Author Aparna Jain tells Medha Dutta that her recent book, Like a Girl, makes an attempt to engage with kids regarding topics that generally no one talks about anymore.
Why did you feel the need to write this book?
I was very keen that children start reading. I wanted girls to have better role models. I wanted people who we have never heard of to come back into the limelight. I wanted parents to start discussing things with their kids again. Also, I wanted to write about slightly difficult concepts. There is rape, there is the devadasi system, there is caste, there is LGBTQIA, there is mental health—I wanted kids to engage with. My book is not the complete book for everybody. It is an introduction. It is up to the parents to take this conversation further. The book is actually a tool.
The language of the book is very simplified, helping it to connect to a certain audience. But do you think somewhere it also loses out on a broader readership because of the simplicity?
Absolutely, not. In fact, I have had older readers—people in the 50s—call me and say how delighted they were with the stories. The language is actually making it easier to read so many stories one after the other. I don’t think the writing style alienates any kind of reader. There are always bigger biographies that people can go to if they want to research further. My book is a kind of entry into one person’s story.
Do young girls lack an icon today?
I think their icons are limited—it is either to do with films or corporate India. I deliberately steered clear of both. I have talked about human rights activists, people in medicine, people in writing, those working at the grassroots—I wanted to talk about people not everyone has heard of. You have to remember that our country is a tough country, and our women are very tough.
How did you get such an eclectic list—from former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to transgender activist Gauri Sawant to Jaipur gharana vocalist Kishori Amonkar?
Between my publisher, Oxfam India (the art patron), we brainstormed almost every day and finally the list came to this. Also, I didn’t want the book to be only about really strong, tough women. I don’t want girls to be restricted to the fact that they need to go out and become someone really strong. Art and culture are as important and very much an option.
Our fairy tales always depict women as damsels in distress who need to be rescued. Isn’t it high time we changed this narrative?
I think both schools and parents have a lot to do with this. It’s how you bring up a child—boys need to get a job, girls need to be pretty. This book is an attempt to break that stereotype. There are no fairytales. It is important for girls to realise that they can do everything.
Which are the stories that stayed with you?
Lots of them. Every body’s story was touching in a very different way. When I met Bhanwari Devi, or Soni Sori, I couldn’t sleep for many many nights. I was incredibly impressed with what Sudha Varghese is doing in Patna. These women are so unassuming and so unaware of the changes they have brought in. All of our feminism we owe to people at the grassroots level—people like Bhanwari, Soni, Irom Sharmila, Dayamani Barla, and many more. They are true feminists, because they fight battles without any help or privilege.
Best thing about being a woman
Go-to place in Delhi
What keeps you going
Pursuit of something new
If you were to wake up as a man
I’ll go back to sleep
About the Book
Have you been told to behave ‘like a girl’? That you should learn to cook and be nice and keep your legs crossed and be pretty and smile? Here are the stories of 56 women who broke the rules to forge new paths for themselves and others, and in the process shattered the glass ceiling. Adventurous and ambitious, they fought battles and legal cases, won elections and matches, climbed mountains and mastered science. From the grassroots to the highest office, what keeps these women going is that they never stopped chasing their dreams.