In spite of the fact that I was a feminist since age 8, I have never really cared that much about International Women’s Day  (it was always smack-bang in the middle of exam season for the entire length of my school career anyway) until I learnt that the Russians were really into it. Having read hundreds of Russian books published by Raduga that dutifully made their way into communist Calcutta when I was a child (beautifully translated and illustrated, let me tell you), there is a part of my soul which is very USSR.  I like the Russians, they of cold bleak winters and epic novels and a certain obsession with information trails and excesses. Here’s how it happens.

Women’s Day, Russian Style

Several years ago, at the crack of dawn on March 8, my sister-in-law who lives in Moscow at the time calls to wish me a Very Happy Women’s Day. ‘Are you a feminist now?’ I remember asking her, though not cruelly, ‘Does that mean you’ve given up watching your Hindi serials?’ Most of the channels she liked are not available in Moscow, so she has to painfully stream the serials from dodgy websites and watch them at odd hours after her kids finally go to sleep. She laughs. ‘In Moscow, it means I have to call all the Russian women I know and wish them and exchange presents, however minor, and husbands must necessarily buy presents for the wives. It is non-negotiable.’ she says, the last bit darkly, ‘They might forget the anniversary, it’ll be alright, but if they forget the Women’s Day present? All hell.’

It is only then that I go online and read up. I am pleasantly surprised to find that demonstrations on International Women’s day on the last Sunday of February in 1917 (it would be March 8 on the Gregorian calendar), had initiated the momentous February Revolution. Women in St Petersburg – then Petrograd – went on strike that day, demanding ‘bread and peace’ – the end of World War I, Russian food shortages, and Czarism. It led to violent clashes with the police and the gendarmes, and on March 15 (Gregorian date) it led to the formal end of the Russian Empire as Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate, becoming the last Romanov to rule Russia. By the time I finish reading, my Russian friend Olga who lives in Calcutta and teaches at Gorky Sadan, calls to wish me. I pretend I was just about to call her.

The Similarity Between Women’s Day and My Birthday

Ever since, International Women’s Day, like my birthday, gets added onto the list of important festivals in my life. And peculiarly, exactly as on my birthday, I dissolve in a sea of nerves and tears. Conversations are a minefield:

Spouse: Do you want to go out for dinner?

Me: Do you think I am a failure? I mean, I call myself a fulltime writer but I don’t even write every day. I am too irresponsible for pets, too poor for kids, but too un-radical to not worry about these things. Do you think I am a gigantic failure?

Spouse: No, not at all. We could go to Andhra Bhavan. And you could eat a mutton fry and pack one?

Me: Are you mocking me? Am I fat?

Spouse: Of course not.

Me:  But maybe I should eat two mutton frys. The whole body image issue of the Indian woman must be contested. All the time. Nothing wrong with a good healthy appetite.

Spouse: Why are you crying now?

Me: Because I am a failure.

However, after a good cry – or three – I feel all ready to take on the world. I invariably buy several books by women writers and promise that International Women’s Day is going to be the day I finally turn over a new leaf.  Last mutton fry ever. Not body image issue, not at all, but health.

Inventing the Self

However, unlike my birthdays, when I want to completely unpin the definite co-ordinates that define me – biological age, for instance – and attempt to return to amniotic safekeeping, all fluid and vague, on Women’s Day, my predilections are just the opposite. I read narratives by women about their lives so I can give self-definition a dab. This year, it is all about the memoir. And I loved these five books so much that I wanted to share them with you, in case you were buying books to celebrate Women’s Day.

You were, right?

Happy Women’s Day!

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal (2011), Jeanette Winterson     

In 1985, a young working-class woman who had got herself into Oxford on pluck and put herself through graduation doing all kinds of odd jobs, published a novel called Orange Are Not the Only Fruit, about growing up in a small town near Manchester with adoptive parents who were strict Pentecostal Missionaries, and coming to terms with her sexuality. The novel created a storm, both for its gay theme and its bold experiment with form and style (the central character is called Jeanette and the prose is austere and playful all at once).

Nearly twenty-five years after Oranges, Winterson, now one of the most famous contemporary British writers, taught in literature classrooms around the world, called it her ‘cover story’ and re-wrote the novel, turned it inside out, scratched out the whitewash, picked out the seams, and rewrote it as her memoir. It is a revelation. Both darker and lighter, truer and falser, and more resonant yet more silent, this is a luminous piece of work, a unique sibling to a unique book that is Oranges.

There are very few books about childhood – and coming full circle with the sorrows and exclusions of childhood – that are quite as powerful as this one.

Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman tells You What She Has ‘Learned’ (2014), Lena Dunham

There are very few girls like Lena Dunham. At the age of 26, she was running a hugely successful yet very edgy pop culture phenomenon called Girls, on HBO, using material liberally from her own life and that of her friends, writing about her own indulgent generation with the sort of self-awareness that no one else had, directing the series as well as acting in it. Her book Not That Kind of Girl, dedicated to the queen of the genre, Nora Ephron, who had been something like a mentor to Dunham, comprises short autobiographical pieces that are an extension of the fresh slightly indulgent voice of Girls and tells the story of a complicated creative life – Dunham is the daughter of avante garde artists – with a great deal of humour, covering everything from therapy to on-screen nudity, death and sex. It’s a book that’ll make you chuckle out loud, even as you reflect.

Truth and Beauty: A Friendship (2004), Ann Patchett

This is a book about two young women who become friends in college, and eventually become writers. One of them is the poet-memoirist Lucy Grealy, whose 1994 book Autobiography of A Face, describes a difficult childhood where she suffered from a rare form of cancer (Ewing’s sarcoma) of the jaw, and though she survived, her face was disfigured forever. For the rest of her life, Grealy underwent many many facial reconstructive surgeries to reclaim her face. In 2002, Grealy died from a heroin overdose, after a period of addiction to pain-killers when her final reconstructive surgery failed.

The other in this friendship is the writer Ann Patchett, Grealy’s roommate in Iowa when both of them were studying for their MFA, and one of her closest friends. A shimmering book about college, life, friendship and writing, the book was once the subject of an ugly controversy in Clemson, South Carolina, when all kinds of fundamentalists took exception to the theme of the book and its ‘implied’ lesbianism. There is an account of this controversy – as well as her keynote address given at the Clemson Freshman Convocation – in Patchett’s 2013 book This is The Story of a Happy Marriage.

An Exact Replica of A Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir (2008) by Elizabeth McCracken

Books lead onto other books, and writers to other writers. A mention of the writer Elizabeth McCracken in Truth and Beauty led me to looking up her works.

An Exact Replica has been described by the author as ‘the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending’. A prize-winning writer, happy to be single and itinerant, McCracken suddenly fell in love, suddenly, surprisingly, got married, moved to France, and awaited the birth of her first child, all in the space of a few exceptional heady years. The baby was stillborn. The book is about what happens next.

Books about grief are often considered morbid – but not so here.  ‘A child dies in this book: a baby,’ the author begins.

‘You don’t have to tell me how sad that is: it happened to me and my husband, our baby, a son… A baby is born in this book, too. That is to say, a healthy baby, our second child.’

A reflection on happiness and its obverse, the book is a moving account of thwarted parenthood and yet, a celebration of a child who came already gone, and whom the writer-mother can only nurture in prose.

Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012), Rachel Cusk

The acclaimed British novelist Rachel Cusk recently said in an interview to the Guardian that to her, these days, oddly, fiction feels ‘fake and embarrassing.’ The artifices of plot and character, ‘making up John and Jane and having them do things together,’ has come to seem ‘utterly ridiculous’. ‘Autobiography,’ she said, ‘is increasingly the only form in all the arts’.

But Cusk has, herself, been experimenting with autobiography over the years, writing two controversial memoirs in the last few years. While A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (2001) was a radical account of the ambivalences of motherhood – and the anguish Cusk herself felt in the age of sexual equality and what it means for both parents – her account of separation and divorce from her husband, the photographer, Adrian Clarke, who had in the course of their householding together given up his job to look after their girls, Aftermath, has been as attacked as it has been acclaimed.

A moving somewhat obtuse account of divorce, though the book is not about the divorce, not really, but other things – myths, motifs and metaphors. It is a book that tells the story of a storm – even the entire ecology of the storm – through an account of fallen leaves and flowers, scraps of newspapers that have blown in from somewhere, the rush of boots on wet pavements, umbrellas outside storefronts. It is an exercise in elision as an art form.  Personally, I found it rather remarkable.

Devapriya Roy is the author of The Vague Woman’s Handbook and The Weight Loss Club. Her new book The Heat and Dust Project, co-written with husband Saurav Jha, is the story of an eccentric journey through India on a very very tight budget. She is slightly horrified that for all her Women’s Day awareness, she has ended up with five memoirs written by white women, only one of whom comes from squarely working-class origins. She means do follow-up pieces to correct this.