Paramount tales of unheard womanhood

CE engages in a conversation with them about their experiences and thoughts while penning down this masterpiece.
The book 'A Star Named Bibha and Other Stories'
The book 'A Star Named Bibha and Other Stories'

CHENNAI: We all grew up listening to the glorious tales of how our freedom fighters put their lives at stake and how the torchbearers in various fields brought name and fame to the country with their works. But wasn’t it weird to note that not a lot of women’s names were woven into these narratives?

Well, here are three authors, Anwesha Senguptha, Supurna Banerjee, and Simantini Mukhopadhyay, reshaping this notion as they talk about the tale of 30 revolutionary women and their contributions in their respective domains through their book 'A Star Named Bibha and Other Stories'. CE engages in a conversation with them about their experiences and thoughts while penning down this masterpiece.

Excerpts follow:

What is the book A Star Named Bibha and Other Stories all about, and what themes does it inculcate through its narration?

The book contains short biographical accounts of 30 trailblazing women who lived and made their careers between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. They were early achievers in the fields of literature, art, entertainment, political and social activism, law, medicine, science, architecture, sports, etc. The book looks at their achievements from an intersectional perspective. Thus, while highlighting the obstacles they faced as women, the book recognises that the struggles of a poor and a rich woman, an upper caste woman and a Dalit or a tribal woman, an urban woman and a woman from a remote village, a Hindu woman and a Muslim woman would be different.

The book aims to highlight such differences and locate them historically. It consciously chooses different professions and women from various backgrounds. Among the thirty women, there are members of Tagore’s family, an elite Parsee like Bhikaji Cama, members of the royal family like Amrit Kaur, a blind school teacher like Miss Asho, a rural midwife like Sulagitti Narasamma, and an unlettered revolutionary leader like Chakali Ilamma. Through their lives, we want to give a glimpse of Indian history to the readers — how Indian women shaped history, the time they lived in, and the many identities they grappled with that shaped their lives.

As three distinct individuals, which stories or characters do each of you personally favour in this book? What aspects make them stand out to you?

The thirty women we wrote about in this book are all fabulous; however, all three of us have our own favourites. Anwesha’s favourite story is that of architect Urmila Eulie Chowdhury. Urmila was exceptionally gifted and successful in a profession that still remains largely masculinised. Trained in European architecture, Eulie illustrated her genius in adapting her techniques to the climate of Indian cities like Chandigarh and also specialised in designing low-cost furniture, suggesting that she was sensitive to the economic conditions of the new nation.

Combined with her seriousness, she had a quirk that made her a truly interesting character. In a milieu where expertise is rapidly losing its hold, Eulie’s life and work are truly canonical. Jaddanbai particularly strikes a note with Simantini, and why not? She was one of the earliest and spunkiest stars of the Bombay film industry, a singer, actor, producer, and businesswoman all at once, besides having her very own pet tiger. Jaddanbai’s life was a lesson of harmony and co-existence, which showed that love and family need not restrict themselves within the narrow boundaries of singular identities.

For Supurna, it was the revolutionary figure of Chakali Illama that resonated the most. A dalit, poor woman in a casteist patriarchal society, Illama had the perception to understand how multiple positions of marginality intersect to create social hierarchies. Illama’s fight for her land was in fact a fight against the casteist social order, which denied communities like her the right to own the land they shaped with their labour.

All three of us feel that one is truly remarkable when their work or expertise speaks to or for some form of social consciousness, and as academics and educators, we too seek to do the same.

In today’s society, where women often face restrictions based on male preferences, how influential do you anticipate this book will be for younger generations?

We hope the book will inspire and encourage children to make their surroundings less gendered. While the book talks of early women achievers in various fields, it also takes a look at their homes and families. Patriarchy is often normalised at home, and that makes a child accept certain gender inequality practices as normal or given. This book talks of women who often could identify and question everyday patriarchy, and that made them successful in the work they did. We do hope the book will help young readers ask questions about the set gender norms in their everyday lives.

The book also highlights the significance of solidarity, support, and friendship in the lives of many of these women. To make a more equal world, building progressive alliances across class, gender, religion, and caste is very important. In today’s competitive and polarised world, we believe the anecdotes of friendship and solidarity among these women are important to highlight.

We are not sure if the book can influence young readers as it talks about a different time. We think inspire is a more apt word. The issues are still relevant, and we do hope the book will be able to inspire the readers to dream and work for an equal world.

What was the research process like to uncover the stories of women who went unrecognised for their contributions to the country’s development?

The research process to write about all thirty women was uneven. We wanted to give equal space to all the women, which in some cases meant we had far too much to write with and, in most others, far too little. The information asymmetry mostly proceeded along the hierarchies of caste and religion. In fact, we had to leave out some women, like Alice Ekka, as we could not find enough information to write even 800 words about her. We also had to do without some information about the women covered in the book. For women like Fatima Sheikh or Sudesha Devi, there were no exact dates of birth. But since we wanted to write pieces that would not just be biographical information but also a commentary on intersectional hierarchies, we tried to use these gaps in our knowledge as illustrative entry points to introduce our readers to the world of conjoined inequalities.

Few of the women, like Swarnakumari Devi, Begum Rokeya, and Shantabai Kamble, all expectedly writers and educators, had written about their lives, works, and philosophies, which we drew from. Writing for children, we aimed to highlight the significance of their lives and work and often therefore underplayed contradictions in them, relegating these to mentions. Since we also aimed for this book to give its young readers a sense of the time the women were located in, researching a bit on the time period was important. We placed these women in conversation with other historical figures they met. To this end, the book lists important personalities and events at the end.

 How did you select the 30 women? Did co-writing it help?

Selecting thirty women was not an easy task. There were so many we had to exclude! We decided that our women had to come from diverse backgrounds in terms of religion, caste, class, and region of residence. While we had our specific preferences for individual women, which did not always match, all of us agreed on this criterion. Once we wanted to have a just representation of marginalised women, we knew we could not focus on the ‘firsts’ in each field (most of whom would be from privileged backgrounds).

We spoke of early achievers who were less spoken of. Instead of the great reformer Savitribai Phule (whom we ardently admire), we included her lesser-known companion Fatima Sheikh, whose feat was no less. We also included women from different professions, ranging from medicine and engineering to midwifery and trade union leadership.

The historian among us explained to the other two that the temporal context had to be a very important dimension in the selection of these women. We chose women who were born and worked between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. The sociologist and the development economist had a clear idea about the intersections of the axes of social power that were to be looked at.

 Being a tale of trailblazers, how important do you think this book will be for the women of the present generation?

Gender inequalities still exist in myriad forms in today’s society. Workforce participation is still very low among Indian women. There is a significant wage gap among males and females in different fields, ranging from factory work to acting in films. Data shows that a whopping percentage of men and women feel that husbands may beat their wives if they disobey the elders or neglect housework and childcare. Even today, there are fewer women in fields like engineering, science, and management. We do not want this book to be for girls. Boys and girls who read the book will be inspired by the struggles of these women to acknowledge and fight against the oppressions of today.

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