In the fourth chapter of Half a Billion Rising: The Emergence of the Indian Women, Anirudha Dutta recounts an incident from 2009. In a village near Sehore (Madhya Pradesh), Dutta—chatting with villagers—asked a group of girls if he might photograph them. Their easy acquiescence comes as a surprise. Also surprising is the fact that all wore salwar-kurtas or trousers with T-shirts. And, “They exuded a mix of confidence, exuberance and sense of freedom that is difficult for me to describe”.
Not in itself, perhaps, something to be elated about. But Dutta compares it to a similar incident a decade earlier in Himachal Pradesh, when a village woman, asked for permission to photograph her, had responded with “angry words and furiously gesticulating hands”.
This change in the way Indian women think and behave is the focus of Dutta’s book. Over the course of eleven chapters, Dutta looks at various aspects of Indian society, education, politics, entertainment, and more, in an effort to gauge where Indian women were, and where they are now.
The first few chapters consist largely of interviews with a cross-section of women and girls, on matters relating mainly to their education, employment, and (to some extent) their personal lives, especially marriage and relationships. There are, in these pages, girls who live in slums but dream of being doctors and chartered accountants. Women who faced discrimination and buckled under it, but have encouraged their daughters to stand up for themselves. Women who lead privileged lives, study in elite institutions. Women battered and brave, timid and ambitious.
Dutta devotes the rest of the book to a discussion of different aspects of women’s lives. Drawing from sources as varied as government reports, surveys by NGOs, a book by Sheryl Sandberg, newspaper articles, blog posts, and even popular media, Dutta touches on the influences on the lives of women. Individually, and as a whole. Ranging from stereotypical portrayals in cinema and television, to sexist advertising and insensitive remarks by politicians—to, most important of all, the fact that India remains (except for a few isolated pockets) a staunchly patriarchal society.
Dutta writes about the issues that invariably arise when one talks of women in India: from sexual harassment, dowry, skewed sex ratios, abuse as wide-ranging as female foeticide and trafficking, to low employment rates. Along the way, he discusses not just the changes taking place, but also what is driving these changes. He highlights the work being done by grassroots NGOs, larger institutions, and the government. He talks about the way forward, and how—despite the ‘emergence of the Indian woman’—there are lacunae that need addressing, even often in the unreal dreams and aspirations of young women and girls.
If you’re interested in women’s emancipation, and if you’re wired into what is happening in contemporary society, in politics, business, etc, chances are you may—like me—not find too much in Half a Billion Rising that you don’t already know about to some extent or the other. These are not the hidden facets of life in India; they are the common realities. There are, however, a lot of issues, and the voices and perspectives (not just of women, but also of men) are many and multifarious. To expect a book of less than 300 pages to do justice to all of these would be too much to ask.
And that is perhaps where the scope of this book might have been narrowed a bit; currently, it tries to cover far too much ground, in the process diluting its message to some extent. Fewer areas of discussion and a more focussed approach might have made Half a Billion Rising a more noteworthy book about the rise of Indian women. It does remain, however, a commendable effort at understanding the modern Indian woman.