Women in Search of Themselves
As a writer, publisher and festival director, there are various journeys I have made across my life. Through yatras and parikramas and pilgrimages, I have tried to make sense of my world and find patterns of meaning within it. Through writing and publishing books, through literary events, through the lived life which is the raw material of it all, it has taken me some time to accept that I am woman writer.
When my debut novel Paro: Dreams of Passion was published in 1984, it subjected me to the shocked outrage of Indian readers who could not believe that a bona-fide Indian woman had so flagrantly crossed the line of propriety. I had thought of it as a comic novel and was surprised by the outrage; it’s a relief that different generations of readers have found it funny for over thirty years now.
It’s been a long journey, a stumbling quest across twelve books, and another I am currently working on. I have at last come to terms with being a woman – an Indian woman – whatever that might imply.
I am a writer, I am a woman. Yet, as writers, we are more than the sum of our sex, gender and biology. As writers we are constantly trying to enter the minds and skins and situations of all the people we write about, be they men, women, both, or neither. And yet there is a critical mass of womanhood inside many of us – an aggregate of hurts, rejections and assertions – that we don’t want to leave behind; that we do, in fact, wish to address as writers.
The life of a woman is an interior life; it is spent in daily tasks, it follows the rhythm of the seasons, and, usually, it ends and passes without record.
One of my books, Mountain Echoes: Reminiscences of Kumaoni Women, compiled oral biographies of my grandmother and three grand-aunts, all four highly individualistic, vibrant and feisty women. My family roots are in Uttarakhand, in the mountains around Nainital and Almora. In the dedication I observed, ‘In our mountains women are rarely afraid. They are strong, direct, loyal, and in most situations they are free to speak their minds. You see them roaming the forests for fodder, strong-footed as goats, fearless as lions. They are not afraid of the dark and they brave the cold, they ford the swift mountain streams sure-footedly and when they are surprised by an attacking tiger, they have been known to raise their scythes and give chase to save a savaged sister from a man-eating predator.’
When I began recording the lives of my grandmother and grandaunts, and the lives of their mothers before them, I encountered a moving personal strength and a disturbing social vulnerability. I observed, ‘The history of women is left to us in folklore and tradition, in faintly remembered lullabies and the half-forgotten touch of a grandmother’s hand; in recipes, ancestral jewellery, and cautionary tales about the limits of a woman’s empowerment.’
As a writer, my interests moved to mythology and its living manifestations in India. Four books, The Book of Shiva, The Mahabharata for Young Readers, Shakuntala: The Play of Memory and In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology, emerged from this quest. I learnt a lot from The Mahabharata. Unlike in The Ramayana, the women of this vast epic negotiated their lives outside as well as inside domestic spaces. Be it Kunti, Draupadi or Hidimba, Amba, Ambika or Ambilika, queen, demoness or transgender, these women demanded agency and lived life resolutely on their own terms. As a child, I had been told that The Mahabharata was not to be kept at home, or read by women, as this would cause discord. I realise now that this injunction was born of patriarchal caution, that the self-willed strength of these epic women was not a role model the men wanted emulated. The mythological figure of Sita stands as an archetype for most Indian women. Mythology is not an academic area of study in India but a part of a living cultural continuity. The gods and goddesses are alive here and we encounter them at every stage and step of daily life.
Indian women fill up a large space in the map of humankind. There are approximately 623 million of us – approximately 8.6 per cent of the human species. The stories of our lives, and the contexts and circumstances within which we negotiate our womanhood and selfhood, are as diverse and varied as India herself. As a nation and a culture, India remains a paradox and an enigma, replete with contradictions. India is a land where women are worshipped as goddesses, yet barbaric practices such as sati and child marriage continue to exert their hold into the twenty-first century. It has had a woman prime minister and president, and women excel and exert influence in professions such as politics and law, the administrative services, media, literature, medicine and banking. But the real strength of Indian women, those unsung heroines who hold up more than half the sky, comes from the disadvantaged, the indigent and marginalised, the often-silenced majority who till the soil, graze their cattle, work in menial domestic jobs, and look after and sustain their immediate and extended families.
Although the sheer size, scale and gradations of Indian culture and society make any form of generalisation untenable, its Stree Shakti or feminine strength, and the resilience and spirit of its women, are manifest at every turn and encounter. This individual strength is at odds with their social vulnerability, with both rising to the fore at a time of intense, liminal change. The upheavals of modernity and the indelible imprints of an ancient and enduring civilisation combine to create fresh opportunities, and also new fractures and faultlines.
Walking Towards Ourselves has contributions from writers with a range of distinct and strongly individual voices. Many of them are friends, others are writers I have read and admired. Resisting easy stereotypes, they tell their stories, or those of women around them, with direct and compelling truth telling. Somewhere between these stories of women in search of themselves, one glimpses tangled strands of narrative, shared vulnerabilities, common strengths.
Leila Seth’s measured yet passionate plea in support of the rights of women, calling for an end to the wrongs done to them by a feudal patriarchy, is echoed with personal anguish in ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ – a disturbing testimonial by one writer who has chosen to remain anonymous. Leila’s thoughtful and wise examination of legal redress puts autonomy and violation of bodily space into perspective.
In a society where women’s minds as well as their bodies are perceived as belonging to their fathers, their brothers and their husbands, women write about sexuality to test the limits of autonomy, to take charge of their intellect and creativity. Skin, flesh and outrage merge into powerful protest and acceptance in the direct, unblinking pieces by Rosalyn D’Mello, Margaret Mascarenhas, Mitali Saran, and the anonymous writer. ‘Autonomy is the most powerful drug in the world,’ declares Mitali Saran, as she tells of how she manages an open and individualist lifestyle while living with a ‘madly brave and madly fearful’ mother.
The essays and musings in this collection – wise, anguished or rebellious as they may be – are drawn from across India, some in translation from Bangla, Tamil and Punjabi. Writer, essayist and retired civil servant Anita Agnihotri writes in Bangla, one of India’s most evocative literary languages, and the sixth-most spoken language in the world. Her piece ‘The Village Without Men’ is set in the fragile and threatened eco-system of the Sundarbans, where one woman’s battle for dignity and survival becomes the story of ‘each and every
woman of the Sundarbans.’
Novelist and critic Anjum Hasan’s powerful and moving documentation of the dreams, responsibilities and duties of a young social worker in Southern India carries the resonance of many lives and many hopes, ‘and most of all, just this: a roof over her head, a warm blanket, the life that she and her family have built, which is very precious and very hard won.’
On a very different note – tongue in cheek but deadly serious – Annie Zaidi walks us through the personal journey of a woman writer and journalist negotiating the hazardous contours of urban Indian landscapes.
Deepti Kapoor writes an interrogative piece about her grandmother, her mother and herself, examining the continuum of women’s narratives, and the many contradictions in their entwined stories and disparate worldviews.
Ira Trivedi’s poised yet poignant foray into the frenzied world of the Indian matrimonial industry reveals the dark truths of the bridal market.
Sharanya Manivannan employs clothes and the wardrobe as a metaphor for identity and adventure.
While Tishani Doshi writes of children and progeny and the idea of motherhood, Salma chronicles her rebellions against tradition and modernity using the weapons of words and poetry.
C.S. Lakshmi, ‘Ambai’ to her devoted readers and fans, writes of SPARROW – the Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women – and her groundbreaking work on documenting oral histories and narratives.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s piece picks up the strands of childhood memories to stress the abiding centrality of women, education, literacy and learning. Nirupama Dutt’s memoir of her sister, Devi, twenty-eight years her senior, and her tragic and wasted life, ends with the question ‘where does your story end and mine begin?’
For me, the emblematic piece in this anthology is Urvashi Butalia’s recount of her journey from being a ‘newly minted young feminist’ to founding the now-iconic feminist presses Kali for Women and Zubaan. As she concludes, her story converges, as many in this anthology do, with that of her mother, who dies, a week short of her ninetieth birthday, in her arms. ‘As happens in life, by the time she was into her eighties, our roles were somewhat reversed, she the “child”, I the “mother”, both of us feminist, both of us working women, both of us Indian.’
These are transformative tales and they carry the texture and nuance of being Indian, and of being women, within them. They bring alive a revelatory panorama of struggle and survival, sorority and resistance, and remind us that we are each other’s stories.
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Last time I was leaving Delhi, my flight home to Australia was scheduled for 2 am. Being someone who travels a lot and at odd hours, it didn’t occur to me that this might be a problem until the date arrived and I realised I would need to cross the city at midnight. Lack of safety for women in Delhi had been a focus in the international press for at least two years. In the absence of a driver with whom I was familiar, and with the safety of Uber under question at the time because of a sexual assault by one of its Delhi drivers the previous month, I felt a growing sense of vulnerability – especially as darkness descended and a night fog started to envelop the neighbourhood.
Then I remembered an article I had come across a few days earlier, which was about an N.G.O. that had set up an all-female taxi company. It sought out unemployed women from the city’s poorest parts, taught them to drive and to read maps, gave them training in assertiveness, self-defence and communication skills, put them in uniform, and paid them a wage so decent that even the most resistant in their community were supportive of their employ.
I made the phone call.
The taxi arrived just after midnight, making its way slowly down the laneway to where I stood waiting with my suitcase in the dark. I could barely see the driver above the steering wheel, she was so slight. She was young, too: barely over twenty. She smiled as I clambered in with my case and introduced herself as Deepali. It seemed to me her smile carried enough voltage to light up the whole city.
There were few other cars on the road, but a stream of trucks passed us at speed down the Aurobindo Marg and the night air was thick with dust in their wake. There was no one else outside at this hour. At the lights, the truck drivers were able to stare from their cabins into our car. On seeing the two of us alone in the taxi, there was leering, and jeering. I pulled a scarf over my blonde hair and glanced at the safety lock of the car to see that it was pushed down. Deepali focused her attention on the road ahead, giving no indication that she was even aware of their presence; she started to peel some of the burgundy varnish off her chipped fingernails.
A barrage of questions was forming in my mind: Does this happen often? When you’re alone, too? Do you feel protected, with just the safety lock of the car standing between you and them? What happens if someone attacks you? Whom can you call? What happens when you need to refuel the car? Where do you go to the toilet? What does your father think about your being out on these streets through the night?
How old are you, anyway?
In the end, I settled for: ‘Do you like your job?’
To which Deepali replied: ‘I don’t know.’
She drove on in a focused, pensive way to the airport, as if the force of her concentration alone would keep her safe.
From the reassuringly bright lights at the airport’s drop-off point, I watched Deepali’s taxi edge back into the stream of traffic, re-entering the dark and smog and fog of that winter night. I feared for what lay ahead of her until the dawn broke, and marvelled at her youth and courage. I felt ashamed that this journey would stand out in memory for me – an Australian visitor to India – for being subversive and a little frightening, something I wouldn’t repeat if I could help it, whereas for Deepali, this was her daily, or rather nightly, reality.
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The international press regularly tells us that India is one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be a woman. When at home in Australia, I am vocal about my love for India to the point of obsession, and this sparks what has become a rather predictable pattern of conversation. Women in my country are constantly telling me that they’re eager to visit India, but don’t dare, for fear that they might be attacked. The question they want me to answer for them is: If I go there, will I be safe?
Meanwhile, Indians from Jaipur to Bangalore to Cochin to Pondicherry have asked me the same question about visiting Australia. This was true particularly in the wake of the shocking murder of an Indian student in Melbourne in 2010, and other race-motivated crimes against young Indians in Australia around that time, but the questioning continues to this day: If I go there, will I be safe?
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In December 2012, when a young medical student was returning home after an evening screening of Life of Pi in a mall in South Delhi, she and her male companion boarded a bus that was not, contrary to appearances, a public transport vehicle. Rather, a group of young men had commandeered a bus and were cruising the streets looking for some entertainment. They had been drinking. A fight broke out when one of the men admonished the young woman’s companion for being out with her at night, when the two weren’t married. The others pitched in – into an argument motivated by the men’s perceived need for ‘moral shaming’. The ensuing attack left the boy injured and the girl near-dead after being violently gang raped and thrown from the bus; she later died in a Singapore hospital when her doctors, who had never seen such unspeakable damage to a woman’s body, were unable to save her.
This tragic and horrifying incident sparked a furore across Delhi, and then across India, and then across the world. By stepping into that bus that night, that young woman, who came to be known as Nirbhaya
(‘Fearless’) inadvertently changed the course of India’s history.
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At the time of Nirbhaya’s death, I was in the emergency ward of an Australian hospital. I had been leading a group of Australian and Indian authors through South India by train for a month in a ‘roving writers festival’ called Bookwallah. I had contracted typhoid, salmonella and dengue fever during that trip, but not found the time while on the trains for the appropriate medical care. On my return to Australia, my mother found me collapsed in her bathroom; she thought I had died.
It’s for this reason that I missed the protests in India – the unbridled outrage that poured out into the city streets. I wanted to be there. I wanted to join my Indian ‘sisters’, to add my voice to their emboldened chorus, to share in this pivotal moment, a kindling of India’s gender revolution.
The heated demonstrations in the streets put such pressure on the government that sexual assault laws in India were changed as a result. I am deeply honoured that this book features a prologue by Leila Seth, the first woman judge of the Delhi High Court and first female Chief Justice of a state High Court in India. She was one of only three members – and the only female member – of the antirape commission assembled in direct response to the Nirbhaya case. In her essay here, Leila highlights exactly how those new laws were negotiated and drawn up, as well as the challenges and obstacles faced by the commission along the way. The information imparted in Leila’s contribution underpins, in a sense, all of the stories in this book.
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One cannot speak of India’s women without speaking of her men, and certainly many men are stepping forward to support women’s safety and empowerment – for example, with organisations such as M.A.R.D. (Men Against Rape and Discrimination).
This collection in no way intends to cast aspersions on India’s male population, nor does it seek to portray Indian men as misogynists. Such a generalisation would be not only wildly inaccurate, but absurd. Certainly, if numbers of India’s men are disenfranchised, brutalised and desensitised, then that desensitisation will affect women also, and this was a factor in the Nirbhaya case: her attackers were from impoverished backgrounds and several were labelled as ‘vagabond’ in the court records. The youngest of them had been living without family on the city streets since the age of six.
Violence needs to end on both sides of the equation. It is true, however, that the all-too-common incidents of violence and depravity exercised against women in India, and the Nirbhaya case in particular, provided the impetus for this book. I found myself thinking about Nirbhaya, day after day after day. I could not get her out of my mind. I was not alone – her story came to epitomise the story of any young woman, in any country, innocently on her way home from a movie after dark – and it touched many people very deeply around the world.
I followed the debate about safety for women while convalescing in hospital in Australia. At some point I wished to hear the voices of India’s women directly, freed from the hype and sensationalism of the media. It was, and still is, my experience that India is a source of greater inspiration, vibrancy, colour and enchantment; of more profound political, intellectual and spiritual enquiry; of more deeply felt and meaningful conversation; of more frequent displays of kindness from strangers and friends alike, than anywhere else in the world. Although addressing an all-important issue, the international press seemed to be overlooking India’s stunning diversity and cultural richness in its focus on the dangers.
I wanted to hear first-hand from Indian women about the challenges, big and small, that they faced on a daily basis, and to share these with readers. I wanted to hear about the joys, rewards, opportunities and great range of experiences of being a woman in India too, in addition to the challenges. I wanted to hear from those who were bucking the gender stereotypes. I wanted to know what the country’s women made of the burgeoning gender revolution, and what it meant to them personally to be an Indian woman living through this time of incredible transition and intense confusion. I wanted to hear stories of love and hope, beyond the negative coverage: I wanted a balanced view.
I was familiar with the writing of many female Indian authors and journalists, having got to know them over years of engagement with literary projects and festivals in different parts of the country. However, I hadn’t read many personal narratives – narratives that articulated the real-life experiences of India’s women in a subjective, candid, and intimate way. It was time for those experiences to be delved into, given a voice and shared.
Seeking out these stories from established women writers was a logical leap. The idea for this book was born.
I asked the authors to mine their own lives and experiences for their pieces; or, if they preferred, they could write about a woman in their immediate acquaintance whose daily reality offered a window onto a fascinating and telling world. The aim was to share the intimate details of real lives, and create a diverse, wide-ranging collection of stories that would say: ‘This is what our lives look like.’
The title of the collection, Walking Towards Ourselves, comes from renowned dancer and choreographer Chandralekha. In an exploration of that which connects art with life, Chandralekha said, ‘we are simply walking towards ourselves.’ So too, in this volume of ‘mini memoirs’, each contributing writer is walking the edge between her art and life. Each one is walking, one word at a time, towards the expression of a subjective reality, towards having a voice: a voice that rings out clear and untrammelled and original and vulnerable and strong and personal and true. Each one is using words as a means to find her way home, when home is a land that doesn’t always make her feel welcome, or cherished, or free.
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Free speech is sometimes brutally suppressed in India, as indeed in other parts of the world. In August 2015, in one such instance, the nation was shocked when a college professor and scholar from Karnataka, who openly questioned idol worship in the Hindu religion, was killed by a shot to the head at point-blank range at the front door of his home.
For India’s women, speaking out is an act of courage. For India’s women writers, articulating the female experience and putting it in print for all to see – in other words, the expression and exercise of freedom of speech – can be perceived as an act of defiance or rebellion, a refusal to conform, a flying in the face of patriarchy that invites criticism, shame, recrimination, intimidation, or worse.
Salma, the Tamil poet and fiction writer featured in this anthology, who shot to fame with her novel The Hour Past Midnight, became a writer in a closeted Muslim environment: she was locked inside her family home on reaching puberty, then married off, and later wrote to maintain her sanity but had to hide her writing from her husband and his family in order to preserve her life. When her first book was launched, it was under a pseudonym. Another contributor to this collection, who has written with outstanding courage and candour about her experiences of marital rape, has had to safeguard her identity in order to stay out of harm’s way. There is no doubt that in many instances, in choosing to share their stories, these women are staring down real fears.
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For centuries an Indian woman was the ‘property’ of her father and then her husband, subjected to an arranged marriage and then to the responsibilities of maintaining her family home. The honour of the entire family rested upon her shoulders, and her moral piety was seen a core contributor to social harmony on a broader scale as well. Since the opening up of India’s economy in 1991, however, women have been exposed to new opportunities for education and for joining the workforce. The impact of this cannot be underestimated. It is only this recently that women have really started to find economic independence, and have therefore been able to withstand social pressures towards marriage and other duties.
Why have India’s women been traditionally subjected to such an extreme expression of patriarchy? This has deeply entrenched religious as well as socio-economic roots. According to the Hindu religion, parents cannot achieve liberation or ‘moksha’ after death unless there is a son to perform the cremation rites; and largely because of the dowry system, daughters have traditionally been seen as a financial burden on a family, while sons were considered to build upon a family’s wealth. Put simply, boy children are wanted and girl children are not: this has been true down the ages and holds true, for the most part, today.
Although sex determination is illegal in hospitals (I was taken aback on a visit to an Indian hospital to see a huge sign at the entrance, declaring that the sex of foetuses would not be identified there) it is not uncommon even nowadays for female foetuses to be aborted and dumped, and for baby girls to be left at orphanages simply because the parents can’t afford to raise them, and see them married off, and be expected to provide a dowry or a fancy wedding, which has become the modern, more acceptable (and legal) form of dowry. There’s a higher infant mortality rate amongst girls too, because medical care for girls is seen as less of a priority than it is for boys. As a result of this, there is a staggering gender imbalance in today’s India, and it’s a source of alarming and ever-increasing frictions. Ira Trivedi writes in her bestselling book India in Love that in 2011, India had 37 million more men than women, and about 17 million excess men in the age group that commits most crimes. Ira asserts: ‘Violent crime increases as the deficit of women increases.’
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More of India’s women are choosing to speak up than ever before. This is true across the board, but most overtly in the arena of sexual violence. It’s unknown if the number of sexual assaults against women in the country is on the rise. What is true is that taboos have broken open and sexual violence and sexual matters more broadly are being discussed in a way that was previously unthinkable; as a result the sense of a victim’s shame is diminishing.
A few brave young women are breaking the way open for others to follow, by making themselves heard in the public sphere. I flew back to Delhi recently to participate in a live event on women and gender. One of the speakers was a young Dalit woman from Uttar Pradesh who in 2012 (when she was thirteen years old) was set upon by four men of a higher caste on her way to school. The men gagged her, and raped her, and filmed the attack. They later sold this recording in a local market.
The courage it must have taken for this young woman (now known as ‘Bitiya’) to report this is unfathomable – she who had no power at all was speaking out against those who did. Her family accompanied her to the talk she gave in Delhi. ‘I was thrown out of the school …’ Bitiya told the audience. ‘The school teachers treated me as an accused. The villagers pressured me to take the complaint back.’ Her mother said, ‘We don’t care what happens to us anymore. I will not let this happen to any more daughters again.’ Bitiya’s aged grandfather also came to the event; despite being startled by finding himself on stage, in front of spotlights and cameras, he stood in solidarity with the women of his family.
Acts of speaking up, of demonstrating courage of this kind, by men and women across different generations and castes, bespeak inestimable social change.
Nita Ambani, wife of business magnate Mukesh Ambani (India’s wealthiest man), made a speech at the same women’s event in Delhi where Bitiya and her mother spoke. Nita was born into a (combined) family of eleven girls and one boy, but crucially the family was completely free of gender bias. She highlighted the fact that education was made available to her, making all the difference to her future.
Nita’s was a view of hope: ‘When I see the people in this room, and their commitment to women’s empowerment, I know the future looks bright.’ Indeed there has been improvement for women and girls in recent years: economic growth and technological developments have been massive contributors to India’s social and cultural change, leading the country to such rapid modernisation that countless lives have morphed beyond all recognition within the space of a decade. This is spectacularly true for India’s young women, who are coming into new opportunities for education and employment.
Deepti Kapoor captures this sense of radical change for the young in her contribution to this anthology. ‘In India it was an exciting time. The India I knew was going through a great upheaval. The economy was flourishing, people were no longer fleeing abroad for a life, jobs were abundant, the arts were vibrant. Social relations were changing too; life was loosening in the cities … I had many potential futures –TV newsreader, human rights advocate, wife to a wealthy banker, post-grad student at an Ivy League college. It was my decision to make. It was a time of optimism and opportunity and hope. I couldn’t wait to get on in the world.’
Today’s India is characterised by a giant melting pot of roles for women, a veritable mix of tradition-meets-innovation. One woman’s life is bound by social mores that extend back centuries, with rules that are frozen in time, while another’s is defined by an all-new autonomy, a sparklingly modern sense of identity, like Deepti’s.
These discrepancies are captured in the range of lives described in this collection. Contrast Anita Agnihotri’s protagonist Taramoni, who is fighting for her life amid post-cyclone catastrophe, with only a makeshift bamboo home for shelter from tigers and other threats, with hip urbane Indians preoccupied with an online dating app, as described in Ira Trivedi’s ‘Love in the Time of the Internet’. Contrast Salma’s story of being kept inside her husband’s home in Tamil Nadu, where her in-laws’ reputation is measured by the extent of her chastity, with Margaret Mascarenhas’s unique and daring exploration of gender fluidity in her home in Goa.
Contrasting realities, indeed.
India is so vast and diverse as to be more like a series of different countries than a unified whole; multiple voices are needed to shed light on her ways. For this reason, Walking Towards Ourselves seeks to give authentic voice to a range of women writers from different parts of the country. These women are of varying ages, religions, castes, socio-economic backgrounds, political orientations and sexual proclivities. And some of the contributors have different mother tongues. While the majority of the pieces were written in English by writers already in my acquaintance (owing to my own linguistic limitations), I’m delighted to say that in researching this project, my attention was brought to some authors working in regional languages who were hitherto unknown to me.
They have been beautiful discoveries.
Anita Agnihotri is one such example: her contribution ‘The Village Without Men’ was originally written in her native Bengali. Salma’s ‘Beyond Memories’ was translated from Tamil. In ‘Bamboo Baskets and Brocade Saris,’ C.S. Lakshmi documents the riveting life details of a Dalit writer by the name of Urmila – their discussions were originally conducted in Marathi. Nirupama Dutt’s moving depiction of the contrasting lives she and her sister led – born twenty-eight years apart to different mothers, and with entirely different access to education opportunities – is a story that was lived out in Punjabi.
Despite the obvious diversity in the stories, one of the joys in editing this book was witnessing the common themes that emerged across the contributions, reflecting back at one another like jewels in a net. Different Indias intersect here, at times in startling and surprising ways. Rosalyn D’Mello’s account of being dark-skinned, and how this inestimably affected her sense of self-worth and desirability, is a theme explored in an entirely different way in Ira Trivedi’s ‘Rearranged Marriage’. Mitali Saran’s irreverent choice to lead a bohemian life with neither husband nor children in Delhi, is twinned in Tishani Doshi’s more reflective piece on why she has decided not to become a mother in Tamil Nadu. The legal issues addressed in Leila Seth’s piece – and more specifically her disappointment that marital rape is still not recognised as a crime in India – are directly mirrored by the author who has chosen to remain anonymous: ‘Within a marriage, fighting back comes with its consequences. The man who rapes me is not a stranger who runs away … He is the husband for whom I have to make the morning coffee.’
Above all, the ways in which women inspire and help each other through the generations, is a theme that crisscrosses the contributions. For example, Urvashi Butalia describes the powerfully positive influence of her mother upon her own trajectory as a feminist publisher: ‘my mother … persuaded him to let me try. “She’ll find her feet,” she said, and I did.’
Education stands out as an essential thematic strand, particularly when it comes to this legacy from older generations. The mothers (and fathers, and grandmothers) mentioned here step in most forcefully when it comes to education and career opportunity for their girls, and without this guiding light the writers might never have discovered their literary talents. As a blossoming young poet, Salma can only be published when her mother sneaks her poems out of the house, wrapped in a cloth bundle, to find someone to post them. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who has received a dazzling number of literary awards and whose books have been translated into twenty-nine languages, states, ‘Thanks to the power of education, and to a mother who would not compromise on my schooling, no matter how much people pressured her – I did it. Words became my scimitar.’
Although only twenty-five per cent of India’s women are employed, this collection frequently features women at work. Anjum Hasan’s protagonist, a plucky young social worker in Karnataka, cares for girls who have been abandoned by their families, and who are ‘ravenous for affection’. C.S. Lakshmi offers a window into her world at SPARROW, an initiative that records and archives the stories of women from around the country, thereby providing a sense of ‘herstory’ as well as ‘history’. Also based in Mumbai – but on a different note altogether – Tisca Chopra offers humorous insight into life as a Bollywood actress, and the challenges of being on the casting couch and in the hotel room of a scurrilous director who hopes to take liberties with her.
There are moments of humour and moments of women at play. Mitali Saran, for example, is ‘an Indian woman in her mid-forties, single, childless, jobless, who dresses like an uncool teenager, wraps presents in newspaper, drinks, smokes, occasionally pops into a bar or a movie theatre alone, drives around in the middle of the night, has no ambition, dances tango, has taken to the guitar …’
Beauty is a theme that repeats – both the pursuit of it and, interestingly, the active avoidance of it. Ira Trivedi, a former finalist in the Miss India pageant, talks to young women whose experiences tell them that only fairer skin will lead them to a suitable matrimony. Sharanya Manivannan explores what different forms of adornment signify; she masterfully interweaves a love of sartorial splendour and feminine expression with the inherently political. ‘If a red lipstick is wonderful anywhere in the world, it is most wonderful of all on the mouth of a woman who has claimed her own voice.’ Both Sharanya and Annie Zaidi dress in dowdy clothing in order to feel safer in the workplace. Out and about at odd hours as a reporter on Mumbai’s streets, Annie writes: ‘I remember looking down at myself – at my loose, long, chequered kurta and salwar, no make-up, flat slippers. I used to try to dress down for work, afraid that taking pains with my appearance would be held against me somehow ...’
And then there are women claiming autonomy over their bodies and their sexuality. Tishani Doshi reflects upon ready access to contraception, and the new life-choices this brings. ‘To be a man who decides not to have children barely registers on the seismograph. To be a woman who says “Actually, babies aren’t for me” is to unleash a minor tsunami.’ Rosalyn D’Mello discusses the complexities of having a lover almost twice her age: ‘... my lust wantonly waxing while his own wanes with age; my spirit and flesh eternally willing, his increasingly in a predicament.’ Margaret Mascarenhas tells the story of her unexpected love affair with a woman: ‘Early in the morning Mohini reached out, kissed her hands, and said, “I’ve never met anyone like
you. May I touch you?” It was not the first time a woman had asked, but it was the first time she had said yes.’
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It is worth mentioning that the stories in this collection claim to be nothing more than the expression of the authors’ highly individual and subjective points of view. And, obviously, Walking Towards Ourselves represents but a handful of lives among millions. Yes, there are essential voices missing; yes, there are gaps that could not be plugged. The subject of this book is simply too vast to be fully plumbed in one book.
Despite this, it is my hope that this anthology performs the simple but essential role of putting women’s stories in the spotlight, and contributing to a vigorous and much-needed discussion about the multitude of ways Indian women experience daily life, in both public and domestic spheres. Why this discussion matters so deeply is perhaps best summarised by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who has said that empowering women and girls with more choices and more freedoms is crucial to achieving a better future for all.
May these stories raise awareness and encourage debate around the gender revolution taking place in India today. And may the revolution grow in momentum until such time as India’s women truly can make their own choices, and experience sexual liberty, and be shown professional equality, and count on safety in spaces both public and private, and have the freedom to say and do and dress and write as they please, by day and by night, in urban centres and in the more remote areas across the land.
This journey towards gender equality is certainly in process in India, but conflict is also there, and it’s showing no sign of abating soon. It’s arising because of the speed at which this gender shift is happening: there simply hasn’t been time for methodical, gradual, step-by-step readjustment. New values and old are bumping up against each other. Sparks are flying. Many men and women (particularly those moving in large numbers from rural areas to urban centres for economic reasons) are reeling, unsure of which values to adhere to or believe in, unsure of where they can position themselves in the maelstrom. They are caught somewhere between yesterday and tomorrow.
And so, India’s gender revolution is characterised by both progress and backlash. A fiery clash of values lies at the very core of contemporary Indian society, across the country and across all strata of society … and yet, the impetus towards female empowerment has become so strong that despite the inevitable setbacks, it is hard to imagine it can be stopped.
This push-pull-push is what Walking Towards Ourselves attempts to capture and explore.
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In Delhi recently, I was once again challenged by having to cross the city after dark. This time, however, it was only a matter of getting back to my accommodation from Khan Market: a fifteen-minute ride at most. I hailed an auto-rickshaw. En route, the driver told me his name was Pandit then went out of his way to assure me that I was safe: ‘We respect woman. Because woman respect is very important for everyone. Woman is our mother, sister and daughter. In my tuc-tuc, woman customers are always very happy, because they know my service is safe and respectful.’ He said this with such obvious pride and sincerity that any anxiety on my part was assuaged.
A taxi passed as we pulled up at my gate, and a large sticker on the back windscreen flashed momentarily under the street-lamp. I had just enough time to take in the words: ‘This taxi respects women’. It was the first time I had heard, and the first time I had seen, this idea publicly expressed.
In India, safety for women is interlinked with economics and also with the issue of public infrastructure. Had Nirbhaya had a personal driver, or the money to pay for an auto-rickshaw to take her across the city after the movie that night, her life might have been spared. An increase in safe public transport options (such as the ladies’ carriage in the Delhi Metro, and the number of taxis driven by women), and an increase in the numbers of public toilets for women, would already make a world of difference. These would permit women to come out in the streets in greater numbers, rather than being relegated to their homes. And there is safety in numbers.
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In around ten years’ time, India will have more women than any other country in the world. And yet, when I asked about non-fiction books on India’s women recently in my favourite Delhi bookstore, pitching the request at booksellers I both like and respect, I was met with blank stares.
In reading Walking Towards Ourselves, may you enjoy walking in the shoes of this diverse range of talented and courageous women writers, as they share, with generosity and pathos, some of the ordinary and extraordinary details of their lives. They write here in order to add their voices to a debate that is much larger than themselves. They write here in order to interrogate a question that is essential for our times, not just in India but across the world. This question was posed with great dignity by Nirbhaya’s father in Leslee Udwin’s documentary film India’s Daughter: ‘What is the meaning of a woman?’
India is in the throes of a gender revolution. What does this mean for women across the country – for those who are rejoicing in new freedoms, those who find themselves caught in a clash of values, those who are experiencing a violent backlash?
Walking Towards Ourselves is a collection of candid and intimate non-fiction narratives, exploring what it means to be a woman in India today. Reaching across different stratas of society, religion and language, this anthology creates a kaleidoscope of distinct and varied real-life stories that provoke much-needed debate into the multitude of ways Indian women experience daily life in both public and domestic spheres; their challenges, obstacles, and dreams.
Walk with nineteen of India’s most talented female writers, from the film sets of Bollywood to a closeted marital home in a Tamil Nadu village; from the slick boardroom of an online dating app to a makeshift bamboo house in post-cyclone Sunderbans; from a beauty parlour to a home for abandoned girls in Karnataka.
Walk with them as they report from Mumbai’s streets alone at night, as they grapple with domestic violence, as they search for love through marriage brokers, as they learn to speak their minds, as they lay claim to their bodies, as they choose to be partnered or not, to become mothers or not, to make art, to make love, to make meaning of their lives.
Told with startling honesty, piercing insight, moments of poetry, and flashes of humour, Walking Towards Ourselves is a timely exploration of what it means to be a woman in India in a time of intense and incredible change.
Excerpts from Walking Towards Ourselves:
‘Why are women and young girls terrified into silence?’ – Leila Seth
‘Words became my scimitar, and with them I began to help others – especially girls and women – break out of darkness into light.’ – Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
‘I have been asked, plenty of times – by actors, directors and producers. I play dumb. Smile and pretend I don’t get the hint. Yet, somehow, many men from the film business think it is their right to ask.’ – Tisca Chopra
‘I too am part of India’s beauty epidemic. I have used skin-lightening creams extensively. I have been a finalist in the Miss India pageant, and I have spent an inordinate amount of time in marriage bureaus, not only in the guise of research but also looking for a husband.’ – Ira Trivedi
‘In a country fixated on fairness, my unsavoury black skin has been a curse.’ – Rosalyn D’Mello
‘To be a woman who says “Actually, babies aren’t for me” is to unleash a minor tsunami.’ – Tishani Doshi
‘A woman can wear a war for a very long time.’ – Sharanya Manivannan
‘I learned to gauge the safety quotient of a bar, restaurant, movie theatre, based on how many women were visible.’ – Annie Zaidi
‘My poems were full of questions and critiques about how the lone difference of gender was used to strangle women.’ – Salma
‘Autonomy is the most powerful drug in the world. The ability to govern your own life, your own thoughts, to make the choices you want to make, is a wild high given to too few people around the world.’ – Mitali Saran
‘Soon after, my boyfriend also died. When this happened, I decided I must live as hard as I could, be reckless and experience all that life had before it was snatched away. I rebelled; I lived a secret life, and ignored all they had to say about marriage, stability, respectability, responsibility.’ – Deepti Kapoor
‘Despite the great love we had for one another, somewhere in Devi was the regret that she never got the chances in life that I did.’ – Nirupama Dutt
‘Why was it that when we wanted to understand the battles we were fighting, to figure out why the world was the way it was, we had so little to read that could help us?’ – Urvashi Butalia
‘It was on this day that I met Taramoni, a single woman in a household, who to me represented all the courage and fragility of a woman who has been left with the task of running and managing a household alone while waiting for better days.’ – Anita Agnihotri
‘What I hold true today – that gender and sexuality are too complex to pin down, much less legislate, that they can and do cross cultures and geographies, and might morph at any moment – is a radical departure from the ideas and ideologies I internalised while growing up.’ – Margaret Mascarenhas
‘Manjula is suddenly crying. She held this baby yesterday, all wrinkled and new, and wondered what it might feel like to discard someone so utterly blameless.’ – Anjum Hasan
‘We wanted to document women’s lives and women’s history, for the three of us strongly believed that positive change is possible only when we understand women’s lives, history and struggles for self-respect and human dignity.’ – C.S. Lakshmi
‘Within my marriage, I have the stock-sure method of knowing: it was your tongue in your mouth that forced me into silence.’ – Anonymous
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