women Posts

Book 23: 9 December 2018 – 5 January 2019

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 23 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received during the holiday season.

Enjoy reading!

7 January 2019

Mohammed Hanif’s “Red Birds”

Nihilistic resistance is the worst kind of enemy; it was all the rage, we were taught in our Cultural Sensitivity 101.  Colonel Slatter had laid out the foundations: We used to have art for art’s sake; now we have war for the sake of war. No lands captured, no slaves taken, no mass rapes, fuck their oil wells, ignore their mineral deposits. You can outsource mass rape. War has been condensed to carpet-bombing followed by dry rations and craft classes for the refugees. People who had not left their little hamlets for centuries, goatherds who belived in nothing but grassy fields and folk music, women who had never walked beyond the village well, not they could all go and live in UN tents, eat exotic food donated by USAID and burp after drinking fizzy drinks. 

Mohammed Hanif’s third novel Red Birds is a brilliant political satire using primarily three narrators — Momo, a teenager who dreams of becoming a millionaire after having read Fortune 500; Ellie, a US fighter pilot who ejected out of his burning plane in to the desert and Mutt, Momo’s dog, who has been anthropomorphised by the novelist. The three sections of the book are the three locations where the story is set — the desert, the camp and the hangar. These are in a geographical location that is never very clear where it exists but many readers will recognise it to be an amalgamation of many conflict zones around the world. For the first two sections of the book the women characters of Mother Dear and Lady Flowerbody are present and contribute to the conversations but it is reported speech. Mother Dear is Momo’s mother and absolutely furious with her husband for having taken away their elder son, Bro Ali. Father Dear introduces Lady Flowerbody as his co-worker. Lady Flowerbody is the new Coordinating Officer for the Families Rehabilitation Programme who “works with the families affected by raids and is conducting a survey on post-conflict conflict resolution strategies that involve histories and folklore”. Whereas Lady Flowerbody claims she is writing her “PhD thesis on the Teenage Muslim Mind, their hopes, their desires; it might come out as a book called The Children of the Desert“. It is only in the third section of the novel, “In the Hangar”, that the women characters speak and when they do it is powerfully and lucidly.

If the story can be encapsulated in a nutshell it would be about the family in the refugee camp whose elder son went off to the hangar but never returned. Dear Father is suspected by his family of having sold off his elder son. Dear Mother who is mostly confined to the kitchen cooking is given to ranting but she is mostly “off stage”. The male characters — her husband and son, later to be joined by the pilot and a nomad-turned-doctor — mostly hear her out with the husband being the most dismissive of her angry monologues particularly when he cannot understand her obsessiveness with the lack of salt and her inability to cook a decent meal. Ellie is a participant and a spectator to this, more like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, but he has his own concerns to worry about. Ellie worries about his wife and his job.

Former Pakistan Air Force pilot-turned-journalist Mohammed Hanif scathing political satire Red Birds is reminiscent of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Apparently cadet Hanif discovered Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22 in the Air Force Academy library. In an interview with BBC journalist Razia Iqbal in 2014, Hanif said he loved Heller’s novel and read it “at least 22 times”. He said he found the book funny but their lives were not unfunny. Hanif adds that Heller certainly changed Hanif’s outlook on the world he was living in.

Red Birds is a fine novel. The deadpan style of writing reveals the absurd situations of war zones. The absurdity of the scenarios are funny too. But it is chilling to realise that these absurd moments are plausible in a conflict zone. Take for instance Father Dear carting piles and piles of files, the nomad-turned-doctor who is called in to treat Mutt, the teenager Momo who learns to drive and steers while sitting on a pile of cushions or Mother Dear who is worried about the lack of salt ( which is actually not unfunny for many, especially women, who have lived in conflict zones).

Red Birds is a sharply satirical novel that cannot be ignored. It is bound to be on the literary prize lists in the coming year. Perhaps even win a prize or two. Read it!

To buy on Amazon India:

Hardback

Kindle

7 November 2018 

An interview with Roanna Gonsalves

Roanna Gonsalves is from India. She earned her PhD from the University of New South Wales. She teaches creative writing workshops within communities, schools, and universities. Her research focuses on the arts, social media, creativity studies and postcolonial literatures. She created a series of radio documentaries entitled, On the Tip of a Billion Tongues. She received the Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endevour Award. She is the co-founder and co-editor of Southern Crossings. She is the author of The Permanent Resident, which won 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Multicultural NSW Award.

 

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Sunita De Souza goes to Sydney is a powerful set of stories that are atmospheric. Packed with detailed descriptions of Bombay/ Mumbai, Goa and Australia. “Home stays with you, in your stories” is a beautifully apt description of immigrant literature coined by by Norwegian resident, originally from Nagaland, and the Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar 2018 winner, Easterine Kiralu. The comment encapsulates Roanna Gonsalves short stories very well too.

It is not clear if the principle of arrangement of the stories is chronological but there is definitely a shift in the confident writing style and evolution of the women characters from the first “Full Face” to the last “The Permanent Resident”. There is a quiet determination evident in the stories to make literature out of the most ordinary experiences such as in the search for Sichuan peppercorns to prepare Kung pa khao chicken for lunch in “Easter 2016”. This is a devastatingly sharp story beginning with the title which is so apt with its double-edged reference to the resurrection of Christ and that of the woman narrator occurring on Easter Sunday. Roanna Gonsalves captures the relationship between her husband, Ronnie, and the narrator so well especially his insistence for Sichuan peppercorns No substitution with Indian peppercorn would suffice. His steely stubbornness that he wanted a change in the menu despite the fact the Easter Sunday lunch had already been cooked. The exhausted wife (not just physically but mentally and emotionally for being stuck in domestic drudgery and childcare, reminiscing about her life back in Bombay when she could also be a professional) agrees to look for the spice even though it is the long Easter weekend and in all likelihood all provision stores would be shut. The descriptions of the people walking on the streets as she goes by in her search is as if a bird has been let out of its cage and watches in numb wonderment. The narrator observes everyone so closely; as if the boundary lines between the narrator and author are blurred at this point. When she finally finds a store open, discovers a packet of the spice, nothing prepares the reader for her defiant act of tearing open the packet of pink peppercorns that are “pink as the sky at dusk over the backwaters of the Mandovi”, munching them and leaving the open packet on the shelf and walking out for a stroll reminiscing on how the fragrance reminds her of her grandmother while the flavour is that of a combination of lavender and Tiger Balm. The story works marvellously well at so many levels!

The dark twist of “Christmas 2012” is gut wrenching. “What you understand you can control” seems so innocuous a statement at first and then comes the story’s conclusion. I found myself holding my breath and was sickened to the core when I finished reading. It is a dark secret of many households even now if one keeps track of child sexual abuse stories. The horror of it is magnified by watching the news of the shocking rape of Dec 2012 but it seems to have no impact on the father.  I cannot get over the image of the bossy Martha, fussing over the linen and cutlery and carving of the turkey, being so precise about the Turkey sauce blemish on the white tablecloth; she knows exactly what home remedy to fix the stain but is clueless on how to “fix” the moral stain on her family. The poor woman stuck in a new land as an immigrant has no one really to speak to and cannot in any way jeopardise her situation or that of her husband by reporting Martin to the police otherwise they will in all likelihood lose their PR (Permanent Resident) status. Hell truly exists on earth and it is usually of man’s own making.

 

The stories are full of very distinct characters, particularly the women. Usually in a short story collection the danger always exists of the personality of the characters blending into each other and acquiring a monotonous tone. This is not the case for Sunita de Souza. With the women characters, the author explores situations and how far can women push their limits. It’s as if they have always had an urge to explore but were boxed in by social rules of conduct back home in India. Whereas being on one’s own in a new land provides an anonymity that pushes one to the brink to discover new spaces — physically and metaphorically too. Driven to extreme situations the women unexpectedly find their voices and take a stand. It is not as if they were weaklings in the first place, they just conform and conform. Then something clicks and they take flight in a good way. They take decisions that change their lives for the better. For instance, the protagonists of “(CIA) Australia”, “Full Face” and “Teller in the Tale” or even the “bold” mother in “Soccer Mum”. All the women try, some do take action and others contemplate it and in the process provide a role model to the readers.

The strongest stories in this collection to my mind are “The Dignity of Labour”, “Easter 2016” and “The Permanent Resident”. The themes of domestic violence, fragile male egos/ patriarchal sense of entitlement that the men exhibit and assertion of the individual’s identity are not new and never will be but come together ever so stunningly in these stories. These are horrendous stories for the violence highlighted. While reading these three stories I could not help but recall the commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. The focus is inevitably on the first half of the commandment but increasingly I feel that women in particular should also learn to focus on the second half — self-preservation is equally critical. Don’t always give and give, but learn to maintain your dignity, self-respect, identity. The sleazy story “Up Sky Down Sky Middle Water” captures this commandment well. The girl was very sure she did not want to be a one-night stand but in that short ride she had done her calculation that having sex with the guy by the roadside would in all likelihood give her an advantage in negotiating her salary. It is a very unsettling story but in it lies quite a remarkable tale of self-preservation. She is near starvation with a very low bank balance and she has to do the quick calculation of whether using her body will give her an added advantage. It is tough to decide whether one passes moral judgement on the girl or appreciates her boldness, her quick thinking to be in some ways emotionally detached from the scene and think ahead of her future. The reader is put in quite a spot with this story.

The phrase “family friendly feminism” is fast becoming fashionable which is annoying for a variety of reasons but as your stories show there is so much work left to be done. Though the stories focus upon experiences of immigrants, specifically within the Goan/Bombay Catholic community, there is a universal truth embedded in every single story.

Fantastic collection!

 

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Here are excerpts of an interview with the author:

  • How long were these stories in the making?

I took about five years to write these stories, but they are standing on over two decades of writing experience.  My first job after graduating from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai was as a reporter with Screen, in India, back in the days when it was a broadsheet. Since then I have written journalism, literary nonfiction, blogs, scholarly pieces in international peer-reviewed journals, radio documentaries, including Doosra: The Life and Times of an Indian Student in Australia  and On the tip of a Billion Tongues, a four part radio documentary series on contemporary multilingual Indian writing. I’ve written for the stage and had short fiction published in different journals, and anthologised in collections. I also wrote a novel (unpublished) which was longlisted for the Vogel Awards, back when I was under 35, which is the cut-off age for that award. As they say, you have to write millions of terrible words before you get to the good words. So all of this writing needed to be done, over two decades, before I could write my book. It took this long not because I’m a lazy or slow writer but because I’ve been a single parent and have had to work in many day jobs to support my family, while writing in my “spare time”.

  • Why begin writing short stories when most publishers shun this genre, especially from a first time author? How did you achieve this stroke of genius to be known as the debut author of a fantastic and now prize-winning collection?

Thank you so much for your warm and generous words, and your fantastic, considered questions. You’re right. It’s very hard to get published, particularly with a short story collection. I felt very honoured to be published by UWAP and Speaking Tiger. I wanted to write short stories because they call forth a respect for the limitations of time and space, and enable a focus on the particular, the intimate, and the fleeting. The short story form offers a set of sharp literary tools with which to sculpt complex experiences and render them economically on the page. This form of the short story felt most suited to writing about the complexities of the immigrant experience. It allowed me to explore different facets of that experience, from the point of view of different protagonists, something which would be harder to achieve with a novel.

  • Who are the short story writers you admire and why? Did their writing influence you in any way?

I’ve been heavily influenced by the work of all kinds of writers such as Eunice De Souza, Michelle De Kretser, Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ambai, Kiran Nagarkar, Jerry Pinto, Arundhati Subramaniam, A.K. Ramanujan, Chekhov, Arundhati Roy, Sampurna Chattarji, Arshia Sattar, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Tony Birch, Jeanine Leane, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Damodar Mauzo, bell hooks, and Elizabeth Bishop. I’ve had my fair share of Rushdie-itis, where I tried to magic-realise all my characters. That phase didn’t last thankfully. But yes, I owe a huge debt to Rushdie. So many writers have fed my work. As the Australian poet Andy Kissane says, “poems are cobbled together from other poems”. So too are stories cobbled together from other stories. I’m very aware of the debt I owe to the writers who have paved the way for people like me.

  • How did you start writing about the immigrant experience in Australia?

I started writing about this a long time ago, across various media.  My first piece of fiction, published in Eureka Street, ‘Curry Muncher’, was written as a response to the violence against Indian students in Australia. Having been an Indian student in Australia myself, I felt I needed to render the experience with nuance, and I felt fiction was the best vessel to hold this nuance and complexity. Exploring this topic further, I was also commissioned to write a radio documentary called Doosra, and was a co-writer on a national award-winning play ‘Yet to ascertain the nature of the crime’. All the links to my work can be found on my website.

  • Sometimes the turn in a story like that of the husband grinding the toes of his wife in “The Dignity of Labour” is too cruel a detail to be imaginative. It is as if you heard about it. Do these stories incorporate kernels of real incidents?

That is a lovely comment. However, I have to say that this particular incident is entirely made up. I’m sure this incident has happened to someone somewhere, but in this story it is an imagined detail. Some stories are based on things I’ve read in the media, but all the stories have been filtered through my imagination, and they are all fictional. I think fiction has the power to be truthful in a way that bare facts cannot.

I filtered some details of real stories. None of my stories are entirely based on true stories reported in the media. For example, in the first story, ‘Full Face’, the story of the hairdresser who is murdered by her husband is loosely based on the horrific murder of Parwinder Kaur here in Sydney, by her husband. But the main story itself is based on a different relationship. Yes of course, there is an important place for nonfiction. But the idea that fiction must be based on fact for it to be any good is not something I’m interested in. I believe in the power of fiction, the power of the imagination to help us glimpse our better selves. I’m not saying my fiction does this. But I believe that fiction as a whole has the power to do this.

  • Do you work or are associated with a shelter/organisation for Indian women immigrants?

No, I’m not, but I do know of many amazing Indian women here who work with survivors of family violence in the Indian communities.

JBR: Makes sense then. You have probably heard stories. it is not that I am insisting on looking for links but it is so clear that you are a kind and sensitive listener who has taken some stories to heart.

RG: Thank you.

  • I like the way you keep bringing in the Catholic Associations to support the immigrants, mostly provide them a communal and cultural base. The church communities do provide refuge for newcomers and immigrants. Was this a conscious detail to incorporate in your stories or is it a part and parcel of your own life as well?

Yes, it was completely deliberate to set my stories amongst the Indian catholic communities. One reason I did this was to counter in some small way the almost universal and inaccurate conflation of Indianness with Hinduism. As we all know, there is more to India than Hinduism, however rich and wonderful it may be. I wanted to gesture towards this multiplicity by deliberately focussing on a community I knew best. Yet, as you know, in my work, I do not shy away from critiquing Catholicism or the Catholic church. Yes, the church for Christians, the temples for Hindus, the mosques for Muslims, are all ports of anchor for new immigrants who find familiarity in old religions from the homeland when they arrive in a new country with an otherwise alien culture. I write about Konkani-speaking communities, Goan and Mangalorean and Bombay Catholics, just like Jhumpa Lahiri focusses on Bengalis, and Rohinton Mistry focusses on Parsis.

  • When you observe do you keep a notebook handy to scribble points or do these details come alive when you begin to write a story?

Yes, I keep a notebook, I also type up comments on my Notes app on my phone. I’ve gone back to these notes several times and they have provided rich material for my work. For me, the catalyst for each of my stories has been clusters of words that sound and look good to me. I begin with words that fit together in a way that is pleasing to me. I don’t begin with character or theme or plot. That comes after the words for me. So the notes and scribbles I make are primarily combinations of words that I’ve overheard or imagined suddenly when I’m waiting at the bus stop etc.

  • Your women characters come across as women who make difficult choices but would they be called feminists for making those decisions or just strong women?  How would you describe yourself as – a feminist or a writer of women-centric stories?

I am unapologetically a feminist. I owe everything to the struggles of the early feminists in India and across the world. Were it not for these brave women, I would still be stuck in the kitchen cooking rice and dal for my husband while nursing baby number nineteen. Our independence as women has been won through the struggles of many brave women, and I will never forget this debt. So yes, I call myself a feminist. All my female characters are feminists, in that they are strong women who make choices and are self-aware enough to deal with the consequences, however challenging or empowering those consequences may be.

  • Have you been trained in theatre?

I wish I could act like Shabhana Azmi and the late Smita Patil. However I have no talent and no training as a performer. But I have written for the stage and hope to continue to do so.

  • What are you writing next? 

I am writing a book of historical fiction, based on the imperial networks of the British and Portuguese empires. It’s about Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his Indian servant, set in the early nineteenth century in the south of India, the west of Scotland, and the east of Australia.

Roanna Gonsalves Sunita De Souza Goes to Sydney: And Other Stories Speaking Tiger Books, Delhi, 2018. Pb. pp. 296

3 July 2018 

 

Anuradha Roy’s “All The Lives We Have Never Lived”

I read award-winning writer Anuradha Roy‘s stunning new novel All The Lives We Have Never Lived which is set during the second world war in British India and Bali. The narrator is Abhay Chand or Myshkin Chand Rozario who many years later in 1992 recounts details of his childhood. His mother was a Bengali Hindu and his father part-Anglo Indian. When Myshkin was nine his mother left the Rozario family. Myshkin was left in the care of his grandfather, a doctor,  Bhavani Chand Rozario and his father, a college lecturer, Nek Chand. A couple of years after his wife’s departure Nek Chand left on a pilgrimage. He returned home with another wife, Lipi and a daughter, Ila.

Gayatri Sen left India for Bali with German artist Walter Spies and another friend of his Beryl. While in Bali, Gayatri would write letters to her son but particularly long and detailed ones to her best friend Lisa McNally. Myshkin receives his mother’s correspondence to Lisa from her children upon her death. 

After finishing the novel I wrote Anuradha Roy a long letter. Here are some excerpts. 

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Dear Anuradha,

Today I finished reading All the Lives We Never Lived. It is another one of your stories that will be with me for a long, long time to come.

I loved the dramatic opening sentence “In my childhood, I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.” It is similar to another novelist I thoroughly enjoy — Nell Zink. I like how you begin as from the present moment, with the boy, now an old man, reflecting back to his childhood. Obviously the opening sentence defined him for years as that is what is crystal clear. He echoes what society says about his mother. Although the rhythm and cadences of the text are so correctly measured with never a word out of place. It is a voice of experience speaking, yet one who is so terribly (and understandably) rattled by his mother’s letters towards the end that he walks through the local marketplace distractedly.

Your descriptions of the women writing letters to each other with every line scrawled upon, as well as in the margins and wherever they could find space transported me back immediately to my days of writing letters. When my friends left India, I would send them letters by snail mail. In those days’ international postage was so expensive for the heavy packets since the letters were long and used a lot of paper. So I devised a method of using an aerogramme and writing as tiny as I could and then writing across the margin and filling up whatever little space I could find on the page.

So you can imagine my delight to discover the letters between Gayatri and Lisa McNally in All the Lives We Never Lived. You had to my mind so effectively managed to make that leap of unearthing memories not only of the characters but also of the reader. So many times I found myself slowing down or grinding to a halt in your descriptions of the plants and trees. The descriptions of the gardener plucking the jasmine and collecting them in a basket of white cloud to later thread them as a gajra for Gayatri brought back a flood of memories. Every morning in the searing summer heat I would go to my grandmother’s garden in Meerut and pluck all the beautiful white blooms off the bushes. Later I would thread the flowers into gajras for the women in the family. It was a daily ritual over summer vacation I loved. The moment I read that passage in your book I got a strong whiff of the sweet fragrance of the flowers –perfect for summer as well as of the needle used to thread would be coated with sticky nectar.

The beauty of nature, the flowering trees whether in the scorching dry heat or in the tropics to the mountain vegetation. The burst of colour in your novel makes its presence felt but what is truly exhilarating is how Gayatri and later her son gets associated with the most vibrantly colourful passages describing nature in the book. The passage where you describe Myshkin filling up his long-unused sketchbooks with studies of trees and plants in the garden while remembering his mother are like the last movement of a symphony, where everything comes together as a whole. It is as if Myshkin is expressing his delight at discovering the joy of who his mother was and experiencing her life through his paintings.

Over the next weeks, my long-unused sketchbooks filled with studies of the trees and plants in the garden that I associated with my mother: the pearly carpet of parijat flowers, Nyctanthes arbortristis, that she loved walking on barefoot; the neem near the bench where she had sat with Beryl listening to the story of Aisha. I barely slept, I forgot meals, I drew and painted her garden as if possessed. I drew the Crepe myrtle and Queen of the Night, the common oleander and hibiscus; the young mangoes on the tree in June, as raw as they had been when Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies first came to our house.

It took me five days to finish my studies of Queen of the Night and then I turned to the garnet blossoms of the Plumeria rubra, the champa. I painted the long, elliptic leaves, the swollen stem tips, the fleshy branches that go from grey to green and ooze milk if bruised or cut. I blended in the ochre at the edges of the petals with the deepening incandescence of the red in the depths of the flower.

Your descriptions of the gulmohar and amaltas trees (though you use the scientific names) are stupendous. One has to live in this ghastly dry heat of the north Indian plans to realise just how much the bright deep rich yellows and fiery reds actually seem pleasant on a hot summer day. Of course the entire sub-plot of the Sundar Nursery and the superintendent of horticulture, Alick Percy-Lancaster, is absolutely fascinating! Years ago I recall you had published the gardening journals of the nursery in a brown hardback with a dustjacket. It is still one of my prized possessions. So I absolutely understood your love for greenery and making a new city green, or the distress at the unnecessary felling of the neem trees in Calcutta and Myshkin’s grief for it was he who had planted the saplings as a young horticulturist.

The characters you create are always so memorable. In a very male household there are only two women – the ayah/cook Banno Didi and Gayatri—who “typically” do not have much of a say in what is happening but the authorial eye gives sufficient clues to the existence of the women and it is not just the tantrums they throw. Or even the religious leader Mukti Devi, head of the Muntazi Seva Gahar, Society for Indian Patriots, whose image in the reader’s mind is created by Nek Chand’s accounts of her. Later even Myshkin’s surprise and then cruel assertion with his stepmother to lord it over in the manner he has seen his father behave, brings into play the sense of patriarchal entitlement men seem to have – even the best of them.  This is exactly why I was so surprised to read the exchange of letters, of which only one set remain, but that is enough to give a great insight into the free spirit Gayatari was. There are so many women in this novel, some prominent (Gayatri, Lisa, Lipi, Banno, Beryl), some absolutely silent (Kadambri, Queen Fatima and Lucille) and others with walk-on parts (Ila’s daughter, Gayatri’s mum, Ni Wayan Arini and many of those in Indonesia). The little interlude with the story of Amrita from Maitreyi Devi’s novel is fantastic too.

The first half of the book is full of men but in the second half the women take over the narrative. You suddenly make visible that is mostly invisible to most eyes, especially male eyes, of the myriad ways in which women manage the daily rhythms of life. It is not just the concerns Gayatri has for her family and mentions it often to Lisa but also the management of it long distance by persuading Lisa to keep a kindly eye on the grandfather and Myshkin. And yet, it is very liberating to see how you make visible the thoughts of the women, their innermost thoughts, their experiences that are usually never made public. Lipi is the only one who upset at her husband’s high-handedness of sending her home instead of allowing her to sit through the musical concert because of her toddler Ila prompts Lipi to create a massive bonfire. She is very direct in her response; almost earthy.

You weave these intricate webs but ever so slightly shift perspectives too. Little Myshkin observes everything, perhaps not always quite understanding it, and yet he absorbs. It becomes a part of who he is and it is best expressed in his writing and later the paintings he draws as an old man. What I truly loved about the novel was how at the beginning the women and men were operating as expected in their socially defined gendered roles despite the magnificent opening line. The prose moves as one would want of a well-structured novel. It lulls one into expecting a good old fashioned story with a few unpredictable twists. Then come the disruptions not just to the domestic setup but also to the prose, the letters make their presence felt and force the reader to engage with the female mind set, even the “common or garden species of readers” is forced to be involved! You reserve many of the tiny details that really evoke the period in the women’s correspondence; later this fine eye for the “thingyness of things” is visible when old Myshkin begins to paint with as much care and attention to detail as his mother may have done.

At another level I felt that Gayatri was trapped yet the manner in which she comes free and you express it so well by changing the text form too. From the “rigidity” of long prose — since it does have a bunch of rules governing it — to the free flowing style of letters. It is not just the breaking of shackles of the form to express herself to Lisa but also the manner in which Gayatri writes. There is a sense of freedom. The correspondence is so much like the intimate conversations women have with each other, whether strangers or friends. They immediately lapse into it.

For someone so one with the elements as Gayatri seems to have been it is does not seem to be out of order to have her engulfed in so many charming stories beginning with Beryl’s own life or her narration of man-woman Aisha, or even Walter Spies himself. The freedom with which they lived; possibly Bohemian but undeniably a very talented group of individuals. Everyone had tremendous “backstories”, some dastardly, all possibly true, and yet their zest for life to explore more and more was so in keeping with character. Through these experiences she meets or hears about different forms of sexualities that exist; Gayatri accepts all these stories and never judges, instead wonders “There must have been a time when love did not have moral guardians saying you may do this but not that – this is how it is in Bali now & how it was in our country hundreds of years ago”.

The parallels that you draw tell another narrative too. For example, referring to Gayatri as “The Indian Painter” and recounting the Amrita story in Maitreyi Devi’s novel is so deftly done as if to silence critics who may be prompted to say that feisty, independent, strong-willed, headstrong women like Gayatri who is “glad to have time to work” could not possibly have existed in British India. The political-historical parallels are unmistakable as well with Arjun’s desire for the country to be governed by a “benign dictatorship” followed by Nek Chand sighing about his students who were locked up for sedition “We are fugitives in our own land.” Gayatri’s statement “I am finding out how limited my world was” seems to resonate at many levels for this story and modern India. Gayatri is ever so magical in the manner in which you create her. She comes across as a modern woman but caught in the wrong time. Sadly though how many women living today can still express themselves or be so confident as to take charge of their own lives as Gayatri did?

The title of the book + the epigraph taken from Tobias Wolff “This is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell”, only coalesce as significant once the book is finished. I loved the way in which you immerse the reader as if to exist within a Greek chorus, a multitude of voices, giving their often unasked-for opinions, and yet doing a fantastic job of recreating a moment or a “truth” within a community. The vagueness of the town adds to the blurriness of incidents happening in the past. I do not know how to explain it to say that the story exists in the past sufficiently and in the memory of Myshkin to be real and yet, a little hazy. Loss of the finer details are immaterial as long as the period is evoked; and even the importance of that fades away as the story progresses. And yet reading my response to your book I realise this story will trigger many memories for many readers for you tease out the floodgates of memory ever so gently and politely. It worked for me. It is a powerful book.

Yours,

JAYA

Anuradha Roy All The Lives We Never Lived Hachette India, Gurugram, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 334. Rs 599 

27 May 2018 

Books on advice for women

Three books of advice for women spread across more than a century is a great way of mapping the enormous strides women have made over the decades. Don’ts for Wives by Blanche Ebbutt ( 1913) is a list of instructions to women advising them on how to survive, particularly on how to manage their husbands. Tucked away in it are some gems like this:

Don’t forget that you have a right to some money to spend as you like; you earn it as wife, and mother, and housekeeper. Very likely you will spend it on the house or the children when you get it; but that doesn’t matter — it is yours to spend as you like. 

Published in 2017 are Little Black Book by Otegha Uwagba ( HarperCollins)  and The Whole Shebang: Sticky Bits of Being a Woman  by Lalita Iyer ( Bloomsbury India) are two handybooks on what it takes to be a professional woman while juggling a million other responsibilities. There is plenty of sound advice offered by Otegha Uwagba whereas Lalita Iyer imparts similar nuggets of information but in a more personal way through anecdotes. There are many, many more books of a similar nature being published and of late there is practically a deluge of these books since the women reader market is burgeoning. Suddenly from a niche area it has become a mainstream market so there is a range of information available. All said and done all the books advise that women need to focus on self-preservation, maintaining their sanity, identity and self-respect and not necessarily capitulating to all that is expected of them. Sharing stories is one way of being able to get through to other women.

16 August 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.

Worldreader in India

 

WR logoWorldreader is actively seeking strategic partnerships with publishers and authors in India. Today it is being accessed by over 6 million readers in 69 countries, providing them with book titles in more than 43 languages. Worldreader would like to discuss a non-exclusive contract for publishing licenses for good, addictive and evergreen content for children, young adults and adults/women especially in Hindi and English. Given that the Worldreader platform supports multi-lingual formats the content could be across other Indian regional languages too. These texts could be across genres and reading segments– picture books, chapter books, bilingual books for children, stories, anthologies, fiction, translations, non-fiction, spiritual, health, cooking, memoirs, biographies, etc. Please email: jayabhattacharjirose1 at gmail dot com . For more information on Worldreader, please see the note below. 

Worldreader ( www.worldreader.org ) is a non-profit organization with the mission of ‘providing digital books to children and families in the developing world. It was established in 2010 by Colin McElwee and David Risher. Worldreader is on a mission to bring digital books to every child and her family, so that they can improve their lives.It focuses on enabling digital reading especially using the mobile platform. The mantra is “Books for All”. Today it is being accessed by over 6 million readers in 69 countries, providing them with book titles in more than 43 languages. Another plus point in Worldreader’s favour is that it supports multi-lingual formats. It firmly believes that “Literacy is transformative”.

In fact Worldreader is one of Fast Company’s most innovative nonprofits of 2016 and won the GLOMO Award 2016 for the best mobile innovation for education. Even the UNESCO report on “Reading in the Mobile Era” highlights Worldreader’s programme. ( http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0022/002274/227436e.pdf )

Worldreader is now in India. It has been launched in India with its mobile reading to children programme or mR2C.

mR2C in Delhi, pix credit, David Risher, Feb 2016

mR2C in Delhi, pix credit, David Risher, Feb 2016

It is a two-year pilot in Delhi NCR. In collaboration with select NGOs as implementing partners mR2C seeks to promote pre-literacy skills by encouraging parents to read to and with their young children (age 0-6) and by empowering them to do so by giving them access to a free digital library of high quality, locally relevant books and educational materials via their mobile phones. But Worldreader is focussing on all reading segments and age groups: from toddlers – children – young adult — adult literature. Given how many people, especially women, own a mobile and are willing to charge it first, despite not having ready access to water or electricity makes the idea of delivering books via mobiles an attractive proposition.

mR2C in Delhi, pix credit, David Risher, Feb 2016

mR2C in Delhi, pix credit, David Risher, Feb 2016

The organization uses e-readers, mobile phones and other digital technology to reach readers in more than 69 countries, providing them with over 28,500 book titles in 43 languages ranging from Afrikaans to Hindi. The e-book titles cover a spectrum of reading materials, ranging from beginner readers learning to read, to students and teachers accessing educational materials, to those reading for pleasure. So far it has reached more than 245 schools and libraries; 1,110,196 people reading every month; 5,653,216 people reached since 2010 and since its programme was launched in India, it has 92,698 active readers online ( Dec 2015). It works with 180 publishers to acquire and digitize compelling and relevant content for readers. The non-profit also works with donors, organizations, communities and governments to develop and digitize local and international books, as well as manage logistics and support. It has digitized more than 5,000 titles from African and Indian publishers. They are headquartered in San Francisco, California and have offices in Europe and Africa.

Through an internet-connected mobile device (feature and smartphones), children and families can read e-books with the organization’s reading application, called Worldreader Mobile. 250 million children of primary school age cannot read and write. 774 million people around the world are illiterate. 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in low‐income countries left school with basic reading skills – that is equivalent to a 12% drop in the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day. Geographically ¾ of illiterate adults worldwide are in sub-Saharan Africa and Southwest Asia. 2 out 3 illiterate people are women. It is known that readers in developing countries are primarily male but by removing cultural barriers that prohibit or discourage women from owning mobile technology and training women (as well as men) how to use basic mobile phones to access books and stories increases the possibility of women and girls reading more.  This mobile reading in turn positively impacts children since it appeals to (and can benefit) neo-literate and semi-literate adults and adolescents.

Worldreader Mobile is a reading application that provides access to books, educational resources and health information to people with mobile phones. The non-profit launched Worldreader Mobile in April 2012.  The app is also available on Opera Software, Microsoft Windows phones, and in Mozilla’s Firefox Marketplace. In partnership with Opera Software, Worldreader launched a Web-browser app, promoted on the Opera Mini platform. Reading on Worldreader Mobile is particularly popular with women, who spend on average 207 minutes reading per month, compared to 32 minutes for men. Research from a 2013 Report by UNESCO, Reading in the Mobile Era, found that reading on a mobile phone increased reading time across all media. There were also clear benefits for children that were not of reading age as one-third of mobile readers in the developing world use their phones to read stories to children.

Ian Denison at CEOSpeak, Jan 2016

Ian Denison at CEO Speak, Jan 2016. Organised jointly by NBT & FICCI.

Worldreader contends that their mission is two-fold: increasing access to books while springboarding local publishers and authors into an international market. It makes content available in English and an array of local languages such as Hindi and Marathi and this is possible without the high costs and other limitations with print. Worldreader defrays digital start-up costs for local publishers, giving readers better access to relevant content, while simultaneously introducing publishers to new markets. Thereby, strengthening your brand, spreading the word about your publishing house and lists and most importantly, allow your books to be accessed by the diaspora too.

At the recently held CEOSpeak organised jointly by NBT and FICCI on 10 January 2016, Ian Denison, Chief Publishing and Branding, UNESCO said “Problem is not enough content is available when content is primary to get reading takeoff actively on digital devices.” He illustrated this in his presentation by showing the Worldreader icon appealing for more good quality content to be available on the platform. In India Worldreader is actively seeking good content / publishing licenses in English and other local languages especially for children ( 0-12 years) and literature for adults.

13 March 2016

“Feminists and Science:Critiques and Changing Perspectives in India”

9789381345078In 2015 STREE published the first volume of a collection of essays called Feminists and Science: Critiques and Changing Perspectives in India. It has been edited by Sumi Krishna and Gita Chadha. The principle behind these two volumes of essays is to have a “more comprehensive and grounded understanding of gender and science in India”.  According to University Grants Commission (UGC) data women in medicine accounted for 44 per cent of the total, the same percentage as in the ‘arts’ ( i.e. humanities and social sciences together). Women in science made up 40 per cent, which was slightly higher than women in commerce ( 37 per cent). In the science-based professions, the ratio of women to men was about one in five: engineering 21 per cent; veterinary science 21 per cent; agriculture 17 per cent.

These are some of the statistics for India today. But this book has some fabulous essays like Mandira Sen’s “A Gender-Sensitive Practice of Psychiatry in India: The Story of Dr. Ajitha Chakraborty”, the first woman practising psychiatry in India or Sumi Krishna’s essay, “Recognizing Gender Bias in Life Sciences”. Yet the point remains that despite all these women scientists making fantastic contributions to their disciplines, gender bias and sexism exists. Mina Swaminathan points out in her essay, “Differences in gender roles are still usually ascribed to biological differences rather than social determinants, and the idea that gender relations are power relations is even harder to communicate.” ( p.218) Despite these challenges India has produced some eminent  women scientists such as Dr Janaki Ammal. ( Janaki Ammal“Remembering Dr Janaki Ammal, pioneering botanist, cytogeneticist and passionate Gandhian” by Geeta Doctor. http://scroll.in/article/730186/remembering-dr-janaki-ammal-pioneering-botanist-cytogeneticist-and-passionate-gandhian ) . She was a plant scientist, who put the sweetness into our sugarcane varieties and served as the head of the Botanical Survey of India in the isro-womenAFP1950s. Recently women scientists at ISRO were seen celebrating the successful launch of Mangalyaan mission to Mars. Read Sandip Roy’s fabulous article documenting some of the amazing Indian women scientists.  ( “Mangalyaan’s unexpected gift: The glimpse of Isro’s ‘Rocket Women'” 25 September 2015 http://bit.ly/1XqMaH9 )

Earlier this year Nobel Laureate, Tim Hunt, a biochemist, made some Tim Hunthighly inappropriate gender discriminatory remarks at a conference in South Korea, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” Mr. Hunt told an audience at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.” Given how these gender biases towards women scientists are so deeply embedded in the system, books like Feminists and Science are very welcome.

Here is a list of contents:

Preface            xi

Introduction

Understanding Gender and Science in India:   xiii

Institutions and Beyond  Sumi Krishna

Tracking a Consciousness: Questions, Dilemmas and

Conundrums of Science Criticism in India  Gita Chadha  xxxvi

1 Feminists Discuss Caste and Gender in Science: An Online Dialogue           1

Anita Mehta, Chayanika Shah, Gita Chadha, Mary E John, Mina Swaminathan, Prajval Shastri and Sumi Krishna

2 Unravelling the ‘Gender-Merit’ Conundrum:

Do Women Deserve to Do Science in India?         22

Jayasree Subramanian

3 Re-Cognising Gender Bias in the Life Sciences        52

Sumi Krishna

4 The Science of Psychology: Where Is Gender?         79

U.Vindhya

5 Science, Gender and Reproductive Technologies: A Case of Disability      96

Anita Ghai and Rachana Johri

6 Gender Inequities in the Science World: An Experiential Perspective           122

Prajval Shastri

7 A Gender-Sensitive Practice of Psychiatry in India? The Story of Ajita Chakraborty 132

Mandira Sen

8 Women Water Professionals in the Maharashtra Water Bureaucracy 153

Seema Kulkarni

9 Women, Livestock and Rural Livelihoods: Challenges for Veterinary Scientists  185

Sagari  R. Ramdas

10 Bridging the Gap between Natural Sciences and Gender Studies: Notes on a Pedagogical Experiment 211

Mina Swaminathan

11 Integrating Gender into the Curricula of Health Professionals:  Experiences and Reflections   235  K. Sundari Ravindran

12 Teaching Feminist Science Studies in India: An Experiment 257

Chayanika Shah and Gita Chadha

13 En-Gendering Bodies of Knowledge: Scientific Institutions and the Production of Science in Science Fiction   273

Suchitra Mathur

List of Contributors  297

Table of Contents, Vol2           301

Sumi Krishna and Gita Chadha ( Eds.) Feminists and Science: Critiques and Changing Perspectives in India ( Vol 1) STREE, an imprint of Bhatkal and Sen, Kolkata, 2015. Pb. pp. 310 Rs 500 

30 November 2015 

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 

Veena Venugopal, “The Mother-in-Law”

Veena Venugopal, “The Mother-in-Law”

( I read Veena Venugopal’s fabulous book, The Mother-in-Law, in one sitting. Instead of posting a review online, I immediately wrote her an email.  It was a mad flurry of emails one morning. What follows is an edited version of our conversation. )

The Mother-in-Law8 July 2014

Dear Veena,

I finally finished reading your book. Earlier I had only dipped into it. But last night I sat up till well after 1am reading it through.

Fantastic work! Thank you for making these vices public and not making them only the purview of the Saas-Bahu serials.

What stomach-churning experiences you have recounted. What is horrifying is that these are real. You do not intrude into the narrative too much but without having the personal, how can you possibly write something like this? Everyone has a mother-in-law story. I wonder why you only stuck to the arranged marriage route? Unfortunately the 12 stories you include in book only confirm the MIL image as being a dragon, a nasty one at that too. (Bollywood is going to have a gala time using your stories for their films. Think about it.)

I have always maintained that the worst perpetrators of crimes and violence towards women are other women. Also the most manipulative, shrewd, wily and preservers of patriarchal traditions are women. I am not making excuses for men at all but stating a point of view I have evolved. This is after spending years of working in the development sector, with feminist publishing houses, engaging with women’s NGOs, mapping the women’s movement visually etc.

I am absolutely stunned by the impressive work you have done. It must have drained you to be privy to so many conversations, gently teasing out these narratives is not easy. For the reader they read smoothly but did you actually write these essays in one fell swoop? Surely you went back and forth. I ask since traumatised women tend to gloss over a lot of details or create these fictional bridges at the heart of which lies the truth. So to create a clear story as you have done calls upon some sharp journalistic skills and a sensitivity that is commendable. The women you have profiled too are brave to come forth and share their stories.

Years ago the newspapers used to carry regular news stories about dowry deaths. At least it kept the conversations about domestic violence alive. People may or may not have been sensitised to it. It resulted in the Domestic Violence Act and much more. But now that DV has been “addressed”, it has been wiped off the news pages, thus silencing a crime that continues to exist. I suspect it is getting worse with the greed for material comforts.  I have a theory and I have not tested it as yet. The more our society gains in creature comforts and the middle class is able to show-off its wealth, the women are fast becoming the victims to this new form of imprisonment–birds in a gilded cage. The women are bejewelled, wearing only branded stuff, splurging money on retail therapy, always smiling and available for chit-chat, gossip; ultimately representative in direct proportion to their family’s prosperity. It makes me gasp at times. I flinch internally when women with smiles plastered on their faces tell me “Oh, I am happy all the time”, but scratch the surface and stories come tumbling out. I see how well-educated, professional women have been mocked at by their husbands for pursuing their dreams. …their husbands have thrown money at them and said, stop working for measly amounts. If it is money you want, I will give you more but forget this job. Made the wives quit. Mostly made the women cite the reason of the children and family’s health. It makes me wince since I feel helpless. I do not know what to do about it.

Your book The Mother-in-Law gives a peep into the complicated world these middle class women inhabit. There are constraints that they have to take into account. There is no point in putting the women down for appreciating a bit of material comfort, but at the cost of being shackled to a mind-numbing degrading life baffles me. I am so glad you have written this book. You have made public the daily struggles most women go through to achieve these balances. Thank you for writing this book.

….

What truly saddens me is that these stories never end. It is a vicious cycle.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

 

Dear Veena,

A short postscript to what I wrote earlier.

I like the fact you kept reiterating that a supportive husband is very essential. Also laying down the ground rules early on in the marriage. If this book of yours can become a handy manual for young women on the threshold of marriage, I would be truly happy. More than that, I suspect it is the women/brides who have to be mentally and physically very strong to prepare for an Indian marriage. I liked it when you said aggressive feminism is here to stay. Unfortunately many young women of today seem to take much of the freedom they relish as “for granted”. They are unable to see the struggles many before them went through to achieve this basic freedom and dignity. Also it is like a mirage. It is there and yet not. It is the daily negotiations that are important to keep that flicker of breathing space available. For that to happen women need to be able to see the injustice and most importantly have a language to articulate it, without going off the handle. If only the grooming and etiquette classes held regularly included a component or two of gender studies/workshops on how to recognise and address silences. Not necessarily make these spaces in the activist mode but in a genteel manner, infused with forceful ideas. Otherwise the women who have signed up for the classes will run a mile!

I may be speaking in a garbled fashion for now but I simply had to send these emails off to you asap.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

PS A supportive and understanding husband is a rarity!

 

Thank you so much Jaya, it is heartening and encouraging to receive a mail like this from you.

The book was hard to write and I must confess I struggled with the voice right through it. I started my research for the book with Rachna’s story, when she had met Gaurav for the first time. I thought it hilarious, this very Rajinder Nagar mother-in-law taking her under her wing, going on shopping sprees and movie dates. And I assumed all the stories would be like that– a caricature of all the stereotypes of mothers-in-law that one hears about. It shocked me how quickly the stories turned dark. And as the year progressed, I began to worry about Rachna. I remember Copote was annoyed waiting for a verdict on the murderers so he could finish his book. I truly hoped Rachna would dump Gaurav and get out from Auntyjis iron fist even though it would mean that i wouldn’t be able to use her story.

And then I met Deepa and Nikita and Keisha and the stories kept getting worse and worse. Some of them are active on Facebook. Keisha for example is one. And if you saw her profile or read her posts you wouldn’t believe that she lived that life. I was very, very disturbed after meeting Keisha. And eventually came Arti and I couldn’t sleep for a week. Her story is the worst. And the strangest thing was how easy it was to find these stories.

The interviews themselves were spread over a period of time. I would ask them the same question in various different ways. I would point out inconsistencies in their telling of an incident. It was hard to ascertain the authenticity of their stories. I am sure if I spoke to their mothers-in-law I would have got their side of the story, but no one would have been honest knowing fully well that I had a channel of communication to their MIL. (Most of the stories were love marriages in fact. Only Lalitha, Arti and Rachna’s were arranged.)

I agree with you about violence in families. It is during the research for the book that I began to start railing against the term “fabric of Indian society”. Arun Jaitley used it a lot in keeping marital rape outside of the new rape law. The fabric of Indian society is a soiled rag, sadly, and I see no reason why it should be preserved. It is appalling the kind of abuse people take. With Keisha especially I kept wondering why. It is, I suppose, easy to be an uninvested third party and see clearly that she should have got out long ago. But she felt a certain urge to not worry her aunt, her grandmother. And I suppose because of the fact that her aunt didn’t marry in order to look after Keisha, she feels that love is necessarily an unconditional sacrifice. I see her now, she is the first to “Like” any post about the book. She was desperate to get copies of it. I think for her participating in the book was her final retribution. She gets a great degree of joy from the fact that her story is out there.

… I think I should use the book to build a community of daughters-in-law – give them a place to vent. At the end of the day, that’s what most people want – a forum where they don’t have to pretend that everything is hunky dory in their family. I just worry that i don’t have the bandwidth to run that along with my job. Like you said, these stories never end, and if just talking about it makes people temper their future behaviour, then it should be worth squeezing some time out for…Let’s see.

The ideal husband is a rarity, I know, but I’m hoping there are more mothers out there raising some than there were in the past.

Warmly

Veena

 

Dear Veena,

Do you realise that your interest in putting together a forum for women is to step into a vacuum left by many women organisations drifting away from this focus? It has been now over a decade but fewer and fewer women NGOs maintain helplines. The time required to listen and counsel victims/women and their community is a mind-numbing and thankless task. Also it is not recognised as a crucial need. I guess more of a social service. So there is no funding available for these activities. Your idea is a good one …Just remember to think this through. Helping women or any individual should not be a lifetime crutch, but a brief sounding board to help them address their challenges and to face the world. Otherwise you will be an emotional wreck.

I am not surprised at Keisha “liking” Facebook posts abt the book. There are many women who are in a much messed-up space. Sometimes, and I do not know if this makes me a coward, I simply do not want to know. The horrifying stories one sees more than hears is very depressing. I used the word “sees” advisedly. Many times you see these women trotting about all dolled up, but observe carefully and you will see the chinks. Try telling me that a slim gym-going figure, well-groomed, well-dressed young mother, carrying a new born infant in her arms and doing the school run with the older kid has not been put through pressure to look respectable to the outside world. It worries me about the women and for their children. And these are the middle class and nouveau riche I am talking about. It is equally worse for women of other socio-economic strata. I am not generalising.

Women’s movements have really painted women into a corner. It is only a clutch of women who can speak with confidence about injustices they experience or perceive. Others now have this dual burden of being a professional and efficient at home. This is where I feel your book is showing the chinks. Look at the amount of stress these women are subjected to?

…..

With warm wishes,

Jaya

 

Veena Venugopal The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in Your Marriage. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. Pp. 264 Rs. 299.