Twin Sisters With Cameras: An Exhibition Review

By Shubha Bhatt

On their 12th birth anniversary, twin sisters Debalina and Manobina received an agfa camera as a present from their father Benod Behari Sen Roy. Upon their mother’s ill health, Roy, an ardent educationist and a member of the Royal Photographic Society in London, assumed charge of his daughters’ upbringing. The dark room built in the process soon turned into a memory keeper; a site where Lina-Bina, as the twins were known, would bring their explorations of the self and the surroundings into light. With a camera in hand in their teens, the twins captured the land and lives of their hometown, Ramnagar, in ways that surpassed the lens of professional photojournalists of the time. 

Both Debalina and Manobina started out by capturing women from their immediate and extended family. The process helped them develop their own styles. Their approach, quite different from that of the traditional studios of the days, was acclaimed remarkably by the subjects of their photographs.

Personally, I don’t like being on photoshoots; the idea gets increasingly intrusive with every click. In contrast, the black and white stills from the 1930s and 1940s captured by both Debalina and Manobina seemed authentic; just as the natural daylight where they were shot in. These attempts that now seem to be acts of breaking out of the ordinary were simply their ways of life. “Debalina’s own portrait for marriage was taken by her sister… critiquing a certain kind of representation of women in older studio traditions. These were images that she rebelled against and it reflected in her portraits of women.” (Sabeena Gadihoke, Home & Beyond)

Both Manobina and Debalina moved to Calcutta after marrying in 1937 and 1946 respectively. What stayed along was their bond with photography. In the years that followed, they documented their daily lives, and social gatherings while taking on new roles as wives and mothers. Manobina, who eventually moved to Bombay around 1950, accompanied her husband on trips abroad. Such trips would offer her ways to venture out photography while exploring the cities such as that of Athens and Moscow.

On a joint trip to London in 1959, the sisters could finally come together for “more spirited photography”, an opportunity to document lives beyond their own. For the next six months, both Manobina and Debalina adopted street photography, a style that was experimental but allowed them to stick with their approach at the same time. In capturing movements in and around the Speakers’ Corner and Hyde Park, the sisters acknowledged whatever the subjects (who included a number of women) had to offer, be it eagerness or solitude. 

I believe the titles often hold the reflections and after-thoughts of a photographer. The same stands valid in case of Manobina and Debalina. So many of their thoughts could be comprehended by how they chose to name their photographs. The picture beside ‘Joy in the bus’ noted “A Bus Ride: London in a bus. I was struck by this mother and child and took his photograph.” It’s clear that it was more than a bus ride that Manobina found herself on for it was London, its essence in minuscule, that she rather experienced. In London, Debalina could catch ‘Temptations’; in Hyde Park, she found ‘Solitude’. She even photographed people’s participation in rallies against the Soviet presence in Hungary. 

Throughout the lives that lay ahead, the sisters held on to photography, and often submitted to journals to have their works published. With the camera, they were in charge of writing their story and of others, as they saw it. 

The exhibition at the India International Centre was a walkthrough of the photographic lives of the twin sisters. And yet, somehow, somewhere, it served to be more. Interacting with their family members and engaging with works from the family collection made for an experience so profound and heartfelt. There was a sense of familiarity that I could feel brimming right through the room as love and belongingness seemed to prosper very similarly to what I’ve seen and heard in my family.

Over time, I keep coming back to a particular image from 1930, shot on a self-timer and titled “The twins with friends, Benaras.” The photograph reflects what owning up to spaces (of leisure in this case) seemed like then, a yearning that women across families like mine share even today. 

Belonging as a Perpetual Outsider

By Diksha Singh

There was one thing about informal gatherings that constantly bugged me, irrespective of where I lived or the people with whom I hung out. It was the conversation trails that traced our families and native places, the routes that elicited stories of belonging and personal culture. My friends would often narrate how a bride was decorated, how people ate during a wedding in their hometown, or how their grandma dressed distinctly and told stories.  With these narrations, they would sometimes add the pinch of nostalgia that relayed their connection to their homelands. The coconut tree that grew in their backyard or the chai-biscuit stall that developed with them over the years. 

These conversations made me feel distant, as I never had many stories about hometowns and cousins. I never had stories about one place, rather small stories of the many homes that I inhabited. My father had a transferable job, and thus we shifted living spaces every three to five years until my father retired. It appeared as if my friends had an anchor, a port, a comfortable home from where they had sailed for higher education and work. And I? Whenever I looked back at my past, all I had was a blurred set of multiple temporary homes. No anchor. 

Now, it isn’t true that I don’t have a hometown. Because I do; technically, it is the native where my parents were brought up. So, I supposedly belong there. But really, only my parents do. 

Growing up, I always threw a tantrum when we moved to another city in India. As a person with an introverted personality, the possibility of uprooting life in one city and planting it in another appeared impossible. How on earth was I to make new friends in a new school and a new classroom? 

It was not that I despised change and new beginnings. It was the abrupt endings that irked me. A life devoid of life-long friendships. Every time, it felt as if something invaluable was lost prematurely, as if there was more potential left, as if there were more corners to explore in the old city, as if there were more jokes to be cracked between friends. 

There were two other consequences of moving periodically – one, I lived in other states more than my “own”, and, two, I mostly surrounded myself with people of different cultures. The second consequence caused me more heartbreak and mental trauma. Towards the last decade of my father’s service, surrounding myself with friends from other cultures was not a choice anymore. It was a given for ten long years—my ages through thirteen and twenty-three. The catch in the last place was that everybody else was localised except for me. All of them had the same language and culture. All of them belonged to the same, single state. Now, this is where I became a perpetual outsider for ten years. 

After the initial shock that everyone in school was from Kerala, I made a few friends and interacted with them in English, which was difficult for me. I always had pictured English as an academic subject that I had to learn as part of the syllabus. I never thought I could use it to converse with friends. Gradually, I improved my language and even enjoyed spending time with my new friends, learning a new language and their culture slowly. 

Over the next ten years, I made many friends in school, college, hostel, and workplace. I learned Malayalam to an acceptable, I-can-live-and-travel-on-my-own-here level. In fact, I was even proud of myself until 2019, to have spent so many years as a non-Keralite in Kerala. I thought I did a good job, notwithstanding how a few people had discriminated against me, how few friends had kept secrets from me, and how some men had treated me differently and less respectfully. While some incidents were intentional, some others were unintentional.

In 2019, I commenced higher studies at a national institute established in Kerala. Here, Keralites were no longer in the majority. Naturally, I was excited at the prospect of meeting people from other cultures, and I wrongly assessed myself as being perfectly capable of handling the transition. After two years, I realised that I was so wrong. In this new place, I interacted with Keralites and non-Keralites simultaneously. I soon found that neither was I a hardcore Keralite, despite knowing well the language, people, movies, and culture, nor was I a “proper” non-Keralite, because, hey, I had not interacted with one in the past ten years, except for my family. 

I was neither here nor there. I was a little here and a little there.

With time and some disagreements and conflicts, I reckoned I was harbouring insecurities and a desperate “need to belong”. When I was with Keralites, I tried to fit in by being as good as I could be. I never considered treating them different, but my trust was broken a few times.  When trust is broken because people think you are not one of them, it leaves an indelible scar on your psyche.  

When I interacted with non-Keralites, I expected to belong to this category as well quickly. But I hadn’t lived in North India for most of my life, a few conversations in, and I soon realised that I was different here and the hint that even they considered me out of place left me a bit shaken. I didn’t realise that falling into a category mattered to me. I was even ashamed that I bothered being part of any one of the communities. Why? Because everybody else belonged to one? I don’t know.

The realization struck me heavily, and I remembered each chaotic incident where I was mistreated. I realised I wanted to fit in, how a jigsaw puzzle piece fit with another in a picture, but I wanted to become a piece that could fit in multiple images. I realised I was insecure about being an outsider and insecure about being left out. But despite all the efforts, I was still left out by some individuals. And thus, I realised I probably didn’t belong anywhere. 

At first, these realisations troubled me immensely. But with time, and with more conflicts and interactions with both Keralites and non-Keralites, and a little help from books like “Belonging” by Umi Sinha, I understood that perhaps it isn’t necessary to belong anywhere. I can freely be what I am. I should remember that these incidents are only a few, and many have treated me exceptionally well. I shouldn’t let such incidents cause heartache and trigger the insecurities as and when they like. 

Belonging” by Umi Sinha was an overwhelming and much-needed embrace that I forgot about my insecurities. The story travels through three generations of a family which lived in India and Britain during colonial times. The complexities and feelings that arise when you spend your childhood in one place and adulthood elsewhere are brilliantly portrayed in the book. The author doesn’t shy away from displaying affectionate feelings for people of another land, and she does it effortlessly as if it is like loving people from our land. 

The book and some magnanimous individuals had a significant impact on my mind. They made me realise that it is perfectly alright if I don’t fit into any categories. Perhaps, before being accepted by others, I need to accept myself and be grateful that I witnessed various cultures while growing up. Moreover, these experiences have made me look beyond mistreatments and helped me become more empathetic towards others. As humans, we all tend to be sceptical of uncertainties, of unknowns, and of people of different cultures, states, religions, and countries. Maybe it isn’t so tragic when locals try to protect themselves from outsiders. Sure, I would love to be accepted without hurdles and potholes, but I do understand the motivations behind avoidance and scepticism and frail trust. 

And, despite all the uncertainties, there have been individuals who have graciously, slowly or immediately, accepted me and embraced me. My heart beams gloriously whenever I think of my dearest friends and well-wishers and guides. Sure, there have been difficulties, but there have also been a lot of colours, a lot of seasons, warmer winters and rainy summers, a lot of slippery slopes and ascending bonds, a diversity in perspectives and a potpourri of diverse talent and ideas. And perhaps, a blurred past of multiple homes is perfectly and wonderfully complete.  

Author bio:

Diksha adores reading, writing, and drawing and is currently pursuing her PhD in Management Information Systems.

To be forgotten- The way a camera forgets the photographer

By Kashvi Chandok, EIC

I have a problem with documentation, which is to say, I have an obsession with documentation. This is more of a self-confession than an exposé, but being young in the age of surveillance compels you to look at yourself from a distance. Most days I wake up nursing the feeling that life is passing by dreadfully fast and if I don’t live every moment of it, even more so, if I don’t document myself living every moment of it, it’ll disappear into fragments of thin air.

Credits: Moya Mawhinney

For a few years now, I have walked with this lipid realisation of how transient everyday moments can be. Life passes by when you’re reading on the school bus, when you’re shuffling through your playlist in the metro, making eye contact with masked strangers, and so on. There’s something about wanting to live a prodigious life that is so conducive to manifesting an alternative life that most times I feel like I’m living in motion, neither here nor there, but in this daydreaming amnesia of what reality should be. 

For most people of privilege and access to literature and the media, our lives imitate art more than the other way around. In “Cruel Optimism,” Lauren Berlant, discussing the “genres for life” says that we want to think that our lives have an overall trajectory, much like the plot of a book, and that if we could just figure out its arc, we could write it ourselves. For me, the trajectory has often been about visualising my life, if not in the future, then in the present: as an escape. It’s not this longing of abundantly unlived daydreams that troubles me. If anything, it’s in imagined lives that we truly break away from the enigma. Yet it’s the performance in which we often manifest our desires that interests me.

The Self in Self-Documentation: 

Recently, I came across a class called Intentional Documentation on Skillshare which claims that effective visual documentation, i.e., documenting yourself doing menial or mundane chores, can help you live a mindful life. The class description is quite interesting: “There is something beautiful about capturing pieces of your life in a thoughtful way and having these moments to look back on. Their value is immeasurable. They can create a sort of loose outline of your past. They will become portals to see where you’ve come from and what you’ve been through. This class is all about the cultivation of those moments. “

These ideas of viewing oneself from the lens of the other are not new. Some of the early origins of self-documentation have emerged in the form of portraits. Self-portraiture is an art form that dates back to Ancient Egypt, and artists like Rembrandt, Albrecht Düre, and Frida Kahlo have all explored, even based a majority of their now remarkably considered works on this artform. Most of these artists used it as a chance to portray themselves as the main characters and heroes of their own tales. In fact, it is still viewed as a chance to capture a side of yourself that nobody else sees. 

In a study conducted in the UK, it was found that self-portraits or photos of the self were the 2nd most popular category of photographs after “friends and family”.  If we view the self-portrait genre through the perspective of document theory, we understand that they serve as some sort of referential system to provide proof, relevancy and meaning. But in a world where we use devices to track our own behaviours, make web pages for our professional portfolios, autobiographies, visual self-portraits, and other specialized types of information about ourselves, how do we differentiate the self from the document? And who is really the archivist of our identity?

The Affect:

Every moment that we live is governed by an immeasurable and indescribable feeling that is individual to oneself. Sometimes in mid-summer, I would be sitting under a fan and a suspiciously wistful sensation would seep through me that I had lived this before. I recognise this warm air, this sense of mundanity that transports me back to a school day when I was 15 and passed notes to my friends in between math classes, or to a trip I went on with my family, where I bruised my knee and sat in front of a local chemist store eating ice cream. Yet in all these commonplaces of shared feelings, my sentiments differ by my current state of being. This is how the “affect” concept works in correlation to our memory. 

A few weeks back, while having a phone call with my Modern Theater professor for a paper, she introduced the “affect-concept” to me. Talking about the theory, Eric Shouse wrote in M/C Journal that unlike emotion, which is social, and feeling, which is personal, “affect” is considered pre-personal: a nonconscious experience of intensity. In more literal terms, affect theory refers to unconscious forces in our minds like sensations, atmosphere, feelings, experiences, moods, etc that govern how we look at the culture around us. 

The concept was proposed in reference to the French-Romanian playwright Ionesco’s works, and we were talking about the difference between theatre performances and readings of those performances. The visual and theatrical elements of a stage assimilate the “affect” on its audiences through the performance of sounds, visuals, gestures, and lighting. At the core of photography and videography lies this concept. So does the concept of self-performance in documentation.

André  Lepecki, a well-known performance studies professor and author, says  “If performance’s life is in the present, its plunge into unconsciousness is what guarantees its persistent (yet a temporal) presentness, for the unconscious reveals only a temporal present tense of memory… remembering as total surrender to memory is a very effective way to elude the passing of time.”

Similarly, capturing these motions in photographic form exposes performance’s unconscious citation while also utilising photography’s power to call to presence through vision, memory, and imagination, even if it is a temporal presentness. The rhetoric of the main subject and, dare I say, “main character” isn’t merely a cynical technique of manipulating others. Revolutionaries may use heroism as a narrative to make sense of their own lives and the decisions they have made. But what about the heroic construct of people living ordinary lives? Are the principles of that skillshare class based on factuality?  Is there anything heroic about coming home to unwashed dishes? Is there anything of significant posterity that deserves to be preserved when I’m separating the whites of my laundry? 

Exploring the performativity of performance in visual documentation 

Traditionally, in Greek, photography means “light writing”. When I sit down to place my phone to capture a shot, I first observe the direction of the light. Will it make me more defined? Do I want to look defined? Can a human even look defined? Or will it make me more obscure? A bone-figure thrust into body dysmorphia. But desire is often a demanding emotion, ravaging one’s body from within. I have these terrible lingering longings for love, experiences, and travel, which manifest through photographs as vessels for preserving those sentimental moments when they finally arrive. 

I am reading, but I’m also performing the act of reading. The frame of building something that surpasses the ethos of one moment is refreshing. But in perceiving myself from the 3rd person’s lens, I alter myself. To think of it, self-concept is primarily a social phenomenon. To establish a sense of self, one must treat the self as an object and observe it in the same way that others do. From one’s perspective, creating a self-concept entails integrating self-perception with the perceptions of others. 

It is this distance from the reality within our pictures, videos, and documentation of the self that interests me. Szarkowski seems to agree with this idea when he says that a photographer’s factuality of pictures was different from reality. He says that the subject and the picture are never the same things, and why would they be? The image, the documentation in question, would survive the subject and withhold memory. Perhaps, the image propels the subject to be looked at from a new perspective, forming an alternate remembered reality. 

But the function of memory is itself quite fickle, what stays and what doesn’t, who is to say? In performing while creating the memory, the truth value of the self-portrait of the self-portrayed photograph is diminished as the artist performs their body repeatedly in such a way that the creative subject, who is both the author of the image and the performer in the image, is unduly enacted as a representation. 

Identity, Surveillance, and Keeping Yourself at Arm’s Distance.

Some of my early memories of seemingly innocuous surveillance have been in grocery stores. My mother would be at the cash register where I would stare at the tiled computer screen to see how I was looking through my back. I would move around, fix my hair, and even try to face the camera while trying to catch a glimpse of myself on the screen. It wasn’t until I started to write this essay that I realised how these extremely common, almost forgettable moments are modern-age ways of how we see ourselves. 

The phenomena of constant surveillance propels an insidious anxiety to unconsciously act as a version of ourselves that is being “watched,” and if we’re not comfortable with the amount or manner in which we’re being watched, a fear of being irrelevant arises.  Perhaps the most significant impact on our identities comes from interactive surveillance. We live in a world where privacy is an arduous concept. Recently, I saw a bunch of “influencers”, maybe some masquerading as activists and entrepreneurs beneath their socialist facade, promoting a smart wearable that monitors heart rate, sugar levels, and everything-that-sums-up-your-cellular-existence levels. The device allows people to communicate information about themselves and their health via social media, “gamifying the body,” as they say. Isn’t this a form of meticulous documentation of every aspect of their lives? Even the invisible ones? 

The fear of being invisible is not just rooted in existentialism but in the way we see and want to be seen. We’re all stories wanting to be told, of finding an arch, a narrative which doesn’t peak until it’s too late. But one cannot always live in the moment and walk with this spearing burden on the shoulder to create art out of ordinary life. This is the curse of artists, isn’t it? To spend so much time finding meaning in the banality of common life is to develop a mechanism of romanticising yourself, in all your mundanity. Even if it means rendering the gravity of lonesome some strength. There’s so much beauty in recording one doing house chores, or leaning against a wall with curled telephone wire smiling, or sitting alone by the sea shore. Quite cinematic in its perseverance, isn’t it? The art of capturing a scene in itself is emotionally two-dimensional,  only shining a light on what appears and not what goes on inside a person. Yet, it is documentation, the capturing of one in movement, in transience, in the humane backdrop of fleeting moments that we find beauty within, wrapped in all our ugly acts of performances.

Listening My Way Into  Jungle Nama and its Whereabouts: How audiobooks capture the creative brilliance of Ghosh and Lahiri

By Shubha Bhatt

While subscribing to the Audible membership, I recalled how nervous I’d be while appearing for “listening tests” up until middle school, anxious about getting the details wrong. Venturing my way into the world of listening has, indeed, not been a smooth ride. Picking your first audiobook can be daunting. My concern was, “what if the narration of one of my favourites isn’t like anything I expected.” But, isn’t that the point?

Amitav Ghosh, in a recent interview, highlighted how writing and reading can be very individualistic processes. We write in our personal spaces, in spaces “where we are our truest, barest selves” (says Janice Pariat) and we read in the silence of our heads. However, there’s something more in listening, we involve ourselves in multiplicity. There is the author, the characters as read by the narrator, the setting backed up by the sounds of everyday things, and you, the reader. This drew me to audiobooks. Soon after, a friend recommended listening to ‘Jungle Nama: A Story of the Sunderban’ by Amitav Ghosh. Being an admirer of how Ghosh builds upon complex plots and presents them so effortlessly, I was immediately drawn in to listen to his first book in verse. 

 Jungle Nama presents an episode of a folklore, popular in the marshy lands of the Sundarbans, that revolves around the supreme protector of the forests, Bon Bibi and her brother, Shah Jongoli. The tale unfolds when Dhona, a merchant, gathers a fleet to raid for forest goods into the southern part of the forests which is ruled by Dokkhin Rai, a mystic spirit who preys down humans in the form of a tiger. The repercussions of the ultimate settlement drawn between the two falls upon Dukhey, a poor chap who accompanied Dhona, and his mother. Ghosh’s adaptation entails the legend in a meter similar to the original verse composed in Bengali. Reading the book and listening to it accounted for two distinct experiences for me.

While the verse in the book is accompanied and “illuminated” by striking illustrations from Pakistani-American artist Salman Toor, the audiobook is rather musical with Ali Sethi drawing “melodic and percussive strategies” that are all the more native and non-English. A verse that rhymes lifts me up in ways like no other form has been able to. Sethi’s eloquent storytelling gives the rhyming scheme a lyrical elevation. At first, the recitation seemed a little fabricated but as we moved deep into the plot, the voice-overs created the Sundarbans up front. I could feel myself accompanying Dhona and responding to his instructions. A good narration can help you capture details you might miss while reading, but a great narration stays with you, you find yourself humming to the dialogues. That is what Sethi’s narration did to me. I could see beyond what was said; often finding a glimpse of myself in Dukhey’s yearnings. 

As a child, I remember listening to certain stories more often than the rest from my elder cousin. Why? Because he narrated them with so much passion or maybe he just put his best foot forward so that my sister and I slept already. Good audiobooks do the same. Alongside the diction and modulation, the narrator not only reads but reads with emotions, taking the listeners closest to what’s being penned down. Audiobooks, being a newer version of storytelling, holds a potential to provide for an experimental reading experience. Ghosh’s Jungle Nama, in its audio format, goes beyond narration and feels much like a performance. While this was an intentional attempt to boost multimedia reading practices, I have been lucky to find audiobooks that bring out the best from the best.

One such audiobook is Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2021 novel ‘Whereabouts’, read by Susan Vinciotti Bonito. Aptly titled and originally written in Italian, it captures the movements of a nameless narrator in a nameless place. My fascination for its audio listening was rooted in its format wherein the setting switches with each chapter, majorly taking place “By the Sea”, “In My Head”, “At the Coffee Bar” and more simple, everyday places. Ever since I moved to Delhi, I have developed a thing for places, any and every. I handle them with care, with poise. With a glance over the contents of Whereabouts, I knew I wanted to listen to it mainly because these everyday places have their own aroma, best captured through their sounds. 

The Guardian, in its review for the novel, calls each of its chapters as “a postcard from an everyday landmark.” The phrase sums up the novel entirely. The landmarks, as penned down by Lahiri, are universal and can be applied to any city around the world. Although some of the references of the trattoria and the piazza indicate an Italian setting, the details captured by the narrator’s movements and ways of life exceed boundaries of confinement. To observe how Jhumpa Lahiri goes about familiarising the readers with the setting, is a delight. She releases minute details with tenderness. In Whereabouts, her ability to reconstruct the backdrop with each passing chapter speaks loads about her skills and techniques, not to forget that many a times, the places were mere ideas. 

The novel captures what personal reflections feel like on a regular basis. Most of the chapters in the audiobook last for around five minutes; each entailing a new sphere of the narrator’s life and her encounters with people who walk beside her, just for a little while, in her journey of solitude

Whereabouts is also Lahiri’s way of putting forth small acts of defiance. The manner in which Bonito reads the opening lines of the chapters elevates the text. Something very similar to what Sethi does while reading Jungle Nama. Lahiri’s opening sentences act as gateways, all set to share a new tale with an intruder. They range from “Never married, but like all women, I’ve had my share of married men” to “In spring, I suffer.” One can always trust Lahiri for bringing out tales of longing, loss and lovelessness in the most poignant ways.  

I feel silence is perhaps more virtual, how does one define it? It cannot be a complete absence of sound, maybe what we aim to imply is rather, an absence of voice. And yet, the closest an audiobook can get in capturing a moment in time is through this silence which can be only brought upon by the narrator who knows when to pause and rest, thus allowing the listeners to reflect. Susan does exactly the same while reading Whereabouts. She knows her way through Lahiri’s novel and her writing style. Likewise, the prose finds home in her voice. 

The novel is translated from Italian to English by Jhumpa Lahiri herself. While listening to the audiobook, I bumped into an episode of The Writer’s Voice, a podcast series produced by The New Yorker and WNYC, wherein Jhumpa Lahiri read one of her stories. To my amazement, she was narrating a set of chapters from Whereabouts. I approached the plot differently when narrated by the two. Lahiri’s narration was raw and at ease and also, very distinct from Susan’s. 

Listening works as a source of discovery for those who truly listen. Much like Ali Sethi’s recent Coke Studio release Pasoori, Ghosh’s Jungle Nama taps into multiculturalism without presenting an indigenous legend from an English perspective. Similarly, in view of Whereabouts, Tangil Rashid points out that perhaps in Italian, Lahiri saw the possibility of writing the everywoman English denied her. Reading is reading as long as you read. Listening makes for some brilliant reading experience. And if given a chance, I would want to listen to some chapters from Whereabouts, particularly “At the Museum” and “In Spring”, while being rowed into the Sundarbans, blindfolded. 

Rekindling the relationship with my hometown: Jamshedpur, its Heritage buildings and Libraries

By Priyam Moonka

One out of the endless list of things humans crave most commonly is newness. The kind we think can only be achieved by moving away from the old. While the old brings comfort, the new brings excitement. But the notion that one needs to step out to experience the newness, and that comfort and excitement cannot coexist, was easily debunked for me as my hometown unfolded before me in ways I had never imagined. 

We can live in a place all our lives and still be a stranger to it. We may think we know our cities and towns well while being unbeknownst to where their hearts lie. That was my relationship with Jamshedpur – a city which was merely a densely forested land on the Chota Nagpur Plateau a little over a century ago. It was not even chosen to be a city, actually; it was perfect for building a steel plant. Thousands came from all over the country looking for employment and a city washed into existence as a result of that. Among the thousands was my great-great-grandfather, who hailed from a village in Rajasthan. So, the city I am talking about is not just the place of my birth, but also my father’s, his father’s and his grandfather’s. This is the only home we have ever known. You’ll find people of all ethnicities here – Gujaratis, Punjabis, Biharis, Bengalis, Marwaris, Tamilians, the list goes on; they’d have similar stories to tell. As much as we all love Jamshedpur and know that it’s a confluence of cultures that reflects in its linguistic and food culture that we’re proud of, there is something none of us would deny. More than once in our lives, we’ve cribbed about the lack of modernity; the absence of an airport, malls with premium brands, cafes like the ones in Delhi and Bombay, and those typical city-like high-rise buildings; a symbol of modernity and urbanization. 

While most of its young residents move out for better opportunities as soon as they finish school, just as I did, what’s left behind is the rich history, heritage and culture. Jamshedpur is vastly overlooked and lies mostly unexplored. While I’ve cursed Covid for closing a lot of doors for me, I am immensely grateful for the time I got to spend in my hometown after so many years of staying away from it. It is only now that I know what it is like to be a tourist in your own city. Never did I know that this new journey of rediscovering my hometown, which I was embarking upon, would reshape my relationship with it, the relationship that I only see deepening in the times to come.

I’d set out on my two-wheeler in the early hours of the day. What was truly beautiful about my ‘explorations’ was the fact that what I was now exploring was what had always been around. The buildings that I was so fascinated by now and could not get enough of were ones I had passed by many a time, and thoughtlessly. There was familiarity and comfort, along with newness and exciting curiosity. 

Knowing that more and more old houses and buildings are consumed by the fever of urbanisation with each passing day, I relish in stumbling upon the remnants of the good old times. Most of these traditional mansions were built in the 1930s, within around two decades of the establishment of the city. This implies that people had gradually started settling here, permanently. They’re majorly built on lands allotted by the Tata Company, and on leases. The allotments were meant to attract more workforce for the growth and expansion of the Steel plant and the city in the making. These houses, many of them crumbling, are now occupied by the old and the retired who are seen watering their plants or reading newspapers on their airy balconies in the morning. Overly spacious for barely a couple of occupants, generally an old couple, parts of them are rented out. As I stop in front of them, I imagine the houses in their days of glory and all the stories that their walls contain – the dreams of a new bride, the laughter of children as they run around sowing seeds of memories in each corner, the fragrance of succulent sweetmeats prepared on festivals year after year, the ageing of the old and cries of separation. Another edifice, a mansion from the era of the Raj – Bharucha Mansion (or the Regal Building), said to be built in 1935 using leftover steel from the Howrah Bridge, has fallen prey to the obsession with modernization. It once housed one of the first theatres in our town – the plush Regal Talkies. It was shut down in the 80s with its portions sold off to a couple of businessmen. Today, with many parts of it pulled down and replaced by their modern counterparts, this heritage building is losing its glory. 

One of these mornings, I came across a dilapidated building which serves as a guest house and a mosque. An old man helped me with the Urdu scribbled on its walls – Musafir Khana, it says. Sensing my eagerness to know more, he ushers me to an Eidgah. Built in 1911, a gift from the Raja of Dalbhumgarh, it is older than the city of Jamshedpur itself. A brief Instagram conversation with Shah Umair, popularly known as Sikkawala on Instagram, revealed to me a very interesting fact. His great-grandfather, Abdul Rab Ansari, was one of the first Imams to read Namaz there. 

I was gradually falling in love with the Jamshedpur I had never known. But what really brought me closer to it was what I had been the most oblivious to, what I had earlier thought was missing but had always been around. My visit to the Muslim Library bridged that gap. The oldest library in the city was founded in 1932. Contrary to what the name suggests, the library is open to everyone and houses books on a wide range of subjects in Urdu, English and the Devanagari scripts. As I enter, I see round tables on the corridor, some occupied and some not, with 8 different Urdu Dailies which I have never seen before in Jamshedpur. There are English and Hindi dailies as well. The corridor leads to a room dedicated to books in Urdu Literature, and for the first time I regret not knowing a language as beautiful as Urdu. I chance upon one English book among the many in Urdu. The title is gripping – Purdah and the status of women in Islam. Many more are to follow. A staircase leads to a library which is called the JRD Tata Students Corner. Among books on Commerce, geography and various sciences, I find a few caked with dust as if they hadn’t been touched in years. These are the ones that draw my attention; Fall of the Mughal Empire by Jadunath Sarkar, Ghalib: Life and Letters (1797-1869), History of the Freedom Movement in India (1947-1857), Guru Nanak by Gopal Singh, Hindu Names by Maneka Gandhi, Bengal Divided and an ancient copy of The God of Small Things. I have clearly found a new home within my home. 

To the people of Jamshedpur – Our city is way more than what we think it is.

Author Bio:

Priyam is an independent researcher and writer. She documents narratives of the Partition diaspora. She is a history buff who loves to read about South Asian history and culture. Her work is an attempt to find the umpteen stories around us, waiting to be told.

Unpacking the Dystopia in Gender: A Personal Essay in a Patriarchal Society

By Siddhi Joshi

When I make an attempt to trace the very first years of my existence, I see a blurry silhouette of my favourite flowers blooming into a loo-lorn, harsh Dilli summer. I can smell an air of non-belongingness, the kind that comes from living in a rented space: the sharp lines of keeping your first sharpie markers away from the cream of the walls and the borders of not roaming away two rooms and one kitchen too far. I imagine smiles and giggles. I reminisce about the clanking sound made by my father and me as we loudly banged on utensils to demand food – only two decibels louder than the afternoon lunch bell marking recess in schools. A picture of my mom giddily serving us tori bhindi and the like. I proceed to make an ‘ew’ face to honour the dislikes that I’ve been loyal to over the course of the years. 

In her book, Seeing Like A Feminist, Nivedita Menon shares an interesting analogy. She compares the hours spent on the application of nude makeup in order to make one’s face look like it has not been touched at all to the maintenance of a social order. The social order requires one to commit to a lifetime of faithfulness, solidarity and dutiful adherence to such an extent that its complexities, inequalities, ridges and nuances seem natural. Putting on a feminist lens is all about questioning and analysing the mundane, obvious and prescribed. It is about not accepting the social order as natural, a gift of god, a way of life, or a holy anthill of religious rituals. Over the years, I’ve heard innocent proddings about the pink and blue of clothing sections and the line of distinction between different kinds of toys.  I had a light bulb moment, the beginning of systemic questioning – why was my mother, for years on end, serving the food and eating after all of us were done eating? Why was my mom proud about putting her family before herself? These questions were perhaps a result of envisioning myself as a human growing into my mother’s shadows, duties and expectations alike. 

Who plants the mold of patriarchy in the midst of a family whose members love one another, and are tied together with promises of companionship, care and marriage?  Are there inherent inequalities present in the very foundation of a household? The damp, humid and wet conditions for the growth of this ‘mold’ are the result of the several generations before us laying down the ‘nude makeup’ of patriarchy without realising that they were breathing air into a sturdy beast – a beast consuming the potion of immorality.

Karl Marx’s comrade and fellow thinker, Friedrich Engels, wrote in his famous work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, that early human societies were egalitarian, in that there existed a simple and functional division of labour – ‘a simple outgrowth of nature’. The women formed the centre of these communistic households and controlled them. This changed when human communities began settling in a single place for a long period of time. Once they discovered agriculture, they no longer had to worry about gathering food on a daily basis, and began producing surplus. The acceleration of production eventually changed the very nature of these communities, and fights among groups over resources became common, leading to the first great division of society into masters (winners) and slaves (losers). 

With the accumulation of wealth, the relationship between men and women underwent a change. As wealth was a direct result of production (a male-dominated activity) the domestic sphere began losing its significance – women became domestic slaves. Private property didn’t just include land, animals and slaves but also women, resulting in “the world-historic defeat of the female sex”. Women began losing their exalted status in society and children began identifying descent and inheritance through the father, giving birth to the rule of the father or the patriarchy. 

While this theorization is too simplistic, it suggests the division of labour between men and women is natural and doesn’t account for culture- and region-specific nuances (there existed cultures wherein women actively participated in hunting, gathering or production activities). It underlines the enslavement of women over the years and attempts to give an account of the origin of a patriarchal society. 

My life can be divided into two unequal parts – the years before having to share everything that belonged to me, and the years of battles against a manipulative devil who loves art. I wish I was being overly dramatic, but yes, I refer to my little sister. What’s peculiar about the period before she was about to emerge from my mother’s womb is my very extensive preoccupation with wanting to have a brother. Praying to various gods to grant my otherwise unfulfilled raksha bandhan wishes and being told by my relatives to ask my parents to bring me a bhai, thereby ‘completing’ our family and giving it a coat of perfection. 

A boy and a girl make an ideal, fulfilled family in modern India – the family that tokenistically eschews the pettiness of discrimination against the girl child, giving her a decent education, pretty dresses and braids. Their girls are ready to be held up for comparison against the high-end metrics of “Sharmaji’s Children”. They’re not backward. They don’t thrive by stomping on the existence of others. Unless, of course, it includes bargaining with a local candle-maker, or the children marrying outside the upper-class nexus, thereby bringing ‘shame’ to the family. 

The sight of the small, potato-like teddy, full of life with big goofy eyes, eyeing every corner of the dimly-lit hospital room, was enough to prevent my mind from meandering to the slight disappointment of not getting a brother. I was full of awe and on Cloud Nine with joy. My maternal grandmother and everyone else expressed utmost delight at the birth of a daughter in the family. 

The womb of resistance

Birthed this dagger of change

“Oh no, a daughter!” the world exclaimed. 

In a wretched valley of half-bloom

Against a crescent moon-lit night,

Beneath a graveyard of a hundred widowed torn longings,

Her unfamiliar (unwelcomed) babbles

Strung together, 

A fragmented song of hope, an embodiment of flickering light. 

Crawling in a courtyard of sulken weeds – 

Winters of sharp love

Mountains of griefs – 

Toiling against the wheel of time,

She built ladders with bare hands into the faraway lands of tomorrows,

As the town engulfed into destruction, the yesterdays she weaved. 

Protected by the prayers of women who came before her (and got crushed),

She unflurs like a tender echo of courage

Slipping into another dawn,

Uprooting curses of generations

A war against shadows and shackles,

She marches vigorously

Against the bruises and blood.

To carve a bright sun 

The motherland will remember her name –

She’s luminous and unrestrained. 

Traversing life with my new-found sister allowed me to realise the powers of love sooner than I’d have anticipated. One of the first battles revolved around addressing her magnificent dusk colour, giving tough competition to the elegantly sculpted Krishna idols. Standing up against the casual comments and the homemade facepacks of turmeric, milk and besan gave a dimension of anger and resistance to love. Over the years, I had grown comfortable with everything the world had to offer to me as a young woman. In a household with two sisters, it’s hard to accuse any parent of patriarchal behaviour, and there is limited scope for comparison with boys of the same age. I would like to believe that despite the cushions of safety, grooming, scoldings of elegance and ways to maintain the upkeep of hair, dresses and constant chaperones for assistance, my sister and I bloomed in an equal environment only overshadowed by the hierarchies imposed by age. We shared conversations and laughter and I softly tried to warn her about the world beyond the worldwalls. Rebuking her for not enjoying studying while letting her know that, not very many years ago, people like us were not allowed to access this puzzle piece in the jigsaw of freedom. After all, through social science textbooks, I understood that my country was extremely advanced and ‘great’ in comparison to its counterparts because it extends universal adult franchise to women – the bare minimum. “Don’t take this for granted, Mahi,” I gave her a stern stare while I had my fair share of inhibitions about the mindless mugging up of facts and formulae. 

Juliet Mitchell outlines the four levels of control: production, reproduction, sexuality and socialisation. The sphere of socialisation refers to the various ways in which the family raises and prepares its children to fit in with the demands of the world – performing their defined sets of social functions, working in a close nexus with the religious customs, cultural affairs and norms of community life. 

It was through my school that I understood that teachers needed (strong) boys (not girls) to move around the furniture during fests and exhibitions. It was through the playground that Mahi realised that boys and girls are supposed to be different – the football boys, full of commitment to win against their rivals, did not let girls join their respective teams. Who would want the burden of girls on their march towards victory? My friends and I have been policed through and through for the lengths of our skirts (a reflection of our parental values), our cycling shorts (a marker of our sharamand haya), and our cherry lip balms (a petty seducer of boys). Unfortunately, us women share this common piece of reliability against all the markers that otherwise differentiate the Delhi Public Schools, the Kendriya Vidyalayas and the convents. 

The women of history have either been reduced to the margins of textbooks, their ideas glossed over by their male counterparts, their bodies enclosed within the curses of palace walls, or enraptured against the pitch black of erasure. Connecting the dots from my own life, in retrospect, I realise that I stand on the shoulders of women who came before me – in the absence of their voices, I’d have been reduced to nothingness. 

An Athena is waiting to flutter from her legs, an Aphrodite is blooming in her heart, she’s Ares at the split of day and night. She is running away hoping to stumble across her own self, the one she was before she dived into everything she was supposed to be. I am –

The brisk wind, unfurling an azure satin ribbon

With sapphire raindrops,

Inhaling the golden beams,

Dangling on a makeshift clothesline,

Suspended over the minuscule.

The orbs sketched on the flaps of a hopper,

Its moving stems against

The rusty crevices of muddy potted plants,

Welcoming the pesky monsoon air.

The lint sprouting

From the bed of a floral kimono,

Making earthly constellations.

A lightning startling the comforted. 


1. Engels, Friedrich, 1820-1895. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. New York : International Publishers, 1942.

2. Menon, N. (2012). Seeing Like A Feminist.

3. Mitchell, Juliet.  (1971).  Woman’s Estate.  Harmondsworth : Penguin

Author Bio:

Siddhi Joshi is a poet and artist based in Uttrakhand, India. She is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Sociology from Miranda House, Delhi University. Warm like the colour yellow, in her company you will find yourself amid warm laughter and witty remarks. To her, mysterious old libraries and hastily scribbled poetry in a coffee-stained journal is the only utopia worth seeking. Siddhi is a blend of strong opinions and lyrical thoughts – a dichromatic soul that searches for answers in the prevailing paradigm and finds meaning in the minuscule.

Instagram: siddhii.joshii

In Defence of Sad Endings

By Lucía Pereira

It is a widely shared experience to see a book described as ‘devastating’ and think, “I need to read this immediately”. As moths are drawn to light, humans are drawn to sorrow. But why? And what, if any, are the moral implications of this?

Tragic stories, especially those that develop a reputation for being tearjerkers, are often taken as a challenge. But there is a responsibility to be borne when stories that tackle heavy themes reach an audience that is, perhaps, not their target.

Where are the limits when trauma and literature congregate? Contemporary works like A Little Life, My Dark Vanessa or The Kite Runner are not what you would call uplifting reads, and, oftentimes, this aspect has been criticised. But sad endings are not exclusive to contemporary literature. Depictions of graphic death, addiction, sexual assault and wars are rampant in English classics. 

What does this say about the reader?

There is a cyclical discourse in online spaces about the validity of such stories, but a now-deleted tweet caught my attention and essentially inspired this essay. The person who tweeted took issue with the consumption of ‘tragic’ media, and directly called into question the morality of those who can enjoy such sad books. This is not new; several authors who write fiction weaving in elements from their own trauma get told that their depictions are disgusting, unrealistic or that they should not exist at all. To this, I counter: does such silencing fix the problems, or does it create taboos around them? Readers who have encountered novels depicting trauma that is the same as, or similar to, their own, and have found some sort of solace in the stories might internalise such comments and let the comfort they once felt turn into shame. 

Now, delving into a book with certain expectations and then being slapped by an unconventional twist – like a gruesome death in a romance that seemed to be all fluff and sunshine – is a rightful cause for uproar. But, as stated before, most of us either look specifically for books with darker themes, or start reading a work with the knowledge that it made everyone and their mother cry. This is usually made clear on the cover, in the blurb or online (where we pass trigger warning lists like they’re notes in class). So, it is, I believe, unfair to call authors cruel or readers ‘sickos’ for seeking such media – the kind that does not appeal to everyone but that everyone seems to be drawn to. It is like wanting to ban horror because it is just mean to make people read about murders! (This, of course, is an exaggeration, but it gets the point across). Human beings are morbidly curious; the fact that books on terminal illnesses and the tragedies of war are bestsellers attests to this.

Much like in horror, humans take pleasure in tragedies – a twist that leaves those last pages with the ink running. But why? Aristotle, who wrote about this centuries ago, said something along these lines: the value we attribute to tragedies is tied to the pleasure we derive from them, and both of these are contingent on mimesis and catharsis. 

Mimesis is a basic principle in the creation of art, understood as a representation of nature. ‘Art imitates life’ and so on. This is key when dealing with themes of trauma or grief, because it brings to light a painful aspect of life that most people have suffered through. Even in ancient times, people bonded over pain. Perhaps they had never watched a king get stabbed, but they understood a mother’s agonising cry. Pain is a universal language.

Catharsis, said Aristotle, is the purgation and/or purification of emotions through art. Literature that takes us on a journey where a character processes their trauma (without even arriving at a “healed” place) seeps into us, holds up a mirror and says, “this struck a chord; think about why”. It is also a way to deal with your experiences from a safe, distant space, with the reassurance that you can put the book down at any time. The emotional release that catharsis brings, be it through real tears or any other manifestation of the emotion, can be therapeutic for the reader. Even in the absence of a happy ending. Maybe, by the end of the book, the character doesn’t magically walk again. Maybe grandma really is gone. Maybe the depression is here to stay. 

Yes, this is pessimistic. But there is a peculiar pocket of comfort in knowing this. It does not say, at the first sign of trouble, lie there to die! What it does say is: it’s okay to not be okay, to stack mistakes upon mistakes like they’re Jenga blocks. It is an uncomfortable truth for us to reckon with, especially if we are used to stories that end with a bow and a clear resolution. But the muddiness in these stories is drenched with realism and holds heaps of value, especially for those who can relate – those who do not often see their wounds represented.

Art has always been used as a medium for processing conflicting emotions that we perhaps tend to suppress in our daily lives. (Like ostensibly sobbing while watching Dumbo, but because you’re actually mourning your own relationship with your mother). And the on-page illustrations of these devastating stories make us feel understood. We are not a forlorn figure gazing into the horizon, feeling loss for the first time in history. People have been here before; there are footprints on this ground, fingerprints on this page. To understand this does not erase the pain that has been suffered; but it does, perhaps, help us in bearing it.  

We need these stories for the cathartic journey they take us on, and the message they leave us with: that it is okay to be hurt, or to simply not know what lies ahead.

Author’s bio:

Lucía Pereira (Montevideo, Uruguay) studies English Literature and Culture in Spain, where she moved when she was five. There, her poems have been published in literary journals such as Página Salmón. She reads and writes because she craves to merge with another.

Confessions of a Homesick Stomach

By Neeraja Srinivasan

“But will you find good rasam rice there? You can’t survive without rasam rice, you know that right?” My mother says to me after I tell her that I want to leave Chennai, where I’ve lived my whole life, to study English and Creative Writing up north, in Delhi. Rasam is a South Indian delicacy; its consistency is soup-like and it’s made by blending tomatoes, tamarind and lots of other spices and herbs native to the South. In our house, rasam rice is usually served with hot paruppu (a dal prepared using boiled lentils, topped with fried onions and chili) and seppankizhangu varuval (taro root fried with mustard, cumin, and copious amounts of masala). Back in 6th grade, every time rasam rice was packed for lunch, I would take enough to fill two glasses; one for me and one for my North Indian friends. After giving my friends their share of rasam, they’d offer me a portion from their lunch box— usually ghee-soaked rotis and ladies finger fry. I remember constantly cribbing that the chapatis made at home were too thick and dry, I never liked them as much as I liked the rotis I’d get from friends in exchange for my rasam.

Now that I think of it, lunch breaks at school, for me, were a strategy to people-watch. There was always food being traded and through that, traditions and customs as well. Rasam is said to have healing properties, often offered to people with colds to warm their throat—I don’t think I needed to be sick for it to give me warmth. Even now, when I hold a cup of hot rasam in a glass, I can’t help but feel more connected to my inner child. I would give anything to be 12 and go back to my school’s lunch break for a day—just to observe food being enjoyed freely and carelessly, given that the primary purpose of it is to keep us happy. Adulthood often steals the joy of eating leisurely, subsequent to diet culture raiding our brains.

My childhood was also filled with trips to my parents’ childhood haven, Madurai. To me, going to Madurai was accompanied with a tinge of annoyance—it wasn’t as modern as Chennai in terms of the way people dressed, spoke and behaved. My “obsessed with western media and culture” self didn’t think it was “cool enough”. I do remember loving one aspect of these trips, though; the food. We’d routinely visit a restaurant called ‘Konar Kadai’, famous for its flavourful kari dosai, which is essentially a dosa stuffed with spicy mutton keema. I didn’t care about the aesthetics of the restaurant, all that mattered was the dosa in front of me. Amma would order a side of half-boiled egg for us to eat along with the dosa. I recollect how comfortable it felt to have a loving relationship with food; unrealistic portrayals of eating habits in popular media have shattered the way I think about and consume food. It almost feels like skipping meals and surviving on caffeine is quirky—because eating well is now, more often than not, associated with sharp pangs of guilt.

One of my earliest memories back in Madurai consists of ‘Nila choru’ which literally translates to ‘rice eaten under the moonlight’. It is a Tamil tradition that involves eating a meal, usually dinner, under a full moon. The meal takes place on a terrace, with family and friends seated in a circle, bathed in mellow moon glow. Amma would sit in the center, holding a mud pot filled with rice and chicken curry, dip her hand into the pot, take out a handful of the mixture and roll it into balls, which she would pass to each one of us in turn. A constant stream of anecdotes and jokes filled the air as we ate, stories that would inevitably stick to corners of my memory for the rest of my life. Food and laughter, both so critical to sustenance. Both so deeply interrelated.

Sundays in our home, like many other Tamilian homes, translated to only one thing—biriyani for lunch. Classmates from school and neighbors would promptly assemble at our door on hot, humid Chennai afternoons. The aroma of chopped onions sizzling in bay leaf, cardamom, cumin powder and clove would spread all across the house and, by extension, the rest of the apartment as well. There is a specific delight in living in a flat and wondering what’s being cooked up in everyone’s houses—we’d try to make guesses based on smells that made their way to us from kitchens all around. According to my mother, however, biriyani always tastes better the day after it is made. She’d routinely leave a box in the fridge for me to gobble up after school; many days were spent reading (or people-watching, or just generally loitering around) instead of eating during lunch breaks, to save up all my hunger for leftovers.

Subconsciously, although I didn’t realise it back then, I became more accustomed to eating in solitude at home, as opposed to inside a classroom filled with kids my age. I liked being able to assemble my meal at my own pace; warmed up biriyani with a side of curd and a chili to crunch on between bites. I still struggle with eating around other people, especially with my hands. My biggest fear as a child was being perceived as messy, and eating with my hands meant a certain level of chaos that I could not let myself take part in front of others. While alone, I would allow myself to appreciate food the way I’ve been taught my whole life: by eating with my hands.

I’ve made mental notes associating the food I grew up eating with certain emotions and feelings. Curd rice and mango pickle for when I’m sad, oily medhu vadais (doughnut shaped crispy fritters) for drowsy, post-food coma festival evenings, nine different types of sundal (various types of chickpea seasoned with coconut shavings, ginger and mustard) for each exciting day of Navratri and mini ghee idlis soaked in sambhar and peanut chutney for breakfast on exam days. These associations are simple reminders that food doesn’t necessarily have to be categorized as healthy and unhealthy, good and bad. If it makes me happy, I’ll allow myself that freedom.

Distance wise, I’m pretty far away from South Indian food. The good kind, at least; which is to say that I’m far away from home and all the food it continues to offer. As I write this, I’m trying to find recipes on YouTube for ‘thakkali sadham’ or tomato rice, a simple dish that I can manage to put together in a communal college kitchen. I’m listening to a Tamil woman giving detailed cooking directions; remember to add salt, let the rice steam well, add ​​puréed ginger and garlic. Something about it feels right.

A Year of Reading Women

Unlearning and Rediscovering Literature

By Anoushka Zaveri

I am a ferocious collector of quotes. Stumbling upon this seemingly inconspicuous post on Instagram made my hoarder-brain dance with joy, but as I scanned wise words from the most prominent painters of our time, I had an epiphany: what did the women artists say?

Only one of 17 panels features the words of a woman artist — the irreverent multimedia artist, Yayoi Kusama. Afraid that the ratio of the contents of  my prized bookshelf was just as disproportionate as this post, I began surveying my old school grammar textbooks, the multiple ICSE-prescribed Shakspeare plays, the critical theory collections from college, my tattered copy of Eliot’s Wasteland, and my most detested — Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Everything I had been taught — right from my fifth grade Wren & Martin to Derrida and Foucault — was produced by men. 

Appalled by the paltry number of women writers I could name, besides the customary Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, I made a commitment to consciously and almost obsessively reading only women writers for a year. In 2018, editor Alice Fishburn conducted a similar experiment by setting it up as a competition with her brother: “for every woman he read, he got a point. For every living author he read, he got a point. An alive woman won him two points while a dead man took two away.” 

Encouraged by Fishburn’s experiment, I walked into my year of reading women as a hopeful, self-assured young woman of 22. A literature game with a points system, something to stroke my competitive ego? Hell yes, sign me up. I’ll do anything to win, even compete with myself. As pandemic life swallowed me whole, I grew greedy for points and recorded my observations.

January to March: Worshipping Western Women

In his infamous Minute on Education of 1835, British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay declared outright that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. My education bears testament to the fact that we inherited the idea of the “intrinsic superiority of Western Literature” and infused it into our own educational and literary culture-making Shakespeare and Wordsworth compulsory for high schoolers, and studying Eurocentric literary theory in university. 

As a result, I internalised the notion that novels begin and end in this canonised collection of white male narratives. I consider the classics worth my time. I organise my reading life to make space for them and wait for the world to stand still so that I can visit a relic of world literature. I am trained to appreciate its value.

For the longest time, the difference between reading a male author and a female author was the essential difference between a hardcover and a paperback. The former: the sort of book so widely read that it needed to be bound and strengthened for preservation. The latter: the kind of book made to be pressed and pushed into backpacks on the go, something that exists to wear out, something that doesn’t need preservation. I thought that a couple of paperbacks read between two hardcovers will suffice, and I will live up to my self-image of being a diligent literature nerd, a global, well-read person, a winner in this little game.

In January 2020, thanks to my years of conditioning that led me to believe that European novels are “essential reading”, I reached first for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and then Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Don’t get me wrong; I admire these women for their immense body of work and the generations they have influenced, but I wish I had picked something closer to home, perhaps Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf or Anita Desai’s brilliant In Custody, both remarkable contributions to world literature. 

It already took a bit of unlearning for me to consciously pick women authors, but ensuring that I read Indian women’s writing would take a sharper, more discerning eye. I began to dig through a wealth of reading lists curated according to ethnicity and region, pointing me towards women’s writing on pleasure, on rest, on art. I would never have found these titles unless I had inserted the specific keywords: womenwritingbooks. Perhaps you don’t find them unless you’re actively looking. They won’t seek me out from window displays or Amazon or codified curricula. I will have to seek them. 

April, May, June: Getting Around to Non-Fiction 

By journeying through classics, I was finally able to unknot my obsession with them: canonised texts were great for appearances. In university, name-dropping Milton or William Faulkner earned me more brownie points from professors and peers than mentioning Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar or Ambai. Because, to talk about Sowvendra, you must provide context — who she is, why she writes, why more people should read her. 

As a student, I steered clear of books that needed context; I wanted desperately to participate in the larger literary conversation, and the canon was my golden ticket. If I had enough brownie points, if I got hooked on brownie points — amassing more and more of them — I’d be one with the 1% that reads these texts. So I trained my mind to look for books that I could cash in for points. Turns out I was playing Fishburn’s game long before I knew it. 

I read only European literary fiction and could finally call myself a connoisseur of high LitErAtuRe. It became difficult for me to pick women writers, especially Indian women’s work in translation because there was no readily available, visible discourse for me to buy into. I needed to do some deep cleaning in my brain, Mary Kondo-style. 

To escape what I might confront about myself in the drawers and cabinets of my brain, I decided to reach for some light, non-fiction reading and found myself amidst such gems as Freny Manekshaw’s Behold, I Shine, Taran Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and, of course, Arundhati Roy’s incisive My Seditious Heart

Women writing about women was, in a word, refreshing. Engaging with these works became a creative exercise instead of an analytical one; I was no longer negotiating with the author’s voice or justifying their claims. As opposed to the overly academic, forced satire I had suffered in some men’s non-fiction, the women writers’ relationships with their subjects seemed beautiful and free-flowing. 

I wasn’t questioning their position, their methods, or their authenticity; I trusted them. Most importantly, I don’t think I would have traversed through the turbulent Kashmir of the 1990s or post-war Kabul if I had not contained my reading, for a while, to women writers. 

July, August, September: New Leads

I began July by reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s dark but cheeky My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I could relate to the unnamed protagonist — a disillusioned young woman who wants to hibernate forever. A few more fiction reads later, a breakthrough! I was moving out of my genre of comfort, into previously unexplored territory: science fiction!

I am unendingly apologetic for despising classmates who read The Martian or anything by Stephen King. In my weak defence, my understanding of the genre rested on a handful of books such as H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I mean, what was science fiction if not these books? 

I felt ugly and ashamed that it had taken a global health crisis and a Goodreads list to introduce me to the formidable Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler who paved the way for women in science fiction. Butler’s Parable of the Sower builds you a dense, post-apocalyptic world, the kind that you need to escape the pandemic’s tragedies, but also makes important comments on climate change, religion and freedom. I wish, sorely, that I had read her earlier in life. 

I also veered into fantasy fiction through Madeline Miller’s Circe and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. However, I ended this immensely rewarding period of reading by crawling back into my comfort zone, with Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea — a classic in itself. 

Mid-year, I had somehow managed to incorporate in my reading three non-fiction books I could count as Indian writing in English. On the fiction front, however, I was still wrestling with the scoreboard. For the moment, I rested in the comfort that I had rediscovered an entire genre of literature through its powerful women forerunners.

October, November, Christmas: Faulty Finish Lines

My philosophy for this experiment was simple: read as many women writers as I can, steal the points, and move on. Far from simple, it turned out to be an exercise in appreciation and control. Not only did I discover the diversity within a narrowed category but also learned to resist the allure of over-celebrated, prize-winning books and appreciate narratives that were excluded by award-conferring authorities.

As a next step, I began to scout for women who had revolutionised Indian writing in English. I made some obvious choices: Krishna Sobti’s The Music of Solitude and Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire. I also read Mahasweta Devi’s fiery short stories and Shanta Gokhale’s documenting of Mumbai’s vibrant 70s theatre culture in The Scenes We Made. My most immersive experience was Annie Zaidi’s Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing.

Around this time, I decided that categories were good. They helped me channel my reading and make a deliberate, systematic approach towards diversifying my consumption. Perhaps if we are immersed in a category for a little while, it will become our dominant way of reading, of seeing. It should not have to be a game; there should be no points. But if going the Fishburn way helps us unlearn our reading habits and come closer to literature, then why not?

For me, categorising was liberating, but it was also nothing new. I had been reading one category — male writers — for a long time; I just didn’t know it. Maybe this year I will only read works in translation or books that have Queer protagonists. I could spend a few months on short stories from the Northeast. Or better still, I could dedicate a whole year to poetry. There is no finish line, but I think I’m on my way to somewhere different, somewhere diverse.

Author bio:

Anoushka is an emerging writer from Mumbai. She graduated at the top of her class from FLAME University with a B.A. in Literary and Cultural Studies, and has been immersed in reading, writing, arts, culture, and storytelling ever since. She is now pursuing a Masters in English Literature. Anoushka began her writing career with Conde Nast Traveler India and The Culture Trip, both leading publications in the travel and lifestyle space, and worked in arts management with the booming youth theatre movement Thespo. Now, she is focused on studying reader-response theory and Indian writing in English, and writing fiction that resonates with the urban Indian reader.

For Slowed Progression: My Dealings with Time and Youth

By Tara Kalra

The past year has made me unlearn the absolute linearity of time. Processing one’s surroundings and emotions comes with difficulties. Floating through a time lived in retrospect comes more naturally.

The year has given me a fondness for company, the kind that is indicative of both quality and quantity. My bildungsroman coincided with the pandemic and, as I set out to write it, I discovered a love for the ordinary and a glimpse of the extraordinary incessantly shared with other people. A perfect blend of anxiety and a flickering sense of relief, I discovered there’s comfort in going out, taking the same route, but without accounting for any of my steps. Turning eighteen, nineteen and then twenty, one slowly transcends into this deluded state. It feels like I have the reins of time voluntarily traversing out of my hands. Yet I never stop to notice how the commotion is steady, never frenzied. Be it a drive or two till I reach my local Harvest Gold bhaiya or a walk around the colony that has nestled my whole existence, I’ve learned to notice, if not cherish, the minute intervals of time spent wandering and discovering spaces both familiar and unfamiliar. 

I’ve taken the place where I grew up for granted. My love for my neighbourhood — or even for Delhi — was entirely dependent on the freedom to move out by myself. Evenings are no longer a time of quietude, brushed past while I am bent over my laptop basking in the eyesight-ruining warmth of the corner lamp. While those evenings are significant in their own way, I’ve started to enjoy slow walks around my colony — walks that aren’t part of a fitness regime, but tender nurturance, replete with matched steps and fleeting shoulder rubs. I sit on the bench, in the company of a friend, previously lost because of the solipsistic tendencies of teenage life. We talk steadily, with less excitement and more familiarity, updating each other on the occurrences of the previous week. 

I ask her about her hot chocolate recipe and whether she heats the milk in the pan or in the microwave. We go on to discuss the multiple uses of an electric kettle and how our mothers taught us how to make tea only to trick us into brewing it for them all the time. We don’t talk over each other; we ask very specific questions about odd and exceedingly routine tasks. By asking her what she’ll have for dinner or how she manages to get up early every day, I try to borrow aspects of her habits. I imagine her cooking a warm plate full of nourishment and eating it in her ruffled bed. The same bed she very bravely leaves the next morning to start her day five hours before I do. 

She makes me realise how distance in any friendship can sometimes be a nurturing nudge. Slowly, we form our rituals. The bench by the basketball court does not seem as inviting as the one under the banyan tree veiling the footpath. A walk isn’t complete without us visiting our favourite houses in the neighbourhood. Mine, a corner house situated at a quaint turn. Resembling, in all its shaded propensities and strings of yellow bulbs, a hill house, replete with intellectuals or people immensely fond of baking. Hers, a house situated strategically at a dead-end, transforming into a retreat of utter bliss and awe. With its arched entryway, big bay windows and textured facade, it’s what a lot of people would call a ‘dream house’. 

I look forward to our rituals; I know they aren’t embedded in sacred legalities, but in a genuine inclination to spend part of our time together, just before life takes on its true form. There is an unspoken understanding that we do not walk together every day, but when  we do, we pay close attention to every song or book recommended, every detail provided, every epiphany expressed. 

Time nestles itself amidst relationships — relationships with people and materiality. Time calls my name through the red brick house at the corner, adorned with lanterns made of crimson-hued paper, alerting me to the onset of winter and Diwali. The lady of that house walks her Siberian husky — also named ‘Husky’ — every other day. Unapproachable, until my mother decided to talk to her and tell her how I look forward every year to her unique, personalised adornments. 

“You’ve turned twenty, shed your ego and smile,” Time never fails to remind me, as I take another round of my colony. I am compelled to smile at inquisitive aunties, stopping and saying hello to the ones who have seen me since the time I was a shy kid with an unadmirable attitude. 

Time irritably pokes a finger at my arm and orders me to imagine a life away from home. A life away from my parents, siblings, childhood friends, and the acquaintances one comes to like or detest through scattered scraps of neighbourhood gossip. Perhaps, as a young person, I’ve got used to a sustained imagination of how my life would look when I went away — displaced, in cities I would never want to call home. 

As much as I dislike romanticising the past two years, they’ve undoubtedly curved my perception of time. I am compelled to find satisfaction in the fact that I’ll always feel like I am running out of time, not realising how Time itself has a way of unravelling, mending, and providing all that I’ve wanted or needed. 

It is as if through the trifecta of being young, finding our youth in shared spaces, and realising the mundanities that escape time and age, I observe a need for a silenced progression. Time has proffered me a middle space — not for me to assess and figure out what I want, but to capture those houses in my mind’s space and hold my friend’s hand to make mine warm. 

I know Time won’t stop for me. But sometimes, we both match our steps and take slow rounds around the neighbourhood.