Every culture and every age has an image of “ideal womanhood,” an idea that, in its most benign form, boils down to truisms and expectations about women. As a reader, I’m drawn to characters who struggle at the edge of what society expects of them, bursting with effort to express themselves. Not all rebellions are explosive. Some are quietly performed in the corners of kitchens, some burn deep within a heart unable to express it to the outside world. As a writer, I’ve always been interested in the idea of agency, especially where agency seems non-existent. How, as women, do we assert ourselves in a profoundly patriarchal society? Especially when claiming our voice often invites violence and censorship of the society we live in?
When I started writing my novel little deaths, I was adamant about one thing: I didn’t want to invent tragedies and plot scenes where life had been so devastating. There is no incident in the novel that did not happen in reality. little deaths is based on years of archival research and discussions with women and intersex people in Shonagachhi, Kolkata’s biggest red-light district, and continuing to write my main character Lalee was a challenge. In the novel, Lalee is a sex worker who was trafficked as a child and now grapples with the reality of aging, wants to improve her situation by working as a high-end escort. I wanted to write with empathy, authenticity and ethicallyif that makes sense, because how can we talk honestly about sexual violence, assault and trauma, without making it yet another expendable?
This playlist spans a variety of genres and time periods, but what they all have in common is a stubborn refusal to iron out the complexities of the women they portray or look away from the unsavory and often thorny aspects of what makes these human women.
Kari by Amruta Patil
Kari is a bright graphic novel about being queer, broke, rudderless and heartbroken in an Indian metropolis. Funny and cynical, Kari tries to survive in the city of smog by negotiating career challenges, sharing a living space too cramped for comfort with her housemates, and coping with urban boredom. Beautifully illustrated, this thrilling book is an example of proto-Sad Girls literature before it became fashionable, and a deeply moving meditation on the loneliness of being queer in urban India.
Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur
An anonymous narrator sitting in an old-world cafe recounts his family’s history and the devastating rifts without outright revealing them. Almost destitute, the narrator’s family lives together in a maze of rooms until his uncle starts a spice business and their fortunes turn around, seemingly overnight. New allegiances emerge as the balance of power within the household shifts. The narrator’s wife, Anita, is the only outsider to this familial tribalism, unwilling to subsume her opinions and individualism in the face of mounting pressure.
The far field by Madhuri Vijay
After the death of her restless, sarcastic, and combative mother, Shalini is rudderless, adrift of jobs and relationships. Shalini decides to trade her city life in Bangalore to find a traveling Kashmiri salesman her mother had bonded with. Her search takes her to the politically unstable northern region of the Kashmir Valley, where she is taken in by local families. Faced with the imminent threat of violence and the complicated history of the family that shelters her, Shalini is forced to reckon with the dangerous repercussions of being in a situation she neither understands nor can control, brought about by her naivety. privileged.
Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto
In a small apartment in Bombay, the narrator and his sister live with their parents. Imelda Mendes, Em to her children, is by turns vicious and loving, cruelly frank and charming. Her bipolar disorder—the suicide attempts and terrifying mood swings known as “micro-times”—is the defining experience of the narrator’s childhood. Their father, the Big Hoom, is the yin to his yang, the stabilizing anchor of the storm in their lives. Em and the Big Hoom is a raw and nuanced portrait of a woman in the trenches of mental illness and an exquisite sketch of Christian life from Goa to Bombay.
In Desperation for Shah Rukh: Lonely Young Women of India and the Search for Intimacy and Independence by Shrayana Bhattacharya
Dressed well but lightly in her economist hat, Bhattacharya maps the lives and desires of ten women over the years. These women are very different in terms of economic and social class, ranging from poor girls in small towns to rich women in Delhi, from battered wives to domestic workers. This non-fiction work is illuminating in its astute observations on women’s search for intimacy and autonomy in the economically liberalizing society of 1990s India. Blending data, statistics and interviews with Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan’s film analysis, Bhattacharya creates a unique portrait of contemporary Indian femininity and female fandom.
burnt sugar by Avni Doshi
“I would be lying if I said that my mother’s misery never made me happy.”
To date, the opening line of Doshi’s searing mother-daughter saga has been widely praised for its chilling precision. burnt sugar is the story of Tara, a chaotic woman who has avoided the pitfalls of domestic life to chase after a religious guru. She lived as both an artist and a beggar despite her wealthy parents, all with a child in tow, her daughter Antara. Created in Tara’s shadow and to serve as her “other”, Antara is our deeply caustic narrator. As a child, she was constantly pushed away, rejected, and endangered by her mother, but as Tara begins to lose her mind to Alzheimer’s disease, Antara finds herself pushed into the role of reluctant caregiver. The novel is a delicate dance of love and betrayal, slowly revealing the deep cuts mother and daughter inflict on each other.
He doesn’t die by Maitreyi Devi
Set in colonial Calcutta in 1930, Maitreyi Devi is a precocious and educated 16-year-old, a poet who participates in a public intellectual life quite unprecedented in a deeply patriarchal society. His philosopher father, adopting at 19eEnlightenment ideals of the century – invites a Romanian scholar, Mircea Eliade, to his home to study with his daughter under his tutelage. Thus begins a smoldering love story that crosses cultural and racial lines.
40 years later, Devi reads Bengal Nights, Eliade’s fictional account of their desperate, furious, but short-lived teenage love. Troubled by the fantasy Eliade creates in her book, Devi sets out to reclaim her story of their relationship, culminating in a journey to meet the now elderly and blind Eliade. Both a portrait of a high-caste Hindu family in the era of late colonialism and a dazzling revelation of a secret first love, He doesn’t die is an essential pearl.