Book Box: The Goddess, the Writer of Science, and Women Who Fight
Celebrate the upcoming Women’s Day by reading these three books about women fighters. Anald meet Mahima Vashisht, the fiery and fearless newsletter writer.
I’ve been preoccupied by images of goddesses... but one keeps coming back, says Angela Saini.
It’s the goddess Kali, who challenges every modern-day assumption about womanhood and power, says Saini, in her introduction to The Patriachs.
I’ve followed Saini with fascination ever since I read Inferior, her book on women and science. In this new book, released earlier this week, she explores the history of the fight between the sexes, going back through history to evolution, moving across geographies and telling us many provoking stories.
Book 1 of 3:
There are just so many good things to say about The Patriarchs, from the book’s fluency and flow to the unbelievable lightness of its erudition — but here’s a one sentence pitch instead — if you’d like to read one book on feminism and the origins of inequality this year, this is it.
Read it this March, even though it’s available only in a hardback imported version. But if you’d rather wait a little, you can pick up the Indian edition, being published later this year by Harper Collins.
Book 2 of 3:
No one ever changed the world by being nice. Be difficult, says Helen Lewis. She tells the stories of women who battled bias, as they fought across 11 big areas of life — divorce, the vote, sex, play, work, safety, love, education, time, abortion and the right to be difficult.
Suffragette Christabel Pankhurst, sari-clad striker Jayaben Desai and footballer Lily Parr are some of the rebels in Difficult Women: The History of Feminism in 11 Fights. They fought other women as well as men, to take arms against all sorts of discrimination.
Like the El Vino law that forbade women from being served alcohol at the bar. This went on in England, all the way up to the 1980s, until journalists Tess Gill & Anne Hook fought the courts to change this outrageous law.
While the El Vino story has a funny ridiculous aspect to it, the stories of suffragettes being imprisoned and force-fed are heart-rending. It is chilling to read about laws like El Vino or the Cat and Mouse law, and realise how many such laws were framed deliberately to exclude women, from everything from work to playing football.
Book 3 of 3:
Esme collects contraband words. These words describe the female experience — fierceness, fecundity and unabashed sexuality. Such words that would never make it to a male-constructed mainstream dictionary, Esme realises, so she collects them in secret. A few of her forward friends fight for the right to vote, they attend meetings and protest violently, and Esme feels guilty for staying away. Only there are many ways of fighting, some flamboyant and some less so — but each is as valid, this quietly contemplative novel seems to say. The Dictionary of Lost Words may be set in Oxford, in the ivory towers of academia, but it is no less radical in its own way.
Finally, meet Mahima Vashisht. This former civil servant and IIM Bangalore alumna is the author of the award-winning Womaning in India newsletter. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.
Tell us about your reading as a child.
I was fortunate to grow up in a house full of books. Most were sepia-tinted with delicate pages that belonged to my grandfather, father, and mother. One of my earliest memories as a child is a project my father and I undertook – to catalogue all the books in our house as one would in a ‘real library’. We had a Godrej almirah full of books that looked like an unending tower to me as a 3-foot-something person. I remember we catalogued them as fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, etc. with serial numbers and everything. Over the years, our ‘real library’ got scattered as we moved houses quite often. But every now and then, I still come across a book from my childhood with a random code and number written on it in Papa’s handwriting. And it makes me think of that tower of books I used to climb and makes me smile.
When you look back on your reading, have there been phases?
I grew up reading whatever caught my fancy – which is a pretty wide range when you are a kid. But somewhere along the line, as I went through my engineering and MBA years, I picked up some vague idea of the kind of books one should read – all the books that were looked at with respect and reverence among what I considered “the intellectuals”. I spent (wasted) years trying to conform to those vague notions. Those were the years I did the least reading. At some point, I decided to only read books that brought me joy. I realized I found a lot of joy in stories. So, I almost exclusively read fiction books now or non-fiction books with an element of storytelling. A large number of books I like also happen to be written by women.
Womaning in India, your substack newsletter, gets intense engagement. Which issues have had the most response?
My most-read piece, by a huge margin, is the Raja Beta syndrome. In this piece, I wrote about how Indian sons are so pampered when they are kids that parents often forget to teach them basic life skills. And when these sons become adults, somehow their parents still see them as the same pampered prince who is too delicate to lay down the dinner table, or even get himself a glass of water. I used GIFs of Salim from Mughal-e-Azam in the piece, and it became a bigger hit among the readers than I had ever imagined.
I have also written about divorce, abuse, miscarriages, illegal abortions, and sexual harassment. Listening to the stories of women for these pieces was intense and writing the pieces was emotionally draining. But I am grateful that my readers have stayed with me through the heavy pieces as well as they did the funny ones.
Which writers have had the most influence on your writing?
After wasting a few years trying to read books that sent me running for the dictionary every half a sentence, I came to realize that good writing should not look like an effort to impress your reader with your vocabulary. Good writing, to me, feels like a friend talking to me.
In recent years, I have loved books by authors who felt like they were my friends, talking to me through their words. A few names that come to mind are Tig Notaro, Tim Urban, Lindy West, Austin Kleon, Glennon Doyle, Liane Moriarty, Andy Weir, and Fredrik Backman.
I would love to hear about the first feminist book you read.
‘Feminist books’ is a fairly recent trend in India, so I do not recall coming across any in my early years of reading. But I read stories and characters that impacted the budding feminist in me long before I had even heard of the word. For example, I always loved Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books. I loved that she was smarter than everyone around her, and did not diminish herself to be liked by the boys or to protect them from feeling threatened by a smart girl. As a little girl, Hermione gave me the license to be as nerdy or geeky, studious or brave, unkempt or beautiful, as I wanted to be. Nancy Drew was smart, the Famous Five had an equal number of boys and girls in the gang, and Draupadi was a woman who knew her mind and was not afraid to follow it. Powerful female characters were a greater influence on me growing up than many of the feminist books I have read since.
What are some of your personal favourites in feminist writing?
The first out-and-out feminist book I read was as late as about a decade ago. A friend recommended Shrill by Lindy West to me. In the book, West says, “Feminism is really just the long slow realization that the things you love, hate you.” That line has stayed with me for years, and I quote it every time someone asks me how I can call myself a feminist and still love Bollywood.
I recently read Dear Ijeawele by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and reviewed it. I think it is a must-read for every parent trying to raise a decent human being in this warped world of ours.
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez needs to be made compulsory reading in schools. I love Sarah Cooper’s How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men's Feelings because, well, just look at that beautiful title. I admire the naked honesty in the writing of Roxane Gay. I love stand-up comedy and I think I might be following pretty much every feminist stand-up comedian on the planet right now (Comedic writing is writing too, and quite possibly the hardest kind there is!)
I am afraid I have not read any of the classics, but every now and again I find a quote by bell hooks or Simone de Beauvoir or Maya Angelou and make a mental note to get around to reading all of them someday!
What trends have you observed in writing on women?
One trend that I love in the way women are written lately is that we are no longer trying to force fit female characters into the tropes of the Madonna or the tramp. Women characters written today in books and movies are no longer binary – either sacrificial pious souls without a shred of grey, or scheming evil vamps without an ounce of decency. I like that we are finally giving women permission to be full humans, at least in our stories if not yet in reality. I really like reading women characters who are flawed, grey, funny, generous, murderous, loving, passionate – sometimes all at once!
Any favourite newsletters and blogs?
I love Austin Kleon’s newsletter which is a weekly 10-point list of hyperlinks to the insane variety of things he was interested in that week. A lot of great advice for creators in there, and, links to beautiful stationery items which is my number one vice!
Another newsletter I like is oldster.substack.com which is a collective of various authors. Women from all ages and stages of life write about their stories, their experiences, and their lessons in the newsletter. I sometimes go down the rabbit hole of reading their old posts, and am never disappointed.
And lastly, what books are you currently reading?
I am usually in the middle of several books at once, so I am glad you asked about books, in plural!
One that I just started this week is What’s Our Problem? by Tim Urban, whose blog, Wait But Why, is another one of my favourites. I love how he breaks down complex scientific and historical facts using stories, examples, and cartoons that everyone can follow. I am excited to read the book that kept him away from his blog for six long years.
I just ordered My Daughter’s Mum and Immortal for a Moment by Natasha Badhwar. I discovered Natasha quite late but am now a regular reader of her newsletter, and look forward to diving into her books. I am sure I will emerge a better parent after reading her books.
Another book I am reading is Dr Cuterus by the eminently hilarious, Dr Tanaya Narendra, and can’t wait to learn some jaw-dropping facts about my own body from her book, as I have from her viral Instagram reels.
I am also really enjoying a Bollywood trivia book called Bollygeek by Diptakirti Chaudhuri.
Finally, I am a few chapters into the book Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention by Johann Hari, because look at that list of books I am not finishing!
With this, it’s a wrap. Next week we look at books on women and work. Until then, Happy Reading!
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed are personal