For International Women’s Day, we have compiled a list of new(ish) books (in the English language) for our readers – whether they might be allies or feminists (you must belong to one or the other category in the world, dear people, do note) – by a diverse group of women writers. These are, we promise, exciting books that toe no one theme or one position – or have anything in common, except the authenticity of their voices – but embrace the infinite range of experiences that being a woman might entail in 2019, in India. And in the world, of course, but mostly India.
Counter-intuitive: Mannequin, Manjima Bhattacharjya
“This book is based on my doctoral research from 2003 to 2007, a sociological study of women working in the Indian glamour industry as models. For almost seven years prior to this I had been an activist with a Delhi based feminist group, participating in several protests against the objectification of women’s bodies. So why, you may ask, did I want to study something I was ideologically opposed to?”
A fascinating account of the Indian fashion industry, Bhattacharjya’s brilliance in adapting the ethnographic lens to tell an alt story of glamour – and its stoic underbelly – at a point of intersection with feminism, makes for such a breezy read that one forgets that Bhattacharjya is a serious academic and that the book contributes a substantial body of knowledge to a little-known field. Mannequin is a rare crossover book that will be appreciated – and debated – as much in academia as it will be outside it.
Fiction: The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S Laskar
“Now this fainting, this falling, this landing so ungainly. Concrete scratches her face, the back of her arm. Her legs twist like licorice.
Nearby, it sounds like cocktail hour at a convention of common starlings: a murmur punctuated by intermittent laughter. Why? The sky marbles blue and white, but the clouds are leaving town. She closes her eyes, breathes in the metal essence of her own blood as it exits the hole the bullet has created.”
Laskar’s debut novel opens with these haunting lines and the piercing image of a woman of colour – and an angry woman by some counts – who has been shot by members of law enforcement, and who now lies upon the concrete, bleeding, and slipping into the past through the mesh of time, falling in and out of her own story. Finally, it appears the Indian-American novel has broken free of its old tropes of quiet angst that Jhumpa Lahiri is best-known for and into full-blooded anger that allies itself with experiences of race as opposed to the subcontinental obsession with religion. A remarkable debut.
The thing with childhood love: Finding Radha, edited by Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal
“So let me return to stories of long ago, and a tale I encountered in a now-forgotten book of how Radha, as an aged woman, travelled to Dwarka to meet Krishna. She was old and tired, and the journey took its toll on her. When they met, the intervening years fell away, and their hearts beat as one...
One day she set off for the forest. She and Krishna were still one, as they had always been. He followed her and they met once again, as one, in the dark night, amidst the scented jasmine bushes. Radha’s time was near, and she was about to leave her body.
He asked what she wished of him. ‘Play the flute for me,’ she said.”
Finding Radha is a collection of essays – with contributions by scholars ranging from Kapila Vatsyayan to Devdutt Patnaik – as well as primary texts (going back to the original verses of Jayadeva, Vidyapati and Andal, and later, to Tagore, Subramania Bharati aka Bharathiyar, and Kazi Nazrul Islam) about the elusive milkmaid of Gokul, who is the protagonist of what is arguably the greatest love story of the sub-continent. Selected with a lot of heart by the editors, Finding Radha is a sort of sequel to their In Search of Sita, which was published in 2009, before the great Indian fascination with the epics had taken off. A wonderful book.
Dredging memory: Listen to Me, Shashi Deshpande
“Cooking was an ordeal. Even worse was the thought that if I wanted to eat I had to cook! Worse, the cooking had to be done on a stove that I found hard even to light. And once my husband had lit the stove for me, I didn’t know where to begin....It was this task of cooking that made me realise what all of us understand at some time or another: that freedom is an illusion. I learnt that life does not give anyone, man or woman, the luxury of doing only what you like to do, what you want to do. I can’t believe now that I was so naïve as not to have thought of this earlier. I had imagined that marriage, having my own home, would make me independent, which I could not be in my parents’ house.”
Written in the great tradition of literary autobiographies such as Doris Lessing’s Under My Skin and Walking In the Shade, writer Shashi Deshpande’s memoirs are imbued with luminous grace. She talks of her growing up years in Dharwad as the daughter of the great Kannada scholar and playright Shriranga, of her student years in Bombay (when, as the provincial she fell in love with the raging metropolis even if she hated her subject, economics, and was a little wary of her snooty local classmates) of her marriage, and of her inner life as a writer. And alongside her own story, the story of India in those years comes alive too.
Girls: The One Who Swam with the Fishes by Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy
“My secret story is about how I suddenly grew up overnight and became beautiful. People explain it away as my age – ‘the overnight transformation of girls becoming women’ – but it’s not that...
My other secret story is about what I can do. I can do a lot more than clean fish and row people across the river. I can call birds to me with a single, low whistle. I can tell you which herbs will make you hungry, not hungry, less tired, will rock your child to sleep, will give you sweet dreams. Not small skills, these are things people would call magic, maybe they are magic after all, after all.”
Bringing her signature whiff of hipness to this new reading of the Mahabharata, a series that retells the epic from the point of view of its girls, Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy accomplishes a rare feat, where her elegant prose brings to life an ancient time and injects new energy to old, oft-familiar characters. In The One Who Swam With the Fishes, Reddy’s Satyavati, grand dame of the Kurus and fisher-girl, leaps off the pages, as we accompany her on her grand adventure. A great idea – and executed just as well!
Herstory: Women Who Ruled India, Archana Garodia Gupta
“These portraits are painted ‘warts and all’. They are not hagiographies – because these women were not saints. They often made wrong decisions and took on wrong advisors, and sometimes lied and cheated in their quest for power. But they were invariably courageous and intelligent. Above all, they were leaders. We will not hold women leaders up to impossible standards, different from the measures we use for men.
There is a famous (and spectacularly sexist) quote by Samuel Johnson, on the subject of a woman preaching: ‘Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ Au contraire, these women are worth knowing and writing about not only because they ruled, but also because they ruled well, in any case at levels comparable to male rulers in a particular period. Ahilya Bai’s Indore, for instance, was considered the best governed state in India in the 18th century.”
Acclaimed quizzer and former Mastermind Winner Archana Garodia Gupta brings together, for the first time, rigorously researched and cleverly told stories of twenty Indian women who’d wielded true power or served as heads of state in their kingdoms in history, or both. From the lesser known Bhaukara Devis of Dhenkanal, Odisha, and Rani Abakkas of Ullal who had taken on the Portuguese colonisers, to the iconic Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and Nur Jahan, Jahangir’s consort, muse and advisor, The Women Who Ruled India – which will be published in April 2019 – is peppered with anecdotes and insights that not only contest some of the notions about the lack of agency of Indian women in the past, but also make for a fast-paced, immensely readable narrative.
Reality check: What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, Sohaila Abdulali
“So what is this book? It’s about what we talk about, but also what we don’t talk about. We don’t talk enough about aggravating phobias. We don’t talk enough about rebuilding trust. We don’t talk enough about joy and rage and how to fit both into our lives. I began college weeks after being raped. I showed up at my freshman dorm still healing from physical injuries – a bump on my head and a bandage on my ankle. The ankle bandage wasn’t because of anything the rapists did. A few days after the rape, I was at the beach, so happy to be alive that I took a running leap off the front steps of the house and twisted my ankle. In college, I threw myself into the feminist movement like a drunken sailor on shore leave – these were my people, this was my place! And it still is. When you’re seventeen, with a bump on your head from almost dying and a bandaged foot from the rapture of living, clichés come easily. I joined marches and yelled, ‘Yes means yes! No means no!’ Later, running in-service training sessions for police officers and doctors, I held forth on how rape has nothing to do with sex.
Now I realise that, well, sometimes yes doesn’t mean yes; and sometimes rape does have to do with sex.”
Thirty years ago, Sohaila Abdulali, then only 17, had been raped by a group of men, and defying the age-old practices of silence and shame, she wrote about its aftermath and her life as a rape survivor in the feminist journal Manushi. Later, Abdulali went on to become a novelist. On December 16, 2012 in Delhi, a young woman who went to watch a film with a male friend was brutally gang-raped and thrown off a bus with grievous injuries that led to her death. The country erupted after this tragedy and the conversation on rape was finally reopened in India. Eventually, Abdulali decided to revisit her own story as well as her insights from being an activist all these years to write the much-needed What We Talk About When We Talk of Rape, a sensitive, nuanced and long overdue account of a difficult subject.
Inverse: Over and Underground, Karthika Nair, Sampurna Chatterjee, Roshni Vyam and Joelle Jolivet
“Sampurna to Karthika
...Remind me,— Mahim to Goregaon
sweet, of that time we sat together,
three delinquents singing and sprawling
on the hot and dirty floor of an empty coach,
the whole train ours, and the world we rushed towards
as if it, too, were ours,
all ours for the taking.”
“Karthika to Sampurna
All ours for the taking, you’d loved to declaim –— One Day There Will Be
randomly – across Bruges, Liege, Dhaka,
Aarhus and Paris, though nothing was,
nothing, that sullen-as-teen Tuesday
noon in June ’02.”
If you love poetry – or art, for that matter – the finest fruit of the season is this remarkable book of poetry, collaborated upon by two of our best-known Indian poets, Karthika Nair and Sampurna Chatterjee, and illustrated by two wonderful artists, Roshni Vyam and Joelle Jolivet. The two poets write about their two cities, Paris for Karthika, and Mumbai for Sampurna. But making it a true jugalbandi, they lay down a few terms of engagement in the beginning. For instance, where one’s poem ends, the other’s begins. While the poets worked with each other to create these intimate verses, alive with the sounds of beloved cities, the artists worked with the poets to render the cities alive through their own lens. For Joelle, Mumbai, and for Roshni, Paris, were as strangely unfamiliar terrain as they were familiar to the poets. And so this talented quartet worked four ways to create this audacious book that is as beautiful to look at as it is to read out loudly.
Devapriya Roy is the author, most recently, of Indira, a graphic biography of Indira Gandhi, along with artist, Priya Kuriyan.