Walking towards ourselves: Indian women tell their stories

Walking towards ourselves: Indian women tell their stories

Mitchell, Catrina (Ed.) (2016)

New Delhi: Harpercollins Publishers (266 pages) ISBN 978-93-5177-792-2 ₹399.00

Experiential narratives have basic authenticity about them and hence have greater potential to engage the reader. Walking Towards Self has in addition, the foregrounding of a plethora of questions and innumerable contrasting realities that make answers more complex, unavoidable social issues that evolve out of gender, class, caste and generational gaps. Each narrative is a personal account and yet it engages with a different subtext involving Indian women. The writer’s subjectivity blends with contextual realities, to cross check her commitments, beliefs and angst.

Although Walking Towards Ourselves is an anthology of autobiographical narratives based on the real, lived experiences of educated, urban Indian women; it is not pitched against any paradigm or model, feminist or otherwise.  It is simply a compilation of individual voices of 18 women writers, aesthetes and intellectuals, whose radicalism generates collective consciousness and perhaps, consciously avoids the feminist tag. Catriona Mitchell has put together the voices of writers, film stars, judges, journalists and publishers, most of who are very articulate and highly educated.  Some of them represent marginalized communities and religious minorities. They write either in English or in their own vernaculars, but they already have powerful literary identities.

The narratives are short and therefore only touch upon the subject; but in that short space they develop hard hitting explorations of Indian woman in all possible predicaments, with glaring vignettes of societal taboos, prejudices and gender discrimination. Although spatially short, the narratives represent temporally vast landscapes of regional, geographical Indian realities. These women tell their stories to abandon the myths that imprison them and to unload the flesh and bone individuals on their own terms.  

The contributors have written on issues such as love, sexuality, sexual exploitation, taboos, marriage, motherhood, literacy, career choices and definitions of what constitutes success.  Leila Seth, the first woman judge in the Delhi High Court and the first Chief justice of a State High Court, speaks poignantly from personal experience of the common expectation from women to carry the guilt and shame of what others do to her. “I kept silent”—every girl is indoctrinated to observe silence for the perpetrator and the violator is often a member of the family. He could be an uncle or a cousin and the family reputation cannot be jeopardized. As a member of the three-member anti-rape commission constituted by the Government after the brutal Nirbhaya case, Leila Seth highlights two things—the need “to build a more equal society’, and “the importance of sex education in schools”. It must be noted that the Nirbhaya case became the catalyst that kindled “India’s gender revolution” and “provided the impetus for this book” (Catriona Mitchell).

In “Rearranged Marriages” Ira Trivedi focuses on the well-organized commercial market of arranged marriages, where the most highly rated virtue in a woman is her fair skin. Rosalyn D’Mell gives a shocking account of life when dark skin fragments one’s sense of self-worth and desirability. “I hated wearing my skin like a cloak of shame.” She declares decisively and confidently “my body will continue to be my instrument, my blackness my deliverance, my skin my muse.”

Tishani Joshi debunks motherhood in “Tick Tock”. “I had an epiphany about children”, she says mockingly and comments, “‘Actually babies are not for me’ is to unleash a minor tsunami’.’”So deeply entrenched is a woman’s life in motherhood.

However, although motherhood is restrictive, mothers are companions, friends and guides. Urvashi Butalia recalls the powerfully positive influence of her mother and her definite impact on her in a battle to empower women and to fight for their rights in a subversive society. Nirupama Dutt contrasts the life of her sister with her own in a changing time span, and rues the rigidity and hostility that her sister had to endure.

 In an extremely blunt and explicit description, a writer under anonymity exposes the irony of domestic rape: “the man who rapes me is not a stranger…. He is the husband for whom I have to make the morning coffee.” Tamil writer Salma (pseudonym) interrogates society on the ambiguity of its so-called reforms. A Muslim poet and novelist Salma had to hide her books and her writings from her husband in order to save her skin. Has anything changed since the times of Rassundari Debi, the first Bengali housewife to write her autobiography in 19th century Bengal, who hid little scraps of paper in the loft of her kitchen lest she be thrown out; or since Mary Ann Evans in Victorian Britain, who had no choice but to take a male name, George Eliot, in order to get published! Therefore, acts of speaking up and those that demonstrate courage, as and when women do so, are momentous and crucial. 

Women are trying to claim their “own voice” and are beginning a new gender revolution through education, economic self-reliance or brash bohemian choices, as does Mitali Saran in “Square peg, Round Hole”. She ends her article on a positive note: “…the impulse to freedom and self-expression is as fundamentally human as the impulse to live with social acceptance. And women are fighters.”

Walking Towards Ourselves is a strong indictment of a judgemental society, its conflicting moral codes and the calculated lasciviousness of the male eye that uses rape as a tool to preserve male dominance in power equations. At the same time, it takes into account society’s intense diversity and upheavals and the new vistas, says Deepti Kapoor in “Life was Loosening in the Cities”. There is a new gender fluidity and freshness in the air. Women may exercise choices and enjoy sexual liberty, professional equality and safety in spaces. According to Mital Saran, “The conversation has begun”. Turbulence promises freedom; patriarchal structures can be overturned. The questioning remains within the confines of overall social sensitivity. The pieces explore what it meansdian woman through multiple perspectives.

Walking Towards Ourselves, must be introduced in classrooms, either as a whole or in parts. Each text is a complete book in itself. Some of the narratives will make excellent reading texts in upper middle/senior/undergraduate level classrooms to introduce discussions around gender discrimination and Indian women’s efforts to survive against the unfathomable Indian ethos. Red and yellow—the bright hues of sunshine and fire used on the cover page reflect the tone of the book. The brief sketches of the authors at the end serve as an introduction to 18 women writers who have a strong place in their own languages; and their mini self-notes are a good entry point into contemporary Indian literature.

Chandra Nisha Singh has retired as Associate Professor of English from Lakshmibai College, University of Delhi. Her research interests are gender and disability issues. She has served as O.S.D. for Delhi University’s Equal Opportunity Cell for about 4 years.