writers' rights

Stalked, patronised, dismissed: On being a woman writer in Pakistan (it’s often the same in India)

And, ultimately, not read enough. All of these, by men.

Three years ago I was invited to discuss my novel on arranged marriages at a cultural centre in Karachi. In the crowd was a middle aged gentleman impatiently drumming his fingers on a briefcase. After the Q&A he approached and laid open a large folder, overflowing with newspaper clippings, written notes and photographs.

He told me proudly that his parents were part-German and that in many ways, his family had lived a life of epic proportions – the details of which he had assembled. He then handed them over to me and announced that he had deemed me worthy of writing this epic. I would be given some time to do the “writing-shiting” and then he would see if my piece was good enough for publication. (I’m assuming the task to get it published was also to fall on my grateful shoulders.) When I declined his generous offer, he scowled and walked away, making a comment about women writers and their inflated egos.

I remember this person keenly, not just because of his black ring binder and silver moustache, nor because his attempt to bludgeon me was terribly funny. I remember him because this one encounter seemed to encapsulate all the attitudes I encountered as a woman writing in Pakistan.

I was once talking to a Man Writer (I shall call him that because it sounds just as ridiculous as Woman Writer), bemoaning the number of people who had asked me for a free signed copy of my novel How It Happened. He was somewhat perplexed because this was not a request he often came across. It makes sense though. When a man writes, it’s a career, when a woman writes, it’s a hobby. One is serious, the other is not.

To be a woman writer is to be ready to receive several back-handed compliments.

“Oh, you wrote a book? So nice that you’re finding the time to do something creative.”
“So fantastic that you wrote a book? Does anyone read it?”
“Wow. You wrote a book. Does it sell? Has it made you any money? How much? Exactly how much?”
”Salam ma’am. I love your novel. Can you tell me where I can download a free PDF copy?”

Intruded on

I soon learned that a woman’s personal life as well as her writing becomes fair game for all. And this is done most unapologetically. The first question I was invariably asked in interviews was whether I was married. And when I dithered about the issue, people got more and more curious.

The truth is I deliberately hid my divorce from the larger public. I was conscious that my marital status was relevant to how the book would be received – and this is a problem that all women face. Had people known that I was divorced, the comedy of manners I had attempted to write would be called the rant of a mad brown woman.

And then there was this one television interview where I forgot to tell the talk show host that I didn’t want details of my personal life to be discussed. Pretty soon I was being grilled over which of the men in the book was based on my ex-husband. It was vulgar, this intrusion in what purported to be a literary interview.

Stalked relentlessly

This desire to invade the personal also manifested itself in the form of a lot of online and real life harassment, which is common to all women, not just writers. My earliest fan mail comprised benign messages such as “Hello dear, you are gorgeous,” and “Wow you’re so beautiful, I need a prescription – my heart is stopping.” Then a man-reader told me how much he enjoyed my novel and would I marry him? When I politely declined, he sent me a picture of his penis and a “fuck you” in capital letters. I blocked him and he created three different accounts to send me pictures of the same tedious penis.

Stalkers in real life were harder to deal with. I was dreadfully uncomfortable when a famous painter bought 300 copies of my novel at a literary festival and made me distribute them to his friends. And then he showed up at my house. And then left me about 100 missed calls a day – leaving messages that I was young and naïve and that he would help me find myself. This was the not so funny part of being published, this insidious attempt to appropriate my body through my writing.

Mansplained at

To be a woman writer is to be mansplained at every turn. I was told by a local man-agent that novels about love and arranged marriages were done to death and that I should find another, more “sexy” topic because that was what publishers were looking for. (This, of course, was in a political atmosphere where honour killings were rife and a famous morning talk-show host was chasing hand-holding couples out of parks and shaming them on public television.) Or the man writer who, at a literary gathering at a poet’s house, said that it was harder for him to complete his novel than it was for me to finish mine. “If I also wrote about family weddings I’d churn out a book a year,” he laughed.

And then a man-bookseller told me that my novel wouldn’t sell because I was an unknown, so he would only order 50 copies to begin with. I arranged a meeting and tried to get him him to take me seriously. But again I was told that while my excitement was sweet, it was misplaced. Only when I promised to purchase any extra copies myself so that his store would not incur a loss, he ordered 50 more copies.

And when these were sold out in five minutes at my book launch, he merely shrugged his shoulders and said “Haan, we seem to have underestimated you. Would you mind doing a free reading for children at our store next month?” (The book being read, I might add, was not mine.)

And what of the book?

What rankles most, however, is that very little attention is given to the writing itself. Our work is simply not reviewed enough or given the kind of attention that it deserves, primarily because it is relegated to the trivialised category of “women’s writing” that is usually considered unimportant.

Case in point: In a recent article on Qurratulain Hyder, M Asadduddin says that there is nothing “feminine” about Hyder’s works because her preoccupations have been epic, common and universal. So there you go. A woman has to write unlike a woman to be taken seriously. Or, she must negate her identity (only to have it vulgarly exposed as was the case with Ellena Ferrante), or pretend to be a man (like George Eliot and so many others did.) Otherwise, chances that she will be taken seriously are slim at best.

Shazaf Fatima Haider is the author the novel of How It Happened.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.

Play

In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.

Play

Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

Play

The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

Play

The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.