This year, for International Women’s Day, having given up my usual waffling between theory and praxis (which invariably ends in tears), I decide to go entirely against the grain and come out of the self-help closet. Let me confess, once and for all, that the torture I have heaped on my friend Gee for her reliance on Anthony Robbins’s Awaken the Giant Within: Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Emotional Destiny to get through difficult times is exceedingly hypocritical.
For I, too – you can hear my high-minded literary friends and my friend Gee gasp – have a secret stash of handbooks for rainy days. And sunny days. Also, windy days. Not to mention national holidays, annual Holi days, I-would-have-liked-to-bake-a-cake-if-only-I-could-get-out-of-bed days, and several books for my regular dear-old-self-I-am-now-brand-new-and-you-can-suck-it days.
In many ways, self-help works exactly like comfort fiction, when your problems are of a lighter vein. Except, you don’t need to progress linearly but can dip in and out of it in your panic-ridden ADD mode. But when times are truly blue, and there is the weight of the world astride your shoulders, there is a great deal of comfort to be got from a fellow sufferer’s words.
While we’re certainly not advocating the sort of self-promotionesque baloney that sells millions of copies by peddling common sense in the garb of profundity or by simply throwing together aspirations – how to be successful, rich or thin – we can vouch for the following formula: memoir crossed with self-help, eschewing misery-lit and underscoring authenticity.
So, for this particular March 8, we have compiled for you seven terribly helpful handbooks, which can teach you anything from oenological philosophy to potty training your child or pet, weeding your garden, vanquishing your demons, filling out your tax forms, making bevitamined salads or attempting world conquest.
How to drink
Girls’ Guide to Wine, Susy Atkins
“Why is this a GIRLS’ guide to wine? Why not just have one for everybody? Well, clearly there are various reasons why women have a harder time than men when it comes to getting to know wine.
men seem to think we have no taste.
That’s the only explanation for the pathetic whites and rosés they have palmed off on us for years in wine bars and at dire parties. Until recently, we were complete martyrs in this respect and smiled far too easily when presented with a jug of lukewarm, oxidised gnats’ pee...
girls obviously have different needs when it comes to wine.
Girls want to know the cheapest wine to party with, the perfect wine for a dinner date, the best bottle for matching with seared tuna and a tossed salad, Let’s face it: we care – and most men don’t. They just want to get plastered and show off…”
This chatty little book tells you everything you need to know about wine (the operative word being “you”, a regular Parminder who is not planning to train as a Sommelier but is happy to select wines for self, family and friends), but it makes you chuckle along the way. Come to think of it, it’s probably a killer memory technique.
Every time you laugh at a joke, you remember an oenological tidbit from history or memorise the right way to pronounce Pouilly-Fumé (poo-ee-foom-ay) or imprint on your brain the pointed advice, “Don’t ever fall in love with a wine-maker.” And if you’ve been self-help shaming your BFF in the past, then this is the perfect gift for her, along with a bottle of Rioja (ree-och-ah)!
How to live
Jelly Belly, Dr Aparna Santhanam
An absolute must-read for all women once the inimitable high of the twenties begins to plateau into a sudden realisation that one cannot pull all-nighters anymore without feeling like a cross between a zombie and a chudail the next day. (Along with the other equally important realisation that one is still using words like “zombie” and “chudail”.) That is when you absolutely must buy yourself Dr Aparna Santhanam’s Jelly Belly – drawing its apt title from the “most evocative symbol of unwanted weight gain” – and learn everything you need to know about your body, and how to transition from the intense love-hate affair you have with it in your twenties to a more balanced nuanced friendship.
If Girls’ Guide to Wine is a flirty flinty cocktail to be sipped before the party warms up, Jelly Belly is a warm glass of delish organic cow’s milk, sipped at night while winding down in one’s favourite flannels. It tells you how to live in health, and at one with your body, and even throws in a few recipes for good measure. After all, good health is the best gift, really, that a girl can choose for herself.
How to mother
Karmic Kids: The Story of Parenting Nobody Told You, Kiran Manral
Writer and major social media influencer, Kiran Manral, after quitting her full-time journalist’s job when her son (henceforth referred to as “The Brat”) was born, cut her teeth on the internet as a mommy blogger, with a remarkably original voice. To me, her books, her presence on Twitter and Instagram, all her other accomplishments put together cannot hold a candle to what that voice meant in the early days of the blog, marking a paradigm shift in the way we talked about the general anxieties of having-not-having-having-not-having it All in the context of feminist and post-feminist mothers.
Karmic Kids, a wonderful and entirely honest parenting manual, pays homage to that time and the sisterhood that gathered around Manral’s blog (many of the other mommy bloggers went on to write books too) by including snippets of advice from other mothers that provides alternative perspectives to Manral’s own quest in the maddening drama of motherhood. Divided into ten chapters, one for each year of the brat’s first decade on Planet Earth, Karmic Kids is as funny as it is wise, and one hopes that the parenting style advocated by the “Mom with a Nutella habit” is going to become more prevalent.
How to log out
Leaving Home with Half a Fridge, Arathi Menon
“I didn’t begin my relationship thinking it would end. I wasn’t furiously planning for a divorce while sitting in the mandap as the pujari chanted untranslatable, unpronounceable slokas that were supposed to unite us forever. I didn’t take the man I married to my parents’ house as a temporary guest. Yet, all these things happened. My marriage ended, the slokas didn’t work and my parents think of my Ex as a bad house guest, best forgotten.”
A brave, unflinching memoir that begins with the dissolution of a marriage and charts Menon’s journey through its consequences – both practical and emotional – until she finds her feet again, adjusts to the joys of new beginnings after the PTSD of endings, figures out the ins and outs of a “new normal”, and eventually reaches a tentative harbouring, however theoretically, of the idea of love again. An excellent guide for anyone going through a divorce or a bad breakup, Leaving Home with Half a Fridge is a pioneering book in India where the stigma of divorce is only recently beginning to pale.
How to stay
The D Word: A Survivor’s Guide to Depression, Shubhrata Prakash
While we have included this book in our Women’s Day go-bag (ostensibly because “[i]t is said that women are twice as likely to suffer from depression as men,”) The D Word is for everyone. One in four people are likely to suffer from some or other kind of mental illness, but not everyone will either realise it or get the help they need. A wider awareness of depressive disorders (of which depression is one, and MDD or Major Depressive Disorder, the most extreme form) is vital to Indian society, not only for self-diagnosis, but also to offer an intervention in the lives of our friends, co-workers, family members, employees or bosses. Bureaucrat, mother, poet and proud MDD survivor Shubhrata Prakash’s The D Word tells you everything you need to know – and must do – in order to live with depression, whether your own or that of a loved one. If it is important to not lose faith, it is equally important to have all the information enabling an informed choice at one’s fingertips. The D Word provides all that and more in a warm, empathetic voice, filtered through Prakash’s own hard-earned knowledge that provides a much-needed perspective in the Age of Dr Google.
How to work
I Know How She Does It, Laura Vanderkam
When academic turned State Department specialist Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote her damning article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” in the 2012 July/August edition of The Atlantic, her manifesto quickly went viral around the world, leading to debates and arguments in many countries, between men and women, of course, but more, between women and women. It quickly became one of the most read articles on The Atlantic.
But where Slaughter’s argument ends, that is where Laura Vanderkam places her book, outlining her objective in the first chapter:
“Life is not lived solely in stories. Yet this is the way we talk about our lives: in moments that must impart a lesson...Ever since The Atlantic put Anne-Marie Slaughter’s manifesto on this topic on the cover, and scored millions of reads, it’s a truth in media circles that the phrase ‘can’t have it all’ lures women in. Tales that let us be voyeurs to such foibles draw clicks. People hunt for more extreme examples. An editor seeking submissions for a book of such stories suggested, as an example of what she wanted, “getting a text message from a sick child while flying a F-16 over Afghanistan.” ...But in this book, I want to tell a different story. The key to this is realising life isn’t lived in epiphanies, and looking for lessons and the necessity of big life changes in dark moments profoundly limits our lives.”
To come up with an alternative approach to Slaughter’s grand narrative, Vanderkam came up with “the Mosaic Project”. Roping in hundreds of diverse women, all of whom, it could be argued, “had it all” – her criteria limited her survey to women who earned more than $100,000 a year and had at least one child under eighteen still living at home – and requested them to map their time, through days and weeks, into 15-minute blocks.
(If you are concerned that this is a very classist study, you must remember that Slaughter’s thesis too was aimed at upper and upper-middle-class women, who had the ability to make choices on the whole work-life balance question. Women from the working and middle classes, single mothers supporting their children, and various other groups at the margins have no luxury of choice anyway. They must work, balance be damned!)
Then, Vanderkam analyses all the data she has gathered to come up with a fascinating thesis on how women who do want to have it all (the “all” being much over-rated in my opinion) can manage their time smartly to lead more fulfilling lives. If only for a curious anthropological joy, this is a book worth your time.
How to reverse park (and a thousand other skills)
How to Walk in High Heels: The Girl’s Guide to Everything by Camilla Morton
A perfect bedside companion to dip into at night, this delightfully pink book with charming sketches and little boxes of wisdom shared by utter insiders (Azzedine Alaia teaches you how to poach an egg, for example), How to Walk in High Heels teaches Everygirl much more than the title might suggest – especially if, like me, you would much rather take the bookish route to every single life decision, large or small. From “How to Know When to Wear a Heel” and “How to Sound Like a Politician” to “How to Enjoy Modern Art” and “How to Unblock Drains”, not to mention “How to Play Chess” and “How to Reverse Park in Style”, Camilla Morton is exactly what the doctor ordered this spring.
Devapriya Roy is the author of three books and one nearly abandoned PhD thesis on Bharata’s Natyashastra from JNU. She worked on developing a new language policy for the country. She tweets here.