the novel Anna Burns makes the reader privy to the innermost thoughts of the girl thereby stripping away any pretence the narrator may “normally” have adopted in real life.

There are so many portions in the story that will resonate with women readers while being revelatory to male readers. As novelist Idra Novey points out in her Paris Review essay “The Silence of Sexual Assault in Literature” ( 4 Oct 2018) it is the silences that are critical in literature — what is glossed over and that which is hidden from view.

Though the story [Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People”] was published over sixty years ago, the sick abuse of power is disturbingly similar to any number of testimonies that have emerged this past year. O’Connor artfully elides what exactly the Bible salesman does, or doesn’t do, to Hulga in the barn. That elision evokes the roaring silence that she will now endure, returning to this horrifying experience within the solitude of her mind.

It is exactly this silencing of the women that has remained quietly hidden away from the “public” view —- a view that has been mostly defined by patriarchal codes of conduct. Although these sorts of conversations, thoughts and ideas being expressed freely now in literature are and have always been familiar to women.

Milkman is a powerful book that begs to be read widely.

To buy the Milkman on Amazon India: 

Paperback

Kindle 

26 Oct 2018 

 

Scaachi Koul “One Day We’ll Be Dead And None of This Will Matter”

For those of us who are not in a position of power — us women, us non-white people, those who are trans or queer or whatever it is that identifies us inherently different — the internet means the world has a place to scream at us. The arguments range from the casually rude — people who want me to lose my job, or who accuse my father of leaving me and my mother, which would explain all my issues with authority — to comments deeply disturbing, ones that even my greatest enemises wouldn’t verbalize to my face. 

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter  Scaachi Koul’s debut is a collection of essays. These are mostly about being a Kashmiri Pundit immigrant from Jammu and Kashmir in Canada. Unlike her family Scaachi Koul was born and brought up in Canada. Her family moved to Canada when her brother was a toddler.

Being an immigrant and a fiesty feminist makes Scaachi Koul’s razor sharp wit a pure delight to read. For example her delightful breezy style of writing as as illustrated in the essay “Aus-piss-ee-ous” which is about her cousin’s arranged wedding in Jammu. “There are prison sentences that run shorter than Indian weddings.” She is smart and sassy in her quick repartee on social media too, a quality that endears her to many while exposing her to trolls as well. One of the incidents she focuses upon is particularly horrifying. Realising the need for diverse voices in the media and as the cultural editor of a prominent online magazine and an immigrant herself she put out a call for more writing from “non-white non-male writers”. It was a conscious decision on her part for some affirmative action. She was wholly unprepared for what followed. The online harassment unleashed a tsunami of angry trolls.

…several days of rape threats, death threats, encouragement of suicide, racial slurs, sexist remarks, comments on my weight and appearance, attempts to get me fired or blacklisted…Nothing was unique, nothing was new, nothing unheard of. 

She felt she had to engage as she had encouraged conversation at first but it was relentless till her boss advised her “You shouldn’t feel like you have to play.” She was fuming and very upset at being targetted for being a non-white woman with an opinion till she she deactivated her Twitter upon listening to reason offered by her boss. “…you don’t owe anyone anything. You don’t have to be available to everyone. You can stop.”

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter  is a brilliant collection of essays by a feminist. She represents the new generation of young women who are using the freedoms won for them by previous generation of women’s movements cleverly. Women like Scaachi Koul are able to see clearly the patriarchal double-standards by which most of today’s world continues to operate by and yet true to a twenty-first century feminist she knows her rights and expects to be treated at par with her male counterparts. This self-confident poise shines through the essays even when Scaachi is testing her ideas with her father despite getting his silent treatment.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter is a collection of essays seething with controlled rage at the innumerable examples of embedded patriarchy. While sharing her testimonies of her firsthand experience of some of the funnier and nastier episodes this memoir also charts her growth as a young well-protected non-white girl to a maturer, sure-of-her-mind woman. This book will resonate at many levels with readers globally for there is universality in these experiences — immigration, forming a sense of identity especially while at loggerheads with patriarchy, learning to articulate your own feelings without feeling guilty and taking action rather than retreating from life.

Read it! This book is meant for all genders!

Scaachi Koul One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter Penguin Books, Penguin Random House, Gurgaon, 2017. Pb. pp.246  Rs 399

25 July 2017 

A Q&A with Australian author and 2016 Stella Prize-winner Charlotte Wood ( Bookwitty.com)

I interviewed award-winning Australian writer, Charlotte Wood, for the fantastic European literary website bookwitty.com . It was published on 27 July 2016. Here is the original url: https://www.bookwitty.com/text/a-qa-with-australian-author-and-2016-stella-prize/57961bbeacd0d0170d1e421a . I am also c&p the text below. 

From Stella Prize website

From Stella Prize website

Australian writer Charlotte Wood’s latest novel, The Natural Way of Things, is a an allegorical tale about the power relationships between women and men. Winner of the prestigious 2016 Stella Prize for women’s contribution to literature and the Australian Indie Bookseller’s Award, the Natural Way of Things is about ten women who have been kidnapped and taken to an abandoned station in the Australian outback from which there is no escape.

These women have little in common with each other save for the public scandals associating them with prominent men – politicians, footballers, clergymen etc. “… they are the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut.” The story is set in an altered present that explores deeply entrenched patriarchal structures in society and yet, as the story proves, these gendered equations are a mirage; women and men are equal. This is apparent in the gradual transformation of the two main characters, Yolanda and Verla, who take on what would otherwise be deemed as “manly tasks” of hunting, skinning rabbits and providing food for everybody.

It may be fiction, but it is a landscape that echoes what a woman feels on many occasions. Having worked with women artisans, in a feminist publishing house, curated the visual mapping of the women’s movement in India by documenting posters made across the country since the 1970s and now reading a lot of women’s literature, I am more than familiar with many of the stories women share. What continues to amaze me is how similar the experiences are across continents and how various forms of violence, whether physical or psychological, exist in patriarchal structures  across socio-economic classes. The sensation of being trapped with no hope is ghastly, but in Wood’s novel, with no escape route possible as illustrated by the electric fence encircling the compound, it is suffocating. The rules are set by a diabolical corporation, Harding International, represented by the two men hired to guard the ten women; Boncer and Teddy. Mostly their arbitrary rules are horribly violent. Their swift, violent reprimands echo real life.

It is remarkable how the bleak and rough landscape turns into an symbol of sisterhood. In reality this exists too, although it is rarely acknowledged. Unconsciously women who may be complete strangers to each other will band together if need be. This is brought to life in the description of the chained women mastering “the rhythm of marching when chained so none of them is jerked or stumbles. This way of moving, shackled together, has become part of them, unremarked, unconscious.”

Charlotte Wood has imbibed the vocabulary of feminist activism, turning it to her advantage in storytelling, neatly encapsulating a range of feminist discourses.

The dystopian representation of a woman’s world in the novel may be too close to reality for many women. Women, universally, irrespective of their socioeconomic class, are often trapped in situations from which there is no escape.

Charlotte Wood, who is deep in the throes of writing her next novel, kindly agreed to an email interview.

Why this story? What inspired it?

Charlotte Wood: The first glimmer of the story came to me in an ABC Radio National documentary about the Hay Institution for Girls, a brutal prison in rural New South Wales, where ten teenage girls were drugged and taken from the Parramatta Girls’ Home in the 1960s. At this place, which operated in extreme cruelty until 1974, the girls were forced to march everywhere, were never allowed to look up from the floor or speak to each other, and endured all kinds of official punishments. But there were also many sadistic unofficial punishments inflicted on them. I was drawn to writing about a place like this, and how someone might survive it, but I needed to immediately to unshackle my story from the real place – for various reasons, including that many surviving women have written their own testimonies, and I didn’t want to appropriate their experience. Equally importantly, I needed the creative freedom to go anywhere with the story, without sticking to established facts or history.

From The Inconvenient Child

But a more powerful engine even than this arose in the early stages of the writing, which was that setting the book in the past, in a purely naturalistic style, was not working at all. The writing was dead and sludgy and lifeless.

Around this time, when I was having this difficulty and trying to make the work live, I began noticing something. It was already in my mind that the reason many girls were sent to the Parramatta and Hay homes in the first place was that they had been sexually assaulted – at home, or wherever, and had told someone about it. It was this – speaking about what had happened to them – that got many of them sent there. They were deemed to be promiscuous and ‘in moral danger’. This seemed to me the cruelest thing, that their crime was that they had been abused, spoke the truth about it, and were punished for doing so.

I began noticing things in the news, things happening around me in contemporary Australia, that showed these attitudes about punishing women for speaking up were not of the past. We had David Jones department store CEO Mark McInnes resigning after sexually harassing an employee, we had the Australian Army soldiers Daniel McDonald and Dylan Deblaquiere secretly filming a fellow (female) cadet having sex, and broadcasting it to their mates. In both these cases, the woman was vilified for speaking out. The David Jones employee was labelled a gold-digger, the army cadet became known as ‘the Skype slut’ by her peers. Around this time there were also football group sex scandals where the women were reviled for speaking about it and public apologies by the men were made to their wives, families and employers – the assaulted woman, by implication, deserved what she got. We had women assaulted by the likes of Rolf Harris and Bill Cosby derided as liars and money-hungry, publicity hunting ‘sluts’.

And I suddenly thought, ‘Oh, it’s not old, this stuff. These attitudes are not historical, they’re absolutely flourishing right now.’ And then, partly out of this sudden bucket of cold water and partly because the book was not working – set in the past, written in naturalistic prose – I decided to do what I sometimes do when things aren’t working: try the opposite. So instead of setting it in the past, I thought, what if I set it in the future, or some kind of altered present? Instead of writing ordinary realism, what if it became a bit surreal in its narrative style? And I started writing about ten contemporary, urban Australian girls who find themselves abducted and dumped in this remote prison because they’ve been involved in some kind of sexual scandal with a powerful man or men, and they either spoke about it or were found out.

And at that point the writing just took off, a sudden energy really came into the work, and for the next year or two I got to know my girls and things in the story got more interesting, weirder, stranger, funnier and darker.

And at that point the writing just took off, a sudden energy really came into the work, and for the next year or two I got to know my girls and things in the story got more interesting, weirder, stranger, funnier and darker. I just came to understand that I could only keep writing the book if I let it get weird, as weird as it wanted to. More than any other book I’ve written, I feel almost like someone else wrote this, sort of through me. I don’t believe that of course, but this tapping into the darkest and strangest things in my unconscious, or subconscious mind, was the only thing that would let this book come out.

At the same time, I was actively keeping a lookout for contemporary representations of incarceration – which in our country, mainly come from images and discussion of our immigration detention centers. The grotesque cognitive dissonance between the bland, PR-spin language of corporations that run these prisons and the horror stories emerging from them (all kinds of violence, sexual assault of women and children, self-harm, suicide, illness and death) attracted me as an artist. You go to stuff that is complicated, contradictory. A quick scan of the real company Serco’s website, for example, yielded a slogan for my fictional corporation Hardings International: ‘Dignity & Respect in a Safe & Secure Environment’. That seemed simply bizarre and obscene to me, that a company running a prison could use such schmaltzy language.

How long did it take you to write the novel? How much research was involved? Some of the descriptions such as skinning the rabbits & cleaning the leather with rabbit brain to create fine chamois must have required research.

CW: Around three years. Strangely, not much research beyond the first radio documentary (I deliberately did not seek out more information about the Hay or Parramatta homes), and visiting an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia of images and objects from children’s homes in our country (where many, many children were abused and ill-treated). For the rabbit skinning, I did watch a few YouTube videos (!) and I had heard about using the brains to cure skins on a television program somewhere. I grew up in the country and had friends who lived on grazing properties where rabbit traps of the kind in the book (now illegal) were used. I kept a file of images from the internet of all kinds of things to do with my book, in a Pinterest board – you can see it here. Other than that, I used my imagination rather than research.

Why is the character Verla given so much space in the story especially when it comes to her feverish dreams?

CW: She’s one of the two main characters. Dreams were a way of creating another consciousness, a world where she could drift into her memories and experiences of beauty and culture, a way of escaping the horror of her present experience. Her fever dream where she finds a river and feels the kangaroos rushing past her is a way of looking at the beauty of nature rather than the horror of their prison.

How did you feel while writing this book and later editing it?

CW: For a time in writing this book I really struggled with the darkness of the material, and felt that something must be wrong with me for letting myself be drawn there. But once the first draft was written, and the mess of it was in front of me, then the job of the novelist kicked in: to shape it into a compelling story. The artistic job was to make the material into something shapely and even beautiful in its darkness – but most of all I wanted to create a gripping story. The book’s main question grew more and more urgent: Will my girls escape or won’t they? Who will rescue them? How can they rescue themselves?

Tell me more about the title The Natural Way of Things?

CW: The title comes from a section in the middle of the book where the authorial voice steps away from the characters and muses on whether the girls will be missed in their own lives; whether anyone cares that they have vanished; and ultimately, whether harm that comes to women is their own fault – it’s the ‘natural way of things’. But the title also plays with the question of what a ‘natural’ female body is, plays on the notion of a return to nature and whether there is such a thing as a ‘natural state’ for humans – and whether that natural state is to revert to primitivism in gender relations. It also reflects the book’s interest in the natural world as a redemptive force, if the girls choose to see it that way.

If your book was ever optioned for a film or television do you think it could ever capture the feral anger so dramatically etched in your story?

CW: The book has been optioned for a film to be made by a team of young women filmmakers in Australia – I have handed all creative control to them as I would like the film to be a completely new creation of its own, and for them to have total ownership of it.

You can read an extract from Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things here.

Anne-Marie Slaughter “Unfinished Business”

unfinishedbizSheryl Sandberg and I agree on many things. We both encourage women to speak up and take their place at the table; we both want to see many structural changes in the workplace. To some extent the difference between us is largely a matter of which side of the equation to emphasize — a difference that, on my side, at least, is a function of relative age. I would have written a very similar book to Lean In at forty-three, Sandberg’s age when she published her book. My kids were very young and I had never met a work-life challenge that I could not surmount by working harder or hiring people to help out. By fifty-three, when I wrote my article, I found myself in a different place, one that gave me insight into the circumstances and choices facing the many women who have found that for whatever reason, leaning in simply isn’t an option. 

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business was published in 2015. It is a book based upon her extremely popular article published in the Atlantic in 2012, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” (July/Aug 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/ ). It went viral. Three years later this book was published and another article in the Atlantic. This time by her husband, Prof. Andrew Moravcsik called, “Why I Put My Wife’s Career First” ( Oct 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/why-i-put-my-wifes-career-first/403240/ ). She also did a TED talk in 2013, ‘Can we all “have it all”?’   ( https://www.ted.com/talks/anne_marie_slaughter_can_we_all_have_it_all?language=en ).

Of late there have been many conversations about women, feminism, the work and home balance etc. Many puritanical feminists firmly believe that men should do their share of household chores and chipping in with parenting etc. Many women are made to feel wretched for not being professional enough at work if they mention their children and family responsibilities as being of concern too. Many women are denied opportunities to grow professionally for being mothers and having a family. Being a single woman or preferably a woman without children raises the chances of professional growth exponentially. But seriously, is it important to lean in so much that either work or family suffers? Why cannot it all be seen as a slow dance that evolves and grows?

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business is the feminist bible for now.  Another text may come along and replace it very soon given with what speed content is being uploaded on the internet. But for now this book works wonderfully well. Its arguments about striking the balance, importance of family and institutional support for working women, essential to have male role models like her husband who opted to look after the children without any hassles and of keeping egos at bay. Many marriages fall apart since it is so deeply ingrained in society that the man should be earning more than the wife and if roles are reversed, even when the husband is supportive, societal pressure can get to be so much that it puts undue stress on the relationship.

Personally I feel that many of the institutional structures are based on a very fixed linear notion of how time operates, inevitably a patriarchal construct. Whereas most women work on “stolen time” especially when there are children involved and they are the primary caregivers. Alas, it is this masculine interpretation of time as being linear that dominates our daily function. Motherhood is a slow, nurturing process and sometimes it is the mother’s presence that is required more than the father’s — an argument that may not go well with too many traditional feminists. Similarly with work responsibilities and one’s career. But it is true. Feminism is not simply about being empowered by acquiring more masculine characteristics to prove that irrespective of being born a woman, you can do everything on an equal if not a better footing than a man. Modern day feminism is about being an empowered woman who has the ability to voice her opinion, make her choices and stand by them. Women negotiate and make choices on a daily basis in whichever space they inhabit. This is why Unfinished Business is relevant for everyone.

Read it.

Anne-Marie Slaughter Unfinished Business Oneworld Publisher, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 330. Rs 499

24 February 2016

 

Kiran Nagarkar, “Bedtime Story”

 
Bedtime Story coverDraupadi: You have all gone stark, raving mad. You’re going to share me just because Mummy said so? And you expect me to turn myself into a five-day roster to please you? I’m supposed to divide myself into five portions? Listen to me, Arjun, and listen well. If I stay here, I stay as your wife, not as the mistress of five brothers. Are you coming with me or aren’t you?  ( p. 38) 
 

Kiran Nagarkar’s Bedtime Story is a play in four acts. Each  of the acts is based on a well-known episode from the Mahabharata. These are of Eklavya cutting off his thumb for Dronacharya as guru dakshina; the swaymvara of Draupadi where every suitor had to try and shoot an arrow in the eye of a fish overhead that revolved from a high pole — not looking at the target directly but at its reflection in a cauldron of oil; the infamous dice game where the Pandavas lost their kingdom to the Kauravas and they attempted to disrobe Draupadi, if it were not for Krishna who miraculously restored her garments to save her from shame and finally, on the eve of the battle between Kaurava and Pandavas, when Lord Krishna preached the doctrine of dharma to Arjuna which is enshrined in the most famous of Hindu texts, the Bhagvad Gita. This last act also has a conversation between Gandhari, mother of the Kauravas and Krishna.

Bedtime Story was written soon after the Emergency ( 1975-77), but it has been published for the first time, thirty-seven years later in 2015. The first time there was an attempt to perform it was actor and theatre director Dr Shreeram Lagoo. As Kiran Nagarkar writes in the introduction:

He [ Dr Lagoo] realized that the play was provocative and controversial material. He invited all the experimental theatre groups in Bombay for a reading in 1978 because he wanted the whole amateur theatre movement behind the play. In the meantime, the play had been sent to the censor board for certification, as the law in Maharashtra demands. It came back with seventy-eight cuts, some of them a page long, so that barely the jacket-covers were left. Eminent academics, M.P. Rege, Pushpa Bhave, and a couple of others argued the case for Bedtime Story at a meeting of the censor board. Many of the excisions the board demanded were risible ( e.g. drop the names of the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi), some questions did not make any sense (e.g. why are you distorting the original myths?). I must admit I was hoping that the board would have at least some members from the Marathi literary elite who would have understood the thrust of the play. But I soon realized that I was deluding myself. The board was convinced that the play was a stain on our culture and needed to be severely sanitized. …When the director of the play finally got a letter from the board, the cuts had been reduced to twenty-four. But by then almost all the actors had withdrawn from the rehearsals because fundamentalist Hindu parties and organizations in Bombay, as it was known then, threatened the director, producer, actors and me, and even the first rehearsal was not allowed to take place. It helped enormously that none of these vociferous guardians of our culture had read Bedtime Story. ( p 6-7) 

The play was finally staged in 1995 by Rekha Sabnis’s theatre group, Abhivyakti, directed by Achyut Deshingkar. But it ran for only twenty-five performances. “The actors had such fun with the firecracker dialogue and the energy within the play and the difficult questions it raised that they pooled their money and revived the play two years later, this time in Hindi, and it had a few more performances. Sometime later, Vasant Nath staged the play in Cambridge, UK, and at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.” ( p.7) Noted journalist, Salil Tripathi wrote an excellent piece in The Mint about his first encounter with Bedtime Story. ( Salil Tripathi, “When Kiran Nagarkar said the unsayable” 28 February 2015, Live Mint, http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/2izXvQjOpQm0hFGPz0vdIK/When-Kiran-Nagarkar-said-the-unsayable.html)

I first came across Bedtime Story in 1982. The Emergency was still fresh in our minds, and the collapse of the Janata administration in 1979 and the triumphant return of Indira Gandhi in 1980 had chilled the mood, crumbling the illusion that the Janata years had represented, of being the harbinger of a cultural renaissance. Nagarkar’s play was drawn from the Mahabharata, “the living epic in the subcontinent”, as he describes it, because the epic became the “medium to drive home my point about the malaise from which most of us suffer: apathy.” The play shows how the good guys—the Pandavas—are weak and subject to human follies, and the bad guys—the Kauravas—are no better. The choice is between dark and darker. …. 

I saw the play in 1982—or heard it, that’s more like it—at a private reading at the home of Rekha Sabnis, the actor (her group Abhivyakti would later stage the play, directed by Achyut Deshingkar in 1995, and it would have a limited run of 25 shows). But that Sunday morning at Sabnis’ home, we were spellbound as she read the script, along with writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan, researcher Tulsi Vatsal, and Nagarkar himself. I was young then, fresh out of college, but I realized what it must have felt like in Eastern Europe, where samizdat performances of cutting-edge, political plays took place just that way. I wrote about it a week later in the now-defunct Sunday Observer.

Even though it is the twenty-first century, it is commendable this play has finally been published, given as Romila Thapar points out that India is, “…a highly patriarchal society such as our present-day society”. ( Romila Thapar, “The Real Reasons for Hurt Sentiments”, 13 March 2015 http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-real-reasons-for-hurt-sentiments/article6987156.ece ) In the recent past there have been innumerable instances of attempts censor literary works that can only be attributed to plain bullying by fundamentalist groups and the muzzling of free speech by powers that be, actions that are unacceptable in a thriving democracy like India. 

A play like Bedtime Story must have been revolutionary in its ideas when it was first presented in the mid-1970s. All though in 1975 the first Committee on the Status of Women in India had brought out the path-breaking report on the condition of women in the country, Towards Equality: The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, written by legendary feminist-activists such as Vina Mazumdar and Latika Sarkar.  Yet the notion of having women in the play like Draupadi and Gandhari questioning the men’s actions and asserting themselves, rather than meekly accepting decisions made on their behalf could not have gone down easily with many people in 1970s. All the women portrayed in the play come across as strong women, who are on an equal footing with the men. The men, whether they are princes, kings or even gods, are strong too, but have their fair share of faults too. Such ideas continue to generate a debate among men and women, but at least these ideas are no longer uncommon or unheard of. Plus, after the hugely commercial success of books such as Chitra Divakurni’s Palace of Illusions, a fabulous retelling of the Mahabharata from the point-of-view of Draupadi, a play like Bedtime Story will be more than acceptable to the reading public. All though the recent furore over the telecast and ultimately imposing a ban of Leslee Udwin’s documentary, “India’s Daughter” shows that these patriarchal notions  of how much space, identity and freedom can a woman be given are deeply entrenched in this society, it will be a long while before the idea of equality between men and women become reality in India.

Bedtime StoryIt is befitting then that the first launch of this book was by noted feminist-activist-publisher, Urvashi Butalia in New Delhi on 11 March 2015, three days after Women’s Day.

Buy this book now. Who knows, a few months or years down the line Bedtime Story will be banned again. We live in uncertain times. If it comes to pass that this play too is pulled off the shelves, it will not be the first time. Just as was done with Perumal Murugan’s novel, One Part Woman, which was withdrawn by the author after being intimidated by fundamentalists, nearly two years after the English translation and four years after it had been published in Tamil. And many other authors/texts in recent Indian publishing history.

Buy it also for the fantastic dust jacket. It is stupendous. The cover concept is Kiran Nagarkar’s and the cover design is by Prashant Godbole.

Kiran Nagarkar Bedtime Story and Black Tulip Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India. Hb, pp. 300. Rs. 695 

16 March 2015 

Wild Girls, Wicked Words

Wild Girls, Wicked Words

Wild GirlsAt the recently concluded World Book Fair, New Delhi, Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu publications gave me a copy of Wild Girls, Wicked Words.  An anthology of four women poets who write in Tamil –Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. The poems have been translated from Tamil into English by well-known translator, Lakshmi Holmström. This book is a joint publication of Sangam House and Kalachuvadu Publications. It can be ordered online from Flipkart: http://www.flipkart.com/search?q=wild+girls+wicked+words&as=off&as-show=off&otracker=start . 

I enjoyed reading the poems. Powerful poetry. The themes range from love, war to oppression. With the women poets included in this anthology they write about the feelings commonly shared by women. Poetry is a form of expression that helps them to articulate their feelings and experiences. I can only read the poems in English but the Tamil versions have also been made available. 

Given below is an extract from the exquisite introduction to the book. In it Lakshmi Holmström gives a nuanced and sensitive context to the poets featured, and places them within the traditions of Tamil literature and poetry. It is being reproduced with permission of Lakshmi Holmström, Sangam House and Kalachuvadu Publications.

Wild Girls, Wicked Words

Introduction

Lakshmi Holmström

In 2003, at a time when politicians and other establishment figures of Tamil Nadu were caught up in a surge of Tamil chauvinism, a group of men and women, setting themselves up as guardians of Tamil culture, objected publicly to the language of a new generation of women poets, particularly in the work of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. They charged the women with obscenity and immodesty.Malathi Mythri

These women poets came into prominence at the same time; their first collections of poetry were published between the years 2000 –2002, when they were in their late twenties and early thirties. Though each of these poets is unique in what she has to say in her poetry, there are some themes which are common to all of them, notably the politics of sexuality, and a woman’s relationship to her body. For the moral police, such language was not permissible for Tamil women. So the poets were condemned and vilified. The debate gained focus with the publication of Kutti Revathi’s Mulaigal (Breasts, 2002). The poets received abusive letters from individuals as well as literary organizations. The media had a field-day. A popular song writer for films gave a much publicised interview to a literary journal condemning women writers in general. This was followed by another film-song writer, Snehithan, who appeared on television declaring that these women should be lined up on Mount Road in Chennai, doused with kerosene oil and burnt alive.

kutty revathiIt might have been easy for these self-appointed moral guardians to assume that the young women poets were all ‘powerless’ and, therefore, particularly vulnerable: none of them comes from a privileged background. Salma comes from a conservative Muslim family based in a small town near Madurai; Sukirtharani is a school teacher in Lalapet, and a Dalit. On the contrary, despite considerable persecution and even death threats, the women refused to be intimidated, insisting on their freedom to write as they chose. Malathi Maithri sought legal advice, and made a complaint to the Women’s Commission against Snehithan.

The Tamil literary world was divided in its response. Kalachuvadu, a literary-cum-political journal which has always engaged with political and literary issues, called a meeting in Chennai on 21 November 2004 to debate the issues that had been raised by the violent response both towards the poetry written by these four women poets, and towards the women personally. The meeting was chaired by Indira Parthasarathy, and attended by well-known writers such as Prapanjan, Ambai and Ravikumar, and older women poets Krishangini and Thaamarai. Rajasekaran reports in Kalachuvadu that the discussions were mostly to do with the larger issues of freedom of expression: Ravikumar spoke at length about the need to struggle against all oppressions, Prapanjan about patriarchy’s various and subtle workings, and Krishangini about why men find it so difficult to accept it when women write in specific and personal terms about their sexuality. However, Rajasekaran also pointed out that none of the critics and writers present analysed in any detail the specific poems which were at the root of the controversy.Sukirtharani 1

Meanwhile, by 2005, the national press more generally was taking up the issue of moral censorship of Tamil women by all the political parties of Tamil Nadu. About this time too, two film-makers, Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar, made a documentary on our four poets, entitled SheWrite. The film was important in that it brought to the notice of the nation at large the courageous stand the four women had taken; it also served to bring out many insights about their personal lives and backgrounds. However, in the film, the poetry was shown mostly as the focus of a controversy, and not examined in any detail for its own worth and value.

It is now ten years since the publication of Mulaigal. During this decade, each of our poets has published more than one further collection, continuing to write and publish as courageously as before. Each of them has won national and international acclaim. However, the grumbling against the language and thrust of their poetry goes on, while the wider issue of what Tamil women are allowed to wear, say, and where they choose to socialize continues to be raised from time to time and debated by the politicians, and in the press.

salmaWhen we look back at the history of Tamil poetry, the marginal status of women in the literary canon and their relatively meagre output is evident since classical times. It is true that, in modern times, Tamil women have been writing and publishing in various genres, but as far as poetry is concerned, we have seen a gradual change only since about 1970. Women such as R. Meenakshi and Sugantha Subramaniam were being published throughout the 1970s and 80s, yet it was only in the late 80s that their poems appeared in significant numbers, both in anthologies and single volumes. Then, suddenly, in the 1990s, the contribution of women to Tamil poetry became notable. This was a poetry that had to be noticed, not because it was written by women, but because it was different from what appeared in the mainstream.

As V. Geetha points out in her Introduction to an anthology of poetry by women from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, Paratthal Athan Sudandiram (Flight is its Freedom, 2001), not all the contributors to the book are feminists, nor even necessarily sympathetic to feminism, yet they bring completely new themes into Tamil poetry: an engagement with the minutiae of everyday life, new perceptions of familial lives, the truth about a sudden end to childhood, about bleak marriages, the joys and sorrows of childbirth and motherhood. And some women, at least, were writing with boldness about their inner lives in very different terms, using an awareness of their bodies and their sexuality. Drawing attention to an overall tendency in the anthology towards inwardness and the inner world, V. Geetha calls upon the Tamil women poets of her time to engage more with the outer world and its politics; to consider social and cultural oppressions and inequalities more widely. She suggests that the difference between the Sri Lankan women and those from Tamil Nadu lies in the political engagement of the former; that as far as the Sri Lankans are concerned, even when they write about ‘myself’, ‘my love’, ‘my sorrow’, there is an underlying political discourse that pushes the individual story into a wider context.

That was in 2001, and it was important to say it at the time. Since then, we have seen another generation of women poets whose poetry does indeed engage with a wider political discourse and a more nuanced feminism. Yet, in the case of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani, ever since the events so publicised by the media in 2003, their poetry has been grouped together and discussed only in terms of their engagement with questions of sexuality. It is also clear that a deep divide persists in the way readers and critics perceive women poets as a whole, today. The editor of a well-known literary journal observed to me that for these past years, Tamil women poets have been categorized into ‘Bad Girls’ who write ‘body poetry’ and ‘Good Girls’ who refrain from doing so.

This anthology, then, celebrates four women poets, Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi, and Sukirtharani, and showcases, through English translation, a small sample in each case, of their work over a decade. My attempt has been to bring out the beauty, originality, and above all the individuality of each of these poets. It is perhaps useful to remember that the traditional values prescribed for the ‘Good’ Tamil woman were accham, madam and naanam (fearfulness, propriety, modesty or shame). Our poets have chosen instead, the opposite virtues of fearlessness, outspokenness, and a ceaseless questioning of prescribed rules. It is surely significant that at different times and variously, they have claimed as their foremothers, role models and equals, Avvai, Velliviidhi and Sappho; Anna Akhmatova, Sylvia Plath and Kamala Das. And Eve, above all, who defied divine authority to pluck the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Bad Girls indeed, all of them.

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There are many common themes and tropes among the poems presented here: light ‘prowls like a cat’, the tiger stalks within the bedroom and along the imagined mountain landscape. But there are also profound differences, which the reader will note. Each poet has struggled to find a language of her own to express her particular vision. ‘Language must be redeemed from the grave of its own inadequacy’, Malathi Maithri wrote in 2001, in her Editor’s Note to Paratthal Athan Sudandiram, putting forward, later on, the possibility of a pey (demon) language. Sukirtharani seeks an ‘infant language’, with all the rough and physical reality of new birth, still sticky with blood. Kutti Revathi invents a blazing language of love. Salma reaches out, even to the ‘rust of silence’.

Above all, in this anthology, I have wanted to celebrate the courage of each of these poets in breaking out of and defying easy categories. As Sukirtharani puts it in her magnificent poem, ‘Nature’s fountainhead’ (Iyarkaiyin peruutru):

I myself will become
earth
fire
sky
wind
water.
The more you confine me, the more I will spill over,
Nature’s fountainhead.

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Wild Girls, Wicked Words Poems of Malathi Maithri, Salma, Kutti Revathi and Sukirtharani. Edited and translated by Lakshmi Holmström. Kalachuvadu Publications and Sangam House, Nagercoil, India, Dec 2012. Pb. pp. 240. Rs. 295

26 Feb 2014