I remember an old episode of Ebong Rituparno, a popular chat show hosted by filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, where he was in conversation with author Suchitra Bhattacharya, at the time one of the best-known writers in Bengali. This must have been some time after he had adapted her novel Dahan into a National Award-winning film, but I can’t be sure. What I do remember is watching the episode with my grandmother, a voracious reader, whose collection of Bengali novels had, in fact, laid the foundations of my own reading life.
In the course of their conversation, I remember Bhattacharya pointing out that, despite her long and critically acclaimed career, men routinely came up to her at literary festivals or the book fair or even randomly on the road—she was that recognisable a face—and, after exchanging pleasantries, tell her that their wife (or mother/daughter/ female friend) really liked reading her books. This punchline was delivered with a smile, of course, the bestowers offering it as a compliment, a gift, a bunch of flowers. But the writer herself noted what was left unsaid by these well-meaning men: they themselves didn’t read her, wouldn’t read her.
It had stuck in my mind, this anecdote; Bhattacharya drawing our attention to this chasm between writers and women writers, and how hard it was to bridge this divide. As late as 2011, VS Naipaul, Writer, dismissed female writers with a few choice phrases, singling out Jane Austen (for her “sentimental ambitions”) and Diana Athill, who had lovingly edited his own books for decades (for writing “feminine tosh”). Closer home, after I had written a book or three of my own, I found this out for myself too—often.
Once, I remember, in a literary festival organised in a fancy school, in a city surrounded by hills, the author Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan and I found ourselves on a classic “women writers” panel. We waited in the auditorium patiently, but soon found that at our time-slot, a few self-help gurus took the stage importantly, armed with PPT presentations and trailed by lackeys. After running around frantically, we found we had been stuck in an empty hall under the stairs in the basement. The title of the panel was printed out on a banner and stuck above the stage —“how women writers are reclaiming power”. Meenakshi and I briefly considered taking our power back, and bailing out.
But then, one by one, the audience began to trickle in. The room was one-tenth the size of the auditorium, but our all-girls audience turned out to be bright, engaged and intimate. We were glad we hadn’t bailed; in fact, we decided over chilli cheese toast back in the hotel, that it was just as well. What was wrong with being a woman writer and being read mostly by (smart) women? Who cared about the stupid auditorium anyway? There would have been at least one idiot in that audience who would have asked us to give him three good reasons why he should buy our books. (It’s always three good reasons the goodfella demands, never one or two, and he never asks this question of a male novelist.) After which he would have left without buying either of our books—or any book for that matter.
Rant over, let’s get to business, my friends. This is but a (hopelessly overlong) preamble to my Women’s Day reading recommendations!
NOTE: The writers of these books are women, but the readers need not be.
Qabar by KR Meera tops my list this year. A slim little novel written in Malayalam and rendered beautifully into English by Nisha Susan, this impossible-to-categorise book had me re-reading it immediately after, to savour the lines and its unique structure. In narrative non-fiction, Ann Patchett’s collection of essays These Precious Days helped me cope with some hellish days. As did Bijal Vachharajani’s sparkling children’s book Savi and the Memory Keeper. (Full disclosure: I had meant to send it to my niece, but have now grown so attached to it that I will be keeping this copy.) And to remember the pandemic, I know I will return, time and again, to Namita Gokhale’s masterful new novel, The Blind Matriarch.
In the last few days, I found myself rummaging in the bookshelf for my battered copies of Ukrainian-British writer Marina Lewycka’s novels, my favourite among which is her debut: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. “Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée,” it began memorably. “He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”
Is reading a dark comedy about Ukrainians not appropriate when the country is at war? Or is it exactly what we need to remember a people with affection and joy? I don’t know the answer to that one. But the final recommendation I shall leave you with is Read and Riot: A Pussy Riot Guide to Activism by Nadya Tolokonnikova, a cult book for millennials (and others), written by a young woman who stood up to the powerful Russian state, along with other young women. Grenades yes, but neither fluffy nor pink, this time.
Happy Women’s Day, everyone! Buy some books!
Author and teacher; her latest book is Friends from College