As the incidence of crime against women continues to increase in India, feminist discourse has acquired greater relevance than ever. Eighteen voices (women with varied backgrounds and histories) in this non-fiction collection, Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, spell out ‘what it means to be a woman in India in a time of intense and incredible change’. Yet, one cannot but admit the more things change the more they remain the same – especially regarding the majority of the population’s mindset which, even in urban India, is firmly rooted in patriarchy. Despite the hostile environment more and more women, regardless of the stratum of society they hail from, are constantly rediscovering and reinventing themselves.
Writer and publisher, Namita Gokhale, says in the foreword, ‘In a society where women’s minds as well as their bodies are perceived as belonging to their fathers, their brothers and their husbands, women write about sexuality to test the limits of autonomy, to take charge of their intellect and creativity.’ This indeed is a crucial step where women’s freedom and empowerment has clear limits.
A blend of young and old voices (most of them well known; one anonymous) provides the book variety and perspective. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the younger writers come across as more candid and emphatic, while the older ones sound milder and more circumspect in their writing. Overall though, the compilation is a smooth concatenation of ‘mini-memoirs’. It isn’t possible to delve upon each piece individually, but that hardly makes any less significant than the others. The scope of the subject is so vast and the repertoire of women writers so great, that sequels or series could – and perhaps should – be a distinct possibility.
Some narratives are more hard-hitting than others, while some have more heart. Annie Zaidi’s piece, for instance, is one of the most appealing and memorable. She speaks about her life as a journalist, about the limited options women had in terms of career when she was young and the way working women were generally perceived: ‘The commute was tough, the deadline pressure insane, harassment was a possibility that lay in wait at every corner. But my greatest worry was not finding a toilet when I needed one […] The official excuse was that women didn’t use them anyway and that if toilets were open, they might be used for “other” purposes.’
Being denied the most basic rights and amenities, besides being subjected to various injustices and humiliations has always been a matter of course for Indian women. This collection brings them firmly into focus. Several contributors have mentioned the Indian obsession with fair skin, especially while seeking matrimonial alliances. A finalist at the Miss India beauty pageant, Ira Trivedi, who spent a few years working at a marriage bureau, says, ‘…here in Punjab, the Mecca of fair skin, I realize how pervasive the obsession with fair skin is […] cast doesn’t hold as much status as before […] so because of the lack of any other metric, people are using skin colour to judge class.’ Rosalyn D’Mello, on the same theme, reveals: ‘Once, two women who were walking towards me on a street in Mumbai […] noticed how my colour resembled a black cat’s and spent a fair amount of time manoeuvring their gait so as to avoid crossing my path.’
Mitali Saran talks about being a wildly independent woman in a country obsessed with marriage; Tishani Doshi’s bold and poignant piece reveals her thoughts on the concept of motherhood and choosing not to be one; Margaret Mascarenhas speaks of gender identity flux and an affair with another woman; Sharanya Manivannan discusses how she turned the traditional Indian symbols of marriage around (sari, bindi, toe rings, etc) to make a different kind of statement (marriage to her art); the anonymous writer’s narrative about being chained to fear and violence is tremendous.
Almost all the writers have mentioned the December 16, 2012 gang rape incident as the turning point in Indian history regarding altering laws in favour of women victims. In this context, the preface by Justice Leila Seth, who was directly involved in the case, becomes pertinent.
Even without the detailed preliminaries this collection would have made a mark. Ideally, it should be compulsory reading at every university regardless of the student’s gender or specialization. The fundamental theme, i.e., respect for all women should, in fact, be introduced at kindergarten level so that tomorrow’s women do not have to grow up with such horror stories .
Divya Dubey is the publisher of Earthen Lamp Journal, the Editor/Instructor at Authorz Coracle, and the author of Turtle Dove: A Collection of Bizarre Tales.