“Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories” by Catriona Mitchell (Editor)

Walking Towards Ourselves

This book is a brilliant mosaic of many feminine voices from India, a collection of short stories carefully crafted to present a consistent and yet diverse pattern of thought and emotion. From Ira Trivedi’s Rearranged Marriage to Sharanya Manivannan’s Karaikkal Ammayar to Urvashi Butalia’s Oxygen, the book takes the reader on a roller coaster ride that is both exciting and frightening. The voices are by no means weak or even similar – and no facet of the feminine experience is left untouched. From the embarrassment of dark skin, to the agonies of match-making, marriage, motherhood and childlessness, alternative relationships and alternative sexual identities, difficult choices and painful lives, this book leaves no stone unturned in its quest for free expression of thought.

Mitali Saran writes, “This country worships phalluses, but women are raised to believe in their own shamefulness, and taught that female modesty protects the whole world’s honour. There are degrees, of course – perhaps you’re a rural woman who’s allowed an unrelated man to see her face uncovered, or you’re a city slicker showing too much cleavage – but shame is the monkey on your back, and when it shows up, it imperils your whole family’s reputation. It’s been a long historical fall from the erotic celebration of Khajuraho to the prudery of today.”

Bollywood belle Tisca Chopra writes of the legendary casting couch, “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.”

Describing the near trauma of hunting for toilets in the Mumbai metropolis, Annie Zaidi writes, “The commute was tough, the deadline pressure insane, harassment was a possibility that lay in wait at every corner. But my greatest worry was not finding a toilet when I needed one. Which was several times a day every day. The city seemed to be lurching along anyhow, kidding itself that women didn’t get out much and, if they did, it was never long enough for their bladders to fill up. Mumbai was rumoured to have public toilets, at least at train stations, but to my dismay and fury, I found that most toilets were either non-functional or locked up, especially at night. The official excuse was that women didn’t use them anyway and that if toilets were open, they might be used for ‘other’ purposes.”

“Women were so central in the battle for independence, why did we hear virtually nothing about them afterwards? Or for that matter during colonial times?” asks Urvashi Butalia, the firebrand founder of the publishing house Kali for Women.

Salma’s account of her urge to write (translated from the Tamil by N Kalyanraman) and the vicious suppression she encountered is especially heart-rending. The reader is left wondering: Is this my Incredible India? “After hiding within the lime-coated walls of my parents’ home for several years, I moved to my husband’s family house on a neighbouring street and was enclosed by brand new walls, freshly coated with paint.” Salma’s predicament would shock the conscience of anyone who has a conscience. “Writing poems and reading books were considered serious crimes. My husband warned me to stop reading. He threatened that if he happened to see any books lying around the house he would burn them, and if he saw me writing he would break my fingers.” Salma didn’t stop writing. Today she is a celebrated author, and everyone knows her given name is Rokkaiyya Begum.

“Within a marriage, fighting back comes with its consequences. The man who rapes me is not a stranger who runs away. He is not the silhouette in the car park, he is not the masked assaulter, he is not the acquaintance who has spiked my drink. He is someone who wakes up next to me. He is the husband for whom I have to make the morning coffee. He is the husband who can shrug it away and ask me to stop imagining things.” This one is by an anonymous author – not even a pen name.

Saranya Manivannan writes, “In the long history of female silencing, the wardrobe was an instrument long before the pen.” And she elaborates, “In order to be taken seriously, in order to be left alone, in order to be perceived as neither desirable nor desirous, I twist my uncombed hair into a bun and leave my face bare and bespectacled, throw a loose tunic over pants and slip into pre-distressed chappals. Make no mistake about it: it is a cultivated look. It is a form of armour.”

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni remembers seeing the picture of ‘Sultana Raziyya’ in her brother’s history’ book and being impressed with the way the queen exuded power. “In this picture the woman sat on a tigerskin while a man knelt nearby, offering her his scimitar. Instead of flowing veils, she wore the male attire of the time: baggy pants and a vest. Instead of daintily sniffing at a rose, like the women in my father’s book of Mughal paintings, she leaned forward boldly to grasp the weapon offered to her.”

Overall Assessment: Must read.

Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories
EDITOR: Catriona Mitchell
CONTRIBUTING AUTHORS: Ira Trivedi, Rosalyn D’Mello, Mitali Saran, Urvashi Butalia, Annie Zaidi, Anjum Hasan, Salma, Anita Agnihotri, Tishani Doshi, Margaret Mascarenhas, Sharanya Manivannan, Tisca Chopra, Deepti Kapoor, C S Lakshmi, Nirupama Dutt, Chitra Banerjee Diwakarunni and one ANONYMOUS writer.
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2016

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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