Turning The Page
In the aftermath of what has been a defining revolution, what does it mean to be an Indian woman? As the dust begins to settle, and we contemplate the beginning of this new era, Verve presents some additional intellectual stimulation. The team at the Delhi-based, independent, feminist publishing house, Zubaan, curates a reading list to help us see beyond the social peripheries that limit our perspective
The last few decades have seen the publication of a wealth of material by women that testifies to the fact that more and more women are speaking out about sexual violence. That helps us to understand not only how widespread sexual violence is, but also how impunity for perpetrators is constructed and strengthened by all actors, including the state, society, the medical and legal establishments, the education sector and more. Unlike three decades ago, when any attempt to understand what women were experiencing would have had to confront a paucity of material, today there’s no shortage. Not only in English but in all languages, there’s literature that speaks about women’s lives, the violence they face, the battles they fight and the gains they have made.
Below, we’ve put together a short list of some of the most significant books to have been published in the last few years. Of course, any list is selective. Our list is indicative of the ways in which women are speaking out across sectors — whether they belong to queer communities, or come from minority or caste groups, or are adolescents or choose the visual medium to express themselves.
(Originally published in Bengali by Roshnai Prakashan, Kolkata, 2002, and translated into English by Urvashi Butalia as A Life Less Ordinary, Zubaan, 2006)
Married at 12 and a mother by 13, Baby Halder’s life was like the lives of millions of poor women in India: for many years she struggled with domestic violence and poverty, until one day she could take it no more. Picking up her three children, she took a train from Howrah to Delhi. She eventually found work in the capital in the house of a retired professor who encouraged her to read and write, after which she wrote her autobiography which is today a bestselling book that has been translated into more than 23 languages worldwide. In her story, Halder details the daily acts of violence she faced at the hands of her husband, and the insults she bore from employers. Her book is a powerful testimony to the importance of speaking out.
When I Hit You: Or, a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife
(Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, 2017)
A searing, devastating depiction of a violent marriage and the difficulty of escaping from it. Meena Kandasamy describes a marriage of choice, in which love becomes a way of exercising control and possessing the person you love, such that they become nothing but what you imagine them to be. The protagonist of this autobiographical novel struggles with the ambivalence of being in a situation of her own choosing and realising how difficult it is to escape when virtually the entire system is weighted against you.
Out! Stories from the New Queer India
Edited by Minal Hajratwala
(Queer Ink, Mumbai, 2012)
The first anthology of its kind following the High Court reading down of Section 377 in 2009 — in effect decriminalising same-sex relationships — Out! Stories from the New Queer India carries narratives, testimonies and more that come from all corners of the country. In the words of a reviewer, ‘These short works of sometimes-literature, sometimes-testimony (and perhaps more often than not but never known to the reader, testimony-through-literature) resonate with the lived, touched, aroused, unfulfilled, quiet, loud, and complex experiences of their characters’.
Aamhihi Itihaas Ghadavlaa
Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon
(Originally published in Marathi by Stree Uvach, 1989, and translated into English by Wandana Sonalkar as We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement, Zubaan, 2008)
This book is a contemporary classic that details the history of women’s participation in the Dalit movement. Documenting for the first time the involvement of Dalit women in various struggles alongside Dalit men, the book draws on a range of sources including the oral testimony, the memoir, the interview, newspaper reports and more.
The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story
A Revathi. Translated by V. Geetha
(Translated from the original Tamil manuscript by V. Geetha and first published in English by Penguin India, New Delhi, 2010)
When A. Revathi’s powerful memoir first appeared, it caused a sensation. Readers learned of the author’s childhood unease with her assigned-male body, her escape from her birth family to a house of hijras and her eventual transition to being the woman she always knew she was. She went on to become a leading NGO activist, campaigning for the rights of trans persons, and is today a widely respected voice. Her second book, A Life in Trans Activism, details her involvement in activism and the lessons she learned through that.
Oru Laingikatozhilaliyute Atmakatha
(Originally published in Malayalam by DC Books, Kottayam, 2005, and translated into English by J. Devika as Autobiography of a Sex Worker, Westland, New Delhi, 2007)
Fiery, outspoken and often wickedly funny, this candid account of a woman’s life as a sex worker in Kerala became a bestseller when it was first published in Malayalam. Nalini Jameela, who takes her name from both Hindu and Muslim traditions, worked as a child in the clay mines. She has been a wife, mother and a successful businesswoman and social activist as well as a sex worker at different stages in her life. This is Jameela’s story, told in her inimitable style, of her search for dignity, empowerment and freedom.
Drawing the Line
Edited by Priya Kuriyan, Larissa Bertonasco, Ludmilla Barscht
December 2012: tens of thousands of people come out on the streets of towns and cities in India to protest the brutal gang rape and murder of a young medical student in Delhi. People demand change, action, commitment to the ideals of democracy and egalitarianism. Soon, a new law is put into place and more women start to report incidents of sexual assault and violence. New conversations, new debates begin: why are we only talking about certain kinds of violence? What about caste violence, violence against men, queer communities?
This book, a collection of 14 visual stories, is a response by young women artists in India to the debates and stories of sexual violence that exploded into the public sphere post 2012. These stories are evidence of the fierce determination of women artists to join the battle for change.
Irandam Jamangalin Kathai
(Originally published in Tamil by Kalachuvadu Publications, Chennai, 2004, and translated into English by Lakshmi Holmström as The Hour Past Midnight, Zubaan, 2009)
The story of a small, tightly-knit, conservative community in Tamil Nadu where women remain within the four walls of the home, this novel shows how change creeps in nonetheless, almost imperceptibly, as women rebel in small ways, and find the means to express their desires. Friendships are made and broken, love and desire hover on the margins, families come together and fall apart and, slowly, the world transforms.
Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?
Essar Batool, Natasha Rather, Ifrah Butt, Munaza Rashid and Samreena Mushtaq
On a cold February night in 1991, a group of soldiers and officers of the Indian Army pushed their way into two villages in Kashmir, seeking out militants assumed to be hiding there. They pulled the village men out of their homes and subjected many to torture, and many women to rape. Twenty-one years later, in 2012, the rape and murder of a young medical student in Delhi galvanised a protest movement so widespread and deep that it reached all corners of India. In Kashmir, a group of young women, all in their twenties, were inspired to reopen the Kunan-Poshpora case, to revisit their history and to look at what had happened to the survivors of the 1991 mass rape. This book, through personal delineations of their journey, examines questions of justice, of stigma, of the responsibility of the state and of the long-term impact of trauma.
Undoing Impunity: Speech After Sexual Violence
Part of the Zubaan Series on Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia, this study unpacks the meanings of impunity in relation to sexual violence. Historian and translator V. Geetha observes that the Indian state’s misuse of its laws against its own citizens constitutes only one aspect of impunity. The less understood, resilient aspect that upholds immunity for perpetrators of sexual violence comes from the consistent denial of the recognition of suffering on the part of victims, and its refusal to allow them the dignity of pain, grief and loss. The author argues that the state and its citizens must work together to acknowledge the harm done by sexual violence and to accord social recognition to the pain and suffering of victims and survivors.
The Power to Forgive and Other Stories
In this collection of stories by the Naga writer, women examine their lives and ask themselves if they made the right decisions. A rape survivor, on the threshold of a marriage and a change in her life, wonders if she took the correct step in speaking out. Using a rich mix of folk traditions and storytelling, the author brings us the world of ordinary people caught in the business of living.
Unclaimed Harvest: An Oral History of the Tebhaga Women’s Movement
This is an authoritative narration of the central role of women within the 1946 Tebhaga movement. As the British Empire drew to a close, landless peasants in Bengal launched a movement against their feudal landlords to retain two-thirds of the grain they harvested. The history and tragic end at the hands of state violence of more than 50,000 women has been immortalised in the book. Kavita Panjabi’s tome details for the first time the history of Ila Mitra, a woman who fearlessly led the movement, and was captured, imprisoned and subjected to sexual assault and torture. Mitra’s jail testimony and her concern at having spoken out, powerfully demonstrate the tension between both the importance and the difficulty of speaking out.
Spreading Your Wings: A Health Infocomic for Girls of All Ages
Ariana Abadian-Heifetz and Pia Alizé Hazarika
(Zubaan, 2018; will also be available in Hindi as Ao Udaan Bharein, Zubaan, 2019)
Sisters Anjali and Pooja have a lot of questions about the changes their bodies have begun to go through. They enlist their friends, their myth-busting didi (she’s a doctor) and their mother in their search for answers. This book demystifies common misconceptions and stigmas around menstruation, even showing readers how to make their own cotton pads.
My Little Body Book: Keeping Ourselves Safe
This simple, colourful and informative picture book introduces young readers to their bodies and bodily hygiene, safe touch, and how to ask for help.
The Blue Book
A comprehensive guide for pre-teens that answers many questions that surround the uncomfortable process of growing up, from questions about their bodies to practising safe sex.
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