Books, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Daily Review Book Club – Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories

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A collection of stories from India’s foremost female writers and thinkers, Walking Towards Ourselves explores womanhood in India at a time of intense change.

Reaching across different strata of society, religion and language, this anthology collects a range of real-life stories; from the film sets of Bollywood to a closeted marital home in a Tamil Nadu village; from the boardroom of an online dating app to a bamboo house in the post-cylone Sunderbans; a beauty parlour, where skin bleaching is the norm, to a home for abandoned girls in Karnataka.

The various authours grapple with domestic violence, the search for love through marriage brokers, learning to speak their minds and lay claim to their bodies, as they choose to be partnered or not, to become mothers or not, to make art, to make love, to find meaning.

The Daily Review Book Club share their thoughts of Walking Towards Ourselves and in particular three of the stories, Oxygen, Cast Away and The Village Without Men.

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Belinda: ‘India is one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be a woman – or so the international press keeps telling us. But behind the headlines, what is it really like to be a woman in India today’. I have to admit, the blurb jumped out at me, I found the book very topical given I did indeed spend two weeks in Delhi earlier this year. I was very nervous about going to India but can genuinely say I did not feel unsafe while I was there. Obviously, a two-week work trip is not the same as living there, but I do think there is a lot of media attention on this topic, for very good reasons.

Susan: I was an aid worker in Chennai (Madras) for over a year and saw some terrible things but my experience with women was somehow still overwhelmingly positive. I was worried the book would be depressing and while it was a mishmash of stories but I liked it much more than I thought I would. I thought it would be depressing but, on the whole, I found the stories to be almost inspiring at times.

Janine: It was an interesting collection of stories with great insights across the different social stratas. It actually dimmed my view of women’s rights in India somewhat and I didn’t realise the desirability of pale skin was such a massive thing.

Belinda: I think the stories were diverse and well chosen.

Janine: I also enjoyed the brief bios of each author, it was interesting to know more about where each story came from, particularly from a socio economic perspective – the chasm between the poor and well off in the telling of these stories was quite remarkable.

Lisa: I agree, getting that background on the authours gave greater perspective.

Belinda: Did anyone have a stand out story for a particular reason?

Susan: I really liked Oxygen, the story about the woman who started the feminist publishing company. I felt inspired after reading it and I liked the way it was about her journey to find out how she wanted to change the world and how she went about it. I really liked the contrast with her mother and they way their shared passion played out in the story.

Janine: I also enjoyed Oxygen, it was uplifting to read the story of two generations of women who had probably broken a lot of social norms, and been supported by their menfolk in doing so, to stand up for women’s right to live freely and safely.  It also had a great ending, the narrator being with her mum when she died and describing how it couldn’t have been a better death. We’re all going to die and that approach to death was quite beautiful.

Susan: The end of Oxygen was really good I thought too. Even though her mother died, the writer was obviously really proud of what she’d achieved and I think conveyed the sense that the mother had a very meaningful life that the writer was able to share in.

Belinda: The way she weaved in the relationship with her mother was really beautiful.

Janine: I enjoyed all of the stories, perhaps the most compelling for me was The Village Without Men. The challenges faced by these women in the aftermath of a flood, fending for themselves because all the men went to cities to try and find work, was particularly grim. It was hard to imagine walking in their shoes as the snakes, scorpions, flies, crocodiles and tigers menaced their village.

Susan: I found that one a little too open-ended. (I prefer my stories all nicely wrapped up preferably with a happy ending!)

Belinda: I agree Janine that The Village Without Men was very compelling, it just painted such an absurd and almost ‘Life of Pi’ like picture for me.

Lisa: I found it difficult to conceive of such a situation existing.

Susan: I think Cast Away, the story of a woman’s experience of being an actress in a man’s world, was the most depressing for me. The expectations on her as a female in the business were a bit grim. It was just sort of sad and sadly not hard to imagine most of it happening.

Belinda: With Cast Away, I also felt (perhaps unfairly) that the author was almost justifying the ‘way things are’ for females in the acting industry. It was almost this sense of reluctant acceptance coming through.

Lisa: To me Cast Away was almost a story that would happen in Hollywood right now, I wouldn’t imagine it being unique to Bollywood.

Lisa: Still horrible that it seems like the norm for men in those positions to think that a woman ‘owes them’.

Susan: Lisa, I agree. It seems to be a common across-cultures story.

Janine: The bit about all the out of work actors sitting around a coffee shop practising their lines, and the narrator perfecting her quivering lip in the mirror, it was an ugly contrast to some of the other stories. And I agree Belinda, it was a bit too accepting of the whole casting couch scenario.

Lisa: Cast Away almost seemed trivial compared to the other stories (even though it clearly isn’t trivial).
Janine: I agree Lisa. The Cast Away author’s comment about being ‘massaged to within an inch of her life” between acting jobs was a bit hard to stomach after the snakes and crocodiles and a whole pile of other crap the women in a Village Without Men had to deal with on a daily basis.

Belinda: Perhaps the contrast is useful and challenges us not to assume all woman in India struggle?

Susan: I think I found the Cast Away story almost the most disturbing. I guess the big surprise for me was that the book seemed to have a mix of stories ones with grim outcomes for women as well as uplifting stories.

Belinda: Was there anything in the stories that surprised you? The biggest surprise for me was Oxygen, in that it was the early ’80s when they were able to start their publishing house. I didn’t imagine that sort of progress in India would have existed that long ago.

Janine: One stand outs for me was the most successful book in the Oxygen story’s publishing house. The one the village women helped put together about anatomy, and how they had to put clothing ‘flaps’ over all the nude bits because it wouldn’t float with the peasants otherwise. A great solution, and likely had a massive impact on so many women’s lives learning more about the bodies (which were apparently not spoken about openly), and which bits do what.

Belinda: Yes, Neen, loved that part! Their most popular book I believe?

Lisa: I think the suprising thing for me in The Village Without Men as that despite everything that was described she still said that they were happy.

Susan: I thought she was saying she was happy before the flood.

Lisa: Despite being married at 15, despite the snakes, crocodiles, tigers and the fact that it was hard work – they were happy.

Belinda: And this might be controversial Lisa, but I wonder if the ‘they were still happy despite everything’ message is something that is convenient for us to accept. But possibly far from the truth?

Lisa: Not at all controversial, I’d agree that it is much easier to want to believe that they are happy so nothing needs to be done about it.

Belinda: Or maybe we are the unenlightened ones and they really were happy?

Lisa: Quite possibly, but that ties it in with the last story where it’s all relative. It’s our own reality.

Janine: I think the focus on marriage and skin colour was the most disturbing and stifling part of this book for me. It made me reflect on how privileged I am.

Lisa: Absolutely Janine, the things we now take for granted.

Belinda: In the interactions I had with professional, very well educated women in India earlier this year, the focus on marriage really stood out for me also. It made me appreciate the choices I have had (and continue to have).

Lisa: I had a bit of a heads up on the preoccupation with skin colour having worked closely with an Indian woman who used to make a lot of comments about her brother’s girlfriend having darker skin than was desired.

Janine: Overall, while Walking Towards Ourselves offers a bit of a mish-mash of stories, I found it generally compelling and enjoyed that it gives voice to a broad range of Indian womens’ experiences.

Lisa: It certainly covers a broad spectrum of life that left me feeling grateful.

Walking Towards Ourselves is published by Hardie Grant Books

You can buy the book here

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