women in literature

Nine books you must read to understand women’s issues in India

Indian women's realities are multiple and complex. These books will help you dig deeper.

The week prior to International Women's Day seems to have been swallowed up by the controversy surrounding Leslee Udwin's documentary India's Daughter. Many have argued that she is only telling the truth, while many others have criticised the film and the filmmaker for making sweeping generalisations and not giving enough of a voice to Indian women.

To shift the focus a little, here's a curated – by no means exhaustive – list of books you can read to deepen your understanding of women's issues in India. It is no coincidence that most of these are testimonies and memoirs. Or that many different truths and experiences emerge from just these nine.

Seeing Like A Feminist, Nivedita Menon
If ever there was a lucid and comprehensive primer to feminism, is it this book. Menon explains complex concepts with the kind of accessibility that is very rare in most academic works. This contains the zeitgeist of contemporary Indian womens' movements, and includes everything from discussions about reproductive choice, to the Pink Chaddi campaign, to queer politics. If you want to understand women's issues in India and don't know where to begin, look no further.

My Friend, My Enemy, Ismat Chughtai
Badaun was in the middle of one of India's rapid-fire media cycles recently, because it is where the bodies of two teenage girls were found hanging from a tree. But it is also the birthplace of iconic Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai. This collection of non-fiction writing – containing both autobiographical work and literary criticism – is a glimpse into the life of one of the most fascinating and path-breaking Indian women writers in history.

Why Loiter?, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade
This is a work of beautifully written non-fiction about contemporary urban public spaces, and gender. Its basic premise coincides with the central demand that emerged from the December 2012 protests in India, perhaps best articulated in the slogan “bekhauf azaadi” - freedom from fear. This book explores the ways in which women deserve to be able to loiter anywhere they want, and at any time. Why Loiter? is now an ongoing campaign for women who assert their right to freedom.

My Story, Kamala Das
The incandescent Kamala Das, eminent writer of prose and poetry in Malayalam and English and Nobel prize nominee, published the story of her life in 1973. In speaking lyrically and candidly of her struggles, and her loves, she offers her readers an important insight into many significant issues that continue to be central to the lives of women everywhere today.

A Life Less Ordinary, Baby Halder
Baby Halder's story is extraordinary precisely because domestic workers' realities are so invisible in middle and upper-class peoples' everyday consciousness. Halder battled enormous odds, including domestic violence and the murder of her sister, to arrive in New Delhi, a single mother of three, at the age of 25. Her autobiography, written alongside her job as a domestic worker, is a bestseller and has been translated into twenty-one languages.

Writing Caste/Writing GenderShantabai Dani, Mukta Sarvagod, Shantabai Kamble, Baby Kamble, Kumud Pawade, Urmila Pawar, Janabai Girhe, Vimal More
This is a collection of eight beautiful testimonies by dalit women writers in Maharashtra, extracted and translated from larger texts by each author. These life narratives counter the invisibility of dalit women's lives, experiences, and concerns in the discourses of brahminical Indian feminism. The writers resist tokenism and the homogenisation of the experience of dalit women in presenting their richly layered and diverse writings. These and other dalit life narratives are a must-read for anyone who hopes to engage in any meaningful way with women's issues in India, and understand the crucial intersections between caste and gender. This collection is introduced by the late Sharmila Rege.

Fragrance of Peace, Irom Sharmila
What does a woman who has been on hunger strike for more than a decade think about? Irom Sharmila has been force-fed, been accused of trying to kill herself, and has been imprisoned, all for her peaceful protest against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Her endurance of the longest hunger strike in the world is reflected in her fine poetry, tender and determined all at once.

Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labour, Prabha Kotiswaran
Kotiswaran, a professor of law, went to Kolkata and Tirupati for her research on sex work. The result is a compelling work that questions and ultimately overturns the most common assumptions made about sex workers and their lives. Considering the complex nature of the issue, and the sheer number of sex workers in India, this is definitely worth a read for anyone who wants to broaden their understanding before making judgments based on pre-conceived notions.

Me Hijra, Me Laxmi, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi
This is the life story of India's most prominent hijra activist. There are many different kinds of transgender people, and all of them cannot be conflated into the category of hijra. These and other nuances form part of Laxmi's narrative, along with the fascinating story of her achievments in the glamour industry, and as a social worker.

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