Stories About the Indian Feminine (Under)world: Ismat Chugtai

[Of course there will be spoilers!]

Against all odds, Ismat Chugtai carved out a niche for herself. She was born into an orthodox Muslim family in Badayun, in the midst of 1915, and above all, female. With the pen as her sword, she battled against prevailing societal norms regarding “proper” female conduct and roles. She was amongst the esteemed Urdu writers of her time including Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander, and Rajinder Singh Bedi. Chugtai’s tales of everyday life are rife with themes of female sexuality, bourgeois gentility, marriage, subjugation of the women and are deeply introspective and feminist in tone.

The short story “All For A Husband” is serious in subject matter but comical in form. In this tale, a young college-educated woman travels alone from Jodhpur to Bombay for an interview. Her fellow female travellers bombard her with queries about her personal life (Is she travelling to her maika or sasural?) and are unable to believe that the narrator isn’t married. The narrator desperately wants to rise against the prevailing hive mind but she gives up and tailors a faux husband: a coolie, with whom she has eight children!

Chugtai masterfully crafts this story of an independent woman who is fed up by the idea that she should always belong to somebody and that her worth is defined by her husband. Her fellow travellers are obsessed with husbands especially those that are not their own.

“Of Fists and Rubs” is a rather unpleasant story about many things but in particular two socially downtrodden women called Ratti Bai and Ganga Bai. The author, the supposed narrator, paints a powerful rich/poor, urban/rural dynamic. In order to send money back home women from villages work in factories, sell vegetables illegally on the street without licences and the very desperate resort to begging or prostitution.

Ratti Bai and Ganga Bai spend their days in the suburbs of Bombay and are uprooted from their traditional spaces of work. The author recounts in a flashback that she met them in the hospital while admitted for her daughters birth. The women constantly vilify each other and in one particular instance quarrel over discarded cotton pads. This scene speaks of the inhumanity and hardships for such women who are uneducated and tortured by socio-economic conditions. The story culminates in the author learning the various horrific methods of abortion used by these poor women: “Oh, god, such a dreadful punishment for bringing life into this world.”

The author faces the dilemma of being reticent on what she has learned or to break the bondage of orthodox traditions and speak her mind. She chose the latter. Her writing is stripped of romanticism and its casual realism shocks the reader.

In a different vein, the first chapter of “A Strange Man” is about the Bollywood film industry. Dharm Dev, a successful actor, director and producer falls into an all-consuming love affair with Zarina much to the betrayal of his wife Mangala. Ismat Chugtai’s writing is cynical, sardonic and her career as a scriptwriter gave her an insight into the world of film and the tribulations of stardom, fame and love.

It is safe to say that Chugtai’s most famous piece of work is “Lihaf” (1942), a tale of alternate sexuality. Ever since its publication in the journal Adab-i-Latif, it generated controversy and she was levelled with charges of obscenity in 1944. In the story, a young female protagonist recounts the tale of her stay with her aunt Begum Jaan. Reading between the lines, the story is anything but innocent. The Nawab is more interested in spending his time with young boys and ignores his wife who seems to wither day by day.

The Nawab treats his her akin to the furniture in his house. Chugtai attacks patriarchal norms and unveils Indian social taboos. Begum Jaan, repressed and sexually frustrated, enters into a lesbian relationship with her maid Rabbu. Since she could not derive pleasure from her husband she looked elsewhere. “Lihaf”is an important story because it throws light on the female psyche and female sexual desires that patriarchy ties to hide, ignore and cover.

Female self-representation and realism are the two cornerstones of Ismat Chugtai’s writing. A truly progressive soul, she wrote about “women’s lives particularly their cultural status and their myriad roles in Indian society.” Tahira Naqvi labeled her as a “rebel,” and that she was a “woman who never forgot who she was, who was glad to be a woman, who, if offered the choice, would be a woman again and again.”

Manto once wrote:

“I told Ismat,
I liked your story “Lihaf.” Your special merit lies in using your words with utmost economy. But I’m surprised that you’ve added the rather pointless line, “Even if someone gives me a lakh of rupees I won’t tell anyone what I saw when the quilt was lifted by an inch.”
“What’s wrong with that sentence?” Ismat had retorted.
I was going to say something but then I looked at her face. There I saw the kind of embarrassment that overwhelms common, homely girls when they hear something unspeakable. I felt greatly disappointed because I wanted to have a detailed discussion with her about every aspect of “Lihaf.” As she left I told myself, “The wretch turned out to be a mere woman after all!”

Ismat Chugtai’s stories are grim and realistic views on the subject of women. These themes are rhetorical and subtly repeated not only though the voices of the protagonist but also the author herself. These voices are profound, the stories are distressing and eye opening but most of all, relatable.

Luster by Raven Leilani (Book Review)

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

We’re starting 2021 off with Luster, a lustrous (see what I did there?) debut from Raven Leilani. And let me tell you… this is quintessential Millennial fiction. If you’ve read and enjoyed Sally Rooney, Stephanie Danler (Sweetbitter was a train wreck, but in the same spirit as Luster), Helen Oyeyemi or Ottessa Moshfeg you will be fond of Raven Leilani’s offering.

According to google, a Millennial is anyone born between the years 1981 and 1996. Quite broad. Luster integrates stereotypes about being a Millennial in an effortless and lucid manner, encompassing gender and race. Edie is a twenty three year old black woman who lives in New York. She works at a publishing company which doesn’t pay well but… it’s a job and she has one (for now). She’s also teetering on the edge of depression?

Edie is alone AND lonely. Luster reads like a soliloquy or a diary. Her thoughts are shocking and unfiltered or the most mundane observations about who got on the metro and the people she encounters. In the beginning of the novel, Edie is hooking up with multiple guys and one of them is an older man named Eric. She’s drawn to Eric because of the challenge, his wife Rebecca agreed to an open marriage in exchange for her setting the rules.

“It’s not that I want exactly this, to have a husband or home security system that, for the length of our marriage, never goes off. It’s that there are gray, anonymous hours like this. Hours when I am desperate, when I am ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void.”

Luster has it all: unemployment, critiquing the gig economy (re: capitalism) general aimlessness/carelessness, poverty, hookup culture, the intergenerational divide (get off my lawn!), casual and explicit racism, sexism, and humour. This book is funny when you least expect it to be. Edie is both passionate and apathetic. She is extraordinary and ordinary. She feels the need to conform and belong in a world that doesn’t seem to accommodate her. She has horrible life experiences intertwined with people who show her kindness and care. In a nutshell, she is one of the most believable and tangible characters I have ever read.

Gertrude Emerson’s Pachperwa: A Little India

[I wrote this little essay for my M.A. History class a few years ago. Reading it back made me realise how similar 1920 and 2020 India are.]

Highly informative and illuminating, Emerson, an American journalist with a penchant for travel, offers an ethnographical account of an Indian village during the 1920s. With the aim to understand India, she felt that the village of Pachperwa would be the “logical starting point” for her book Voiceless India. Pachperwa is located in the Northeast sector of U.P and belonged to the Maharaja of Balrampur. A microcosm of India during that time, Pachperwa’s society was caste-ridden and feudal minded. She begins the account with a description of her move to the village and the various household arrangements.

There is a hint of sensibility and compassion in the authors voice throughout the text. What connects Emerson to India is colonialism. While detailing political events, for example the Salt March she inadvertently alludes to the Boston Tea Party. Having said that, it was because of the British officials that her stay at Pachperwa was possible. She was an “outsider” in two senses: as an American and as a white woman. Despite this it would seem that she enjoyed considerable power due to her political contacts with the Maharaja, the Tahsildar (revenue collector), and the British officials. 

Emerson’s writing is not free from stereotyping Indian society. Even with the tone of objectivity, her own biases fall through the cracks. She is critical of the unsanitary conditions/rampant diseases in the village and its need for “Western civilisation.” In the chapter titled ‘Caste’ she was astonished to learn that the “idea of purity [of water] has come to be associated with the person who offers the water rather than with the quality of the water itself.” She is also critical of the lax attitude of midwives in matters of cleanliness. She urges a young woman of the Kori caste to sterilise her sickle before cutting the umbilical cords. 

Pachperwa comes alive in her descriptions. In the chapter called ‘Bazar Day’ Emerson details the items sold during the Wednesday Bazar: fruits, vegetables, oils, dry articles and spices, paan, tobacco, meat, cloth, metal , etc. She details how the latter two industries and other luxuries were being subsumed by the international market. There was a growing “dependence of the village on the outside world” due to the absence of Indian industries. Though the social fabric of India seemed unchanged, its economy was rapidly undergoing transforming and globalisation had made its mark even on Pachperwa. 

Voiceless India is a deep study of various Indian customs and traditions. Though there is a sprinkling of romanticism in her description, Emerson is able to portray realistic images and try to figure out the logistics behind many Indian practices. The caste system was a way to tackle competition and preserve societies during the multiple foreign invasions of the past. Child marriage was begun as a way to “protect women’s honour,” and purdah was institutionalised as a method to prevent rape of women by the ‘foreign’ Mussulamans. 

The intricate study on gender and religion are insightful. The main roles for women were “household labour, bearing and rearing of children and tending to the sick,” and these were of more importance than “rights and privileges.” Emerson also writes on the element of spirituality in Pachperwa: “the feeling of respect for the man of religion was so strong that…” it didn’t matter whether they were a Hindu or Muslim. 

In conclusion, Voiceless India is a very visual piece of literature. There are references to communalism and Emerson herself sometimes risks equating Hindu culture to Indian culture (or showcasing Muslim culture as being very similar to Hindu culture). Though aware of her own ‘foreignness’ she was able to break some barriers and make friends with the village women and gather information from the locals using her broken dialect. Despite this, Emerson was not able to delve too deeply into the village society: she doesn’t write about the untouchable caste or the stories of those who worked menial jobs in her house. These are the silences and exclusions on her part. 

Against this backdrop  — of the nine-tenths of Indians living in villages (majority of them being illiterate), with the burgeoning nationalism of Gandhi, the so-called primitive qualities of Indian society/religion and the railways/coming of the modern age —Emerson produces a chiaroscuro of Indian experiences

Here are a bunch of books which cured my rather tragic & unfortunate reading slump. Enjoy.

Confessions of Georgia Nicholson series by Louise Rennison

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It’s OK, I’m Wearing Really Big Knickers: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Where do I even begin? Both these books were a hoot! Georgia Nicholson had me cackling every other page. Oh, to be 14 again. A 14 year old GIRL. When your body is changing, you *hate* authority and just want to kiss guys all day, every day. Well, a decade later – all these points are still valid!

I love how ridiculous Georgia is. She’s like a moody teenager on her 10th virgin mojito. It’s a cringey tv show come to life. Angus, who is a cat delivered straight from Hell (Satan’s favourite kitty), had me snickering all the way. Georgia’s disdain for all adults… I could feel it in my soul. Just read it. No amount of praise would ever be enough. Masterpieces. Truly.

I cannot wait to make my way through the other eight (EIGHT!) books in this series.

The Queen of Jasmine Country by Sharanya Manivannan: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Sharanya Manivannan’s short story collection The High Priestess Never Marries left a lasting impression on me. There was no way I could miss this novel. She writes about women and women’s sexuality so well, I could drown in a well of her writing.

The Queen of Jasmine Country is about a Bhakti saint named Andal who lived during 8th century Tamilakam. Andal, or Kodhai as she was called, was taken in by a Brahmin family who were childless. She was an inquisitive child, deeply religious and taught how to read and write by her father.

It was quite revolutionary for a woman to be literate back then. She used this power to fuel her poetry. She wrote deeply sensuous poetry dedicated to Lord Vishnu and his avatar, Krishna. Andal marries Vishnu. In conclusion, I want like to smoke whatever the Bhakti saints were smoking back in those days.

Hell, I want to marry a literal God.

Seeing Like a Feminist by Nivedita Menon: ⭐️⭐️⭐️ (3.5 Stars)

Now for some serious stuff. Feminism. Nivedita Menon, a professor at JNU, was one of the most prominent figures during the 2016 JNU protests. She gave fiery speeches about the state of nationalism in India, criticising the government and its push towards ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan.’

Seeing Like a Feminist is a good introductory text to anyone interested in Indian feminism. It is a fairy comprehensive book, with a wide variety of topics like marriage, rape, queer politics, sex work, abortion etc. Pretty heavy stuff but she manages to put across her viewpoints efficiently and effectively. For example, while discussing the Women’s Reservation Bill (in the Parliament), she brings up an important point about how “women” are not a monolith but are divided on the basis of class, caste, and religion. So would that mean ‘a quota within a quota’, so that every woman is equally represented?

Overall, I’d say the book was an eye opener. I learnt quite a few things and read fresh and new perspectives on certain issues. Despite that, I felt that Menon could have included the experiences of disabled women, old/ageing women, Muslim women, and rural women. Seeing as how the book was published in December, 2012, I am interested in reading about feminism in a post-Nirbhaya context and the state of Indian feminism after 2014, when the current government came to power.

Read all these books! They get a thumbs up from me.

Hello, October! 2020 💗

Mood? Mood.

Yes! The obligatory birthday month post. Honestly, I love hyping myself up on my birthday every year and 2020 is no different. May I have a refund on 25 though? I spent half of it staying inside my house, haha! 😂

I’ve been in a reading slump for almost two months. Am I sad? Nah. Do I wish I was reading tons of books? Yeah, that would be nice… for me and the blog. Which reminds me: I make zero effort to grow my blog. I should probably try and put in some effort. Hey, if you’re reading this and you’re not subscribed to/following The Reviewer of Odd Volumes, change that!

Was that good?

It’s a tradition that I write a list of spooky books and tv shows/movies I’m excited for every October. If I get out of my reading slump (🙈) I hope to finish reading The Ruins by Scott Smith and also start House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. The only show I’m semi-interested in right now is Ratched.

In terms of what you can expect from me in the future, probably a post talking about some tv shows I loved over the past few months (I May Destroy You, The Duchess etc.) and the first few podcast episodes.

See ya soon, bookworms x

Wear a mask. Social distance. Wash your hands for 20 seconds.

😛

Introducing The Odd Volumes Podcast 🎙️💕

Hello bookworms,

I started a new podcast for this blog ‘The Odd Volumes Podcast’. On the podcast, you will hear me talk about books, life and all that jazz. I will post the links below 💕📚

Hope you are all keeping safe. With lots of bookish love,

The Reviewer of Odd Volumes

Never miss an episode!

Subscribe wherever you enjoy podcasts:

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

After finishing Hurricane Season, I wondered why I don’t read more translated fiction. It’s nominated for the 2020 International Booker Prize and I hope it wins. I really don’t know where to start writing about this novel, I finished it last night and can’t stop thinking about the characters and the places described in the story. It truly is an experience.

First of all, the writing. Long, winded sentences that take up half the page. The language is vulgar and shocking but satisfying like a good sneeze. I think the writing is on par with the characters and the plot. According to Fernanda Melchor, the plot was inspired by a true story she read in the newspaper about the murder of a “witch” in a Mexican town. Hurricane Season blends many genres – horror, the occult, noir, true crime, thriller – and comes with many trigger warnings.

“… just to sit there awhile and lighten the load, let it all out, the pain and sadness that fluttered hopelessly in their throats. Because the Witch listened, and nothing seemed to shock her,”

I thought the way Melchor handled the subject matter with reality and grit was admirable. The characters in the fictional town of La Matosa are stoned most of the time, they are dangerous and absolutely miserable. The figure of the Witch who lives in a decrepit mansion, wearing an all-black ensemble, is visually creepy; it really stands out against the squalor and squalid surroundings. There are a few scenes in the story which genuinely creeped me out and made me uncomfortable.

Also, I thought the way Melchor handled androgyny/gender ambiguities and sexuality in the story was fascinating. The characters are homophobic, in denial of their sexualities, and they are messed up to the highest degree. Pick this up, for sure. I highly recommend Hurricane Season.

“… all those who, having chosen witchcraft over God, had succumbed to darkness, to dark forces, to the legions of daemons and ghosts that roamed the Earth;”

Mystery/Thriller Reviews #3: The Swap, The Return & Mexican Gothic

July was an awesome reading month. These thrillers were pure, unadulterated entertainment. The Swap by Robyn Harding (4 stars) is set on a small hippie island where a couple swap partners after getting high on shrooms. It’s a weird and twisted story about the friendship between Freya and Jamie – the two women in the swap – and also a teenager called Low who is obsessed with Freya. If you want to devour a book in a span of 24 hours, pick up The Swap.

The Return by Rachel Harrison and Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (both 5 stars) are horror thrillers. The Return gave me Unsane and Under the Skin vibes: it was completely unsettling and disturbing. It’s about four friends who meet at a hotel for a get-together after Julie, one of the woman went mysteriously missing after a solo hiking trip and returned two years later. The Return is definitely a slow-burn story but the ending was worth it in my opinion… I feel vague endings work well for horror stories. Also – if you’ve seen both the movies I mentioned above and absolutely loved them, you get two cookies! 🍪 🍪

Mexican Gothic is one of the most unique and creative stories I’ve ever read: 1950s Mexico, sassy and clever protagonist, gothic creepy haunted house, and… the author created a spotify playlist for it. What more can a woman ask for? The atmosphere in Mexican Gothic is all-consuming, set in foggy graveyards and dark rooms. Pick this up next because I promise you won’t regret it!

Indian Matchmaking: the ‘tailor-made love’ industry

Bride wanted: cultured, fair, tall, family-oriented

Netflix’s latest reality tv offering Indian Matchmaking is hands down the most talked about show in India currently. Accused by conservatives of tainting Indian moral values, Netflix brought to our screens a show we can watch with our entire family. That alone deserves a standing ovation.

The marriage industry in India is worth a colossal $500 billion or more. The ‘big fat Indian wedding’ spares no expense: destination wedding, extravagant food and decor, a slew of ceremonies and parties and an army of videographers and photographers to capture every sparkling moment are the basic norm for families whose pockets run deep. Even lower or middle class families spend a major chunk of their savings on weddings.

While India is a country of festivals and celebrations, the scale and magnitude of it has exponentially increased. It is now a status symbol. Take for instance, Beyoncé performing at Mukesh Ambani’s daughter’s wedding. It was the biggest flex of the century… and twitter is still reeling from it. And now, there’s Indian Matchmaking which lays it out like it is. It explores how matchmaking companies or websites like shaadi.com work.

The star of the show is Sima Taparia. She’s from Mumbai. Mumbai is her abode. Her job is to meet people who are hoping to meet their “perfect” match out of a pool of biodatas and suggest who’s the most suited to them. She’s quips that young people these days have many demands. They should learn to compromise and adjust. 

While Indian marriages find themselves fitted with 21st century clothes, there remain some loose threads of a deeply flawed past

The story of the deeply flawed past begins with the Manusmriti. It describes the eight traditional forms of Hindu marriage ranging from normal circumstances (consensual) to kidnapping of intoxicated or sleeping brides (non-consensual). Hindu marriages are also dictated by rules that are sexist, chauvinistic and casteist.

India has banned child marriages and dowry, but they continue unabated. Poverty, illiteracy and the belief in following traditions drive these practices.  Even though the Supreme Court said choice to marry is a fundamental right under Article 21 (Right to Life) in the Hadiya judgement, marriage remains to be choice less for most Indian couples – especially those who come from different religions or castes. 

Indian Matchmaking capitalises the surface level of matchmaking to churn out an entertaining  and binge-able eight episodes. Sima Taparia jokes that women these days need to be flexible. It scares me that I live in a country where martial rape is not criminalised. Flippant comments like those reveal how deep patriarchal norms run beneath the surface – the bride is considered the property of the bridegroom, the wife ‘belongs’ to her husband. Again, it scares me that I live in a country where LGBTQIA+ citizens cannot legally marry or be parents. Heteronormativity runs deep too. Anything out of the norm is considered dangerous and demonic. 

The blueprint of an acceptable Indian marriage is now being overturned by millennials who are discarding the traditional route for live-in relationships. Most live-in relationships are kept a secret because in some cases, the couple fear for their lives. Indian society and families should learn to have healthy discussions about the evolving nature of relationships, fight conservative attitudes and outdated traditions that no longer serve us. Also, I believe that the money that is mindlessly squandered on weddings can be directed towards humanitarian or other charitable causes. 

Rising from the ashes: Kajarya, Leeches & Bulbbul

It is estimated that about 10 million (1 crore) girls have been killed in India since 1986

3 million (30 lakhs) girl children have been killed in the last decade in India

50 million (5 crore) girls have ‘gone missing’ from the Indian demographic

Kajarya (2015) skilfully combines social activism and filmmaking. It highlights the issue of female foeticide/infanticide and the deeply disturbing culture of sex-selection in India. While Kajarya is set in a rural Hindu village in North India it is in reality a microcosm of India -both rural and urban regions, encompassing all religions. “Son Meta-Preference” is another interesting concept: this is when a woman will continue to reproduce on a trial and error basis  (five, six or more times) until she births a male child.

The treatment of girls as being ‘disposable’ begins from their birth which has a symbiotic relationship with human trafficking and child marriage. Leeches (2016) is a short film that discusses the phenomena of “one-day brides” in the Muslim community where financially strained (often, uneducated) parents sell their girls to rich Arab men residing in the middle east. In one stroke, the girls’ marriage and divorce papers are signed. The normalisation of exploitation is a cycle that needs to be broken to end these horrific practises.

Another film that I absolutely loved and think everyone should watch is Bulbbul (2020). Set in the 1880s in Colonial Bengal, Bulbbul is about a young girl of 5 or 6 years who is married to a Thakur (rich nobleman/landowner). One night, she is violated by her husband who mutilates her back and legs. She endures, recovers and is reincarnated as a goddess who kills men who hurt innocent women and girls. The village-men fear that it is the workings of a witch (chudail) or a serial killer and go on nightly ‘hunts’ to capture the evil force. Irony galore.