Breaking stereotypes… in search of identities…


In this ambiguous world, each one of us is constantly in the race to create an identity. Janani Rajeswari S features four authors who have tried to explore this concept through their books in different forms and ways. On one hand is an author who delves into the life of Manipur, another one talks of mother-in-laws, while another focuses on Indian Americans while one on manual scavengers.

For a life of dignity

Book: Unseen
Author: Bhasha Singh
Publisher: Penguin Books India

Bhasha SinghFirst brush with reality It all began with an article on manual scavengers. “Being a journalist, we wish to explore different angles to a subject. I was shocked when I came to know that this heinous act of manual scavenging still exists in Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan through Sreelata Swaminathan, a co m r a d e . I t wa s unimaginable that caste exists in such a barbaric form,” says Bhasha Singh.

After that, there was no stopping and has grown to become the biggest irony to expose why it exists even in 2014.

Women as manual scavengers

The book traces the personal accounts of Bhasha Singh who interacted with the women who are still into the practice in various regions of the country. The whole practice has its roots in caste and gender exploitation in the cruelest form, according to Bhasha. “Owing to the casteist mindset, we think that people belong to certain castes should clean dry toilets, open drains, septic tanks, sewer, etc,” she adds.

More so, patriarchy was essentially the reason why women are asked to clean dry toilets. “One could also blame it on their caste, family and the political-socio set up,” she’s quick to add. They are carrying night soil from many generations and this caste system has made them believe that they are meant to do this work.

Also, it becomes a legacy that is handed on to the daughters-in-law by their mothers-in-law. In her book, Bhasha points out that some daughters-in-law were welcomed into their husband’s home with a broom and the basket used for manual scavenging. Ironically, there was a sense of pride in this act till they realised the need for liberation from this act.

Path to freedom

‘Safai Karamchari Andolan (SKA)’, a community-based organisation is dedicated to the cause has been a catalyst for change. “They were able to bring this issue into limelight at national level with more than three decades of endless effort. It focuses on women from the manual scavenging community,” reveals Bhasha.

“Their intervention has strengthened the urge to get rid of the hell. Women are liberating themselves and dry toilets have been demolished. So, the situation has changed and improved. But still septic tank cleaning is there and sewer cleaning is done manually.

Success stories that went beyond obstacles

But struggle is not all as the book also records success stories. “You can find Narayan Amma in Anantpur, Santosh in Haryana, Meena in Delhi, Kusmi in Patna and so on who were also doomed for generations to this practice. Their initial battle is with themselves – that they can do something other than cleaning human shit,” explains Bhasha. She adds that these women made up their minds that their daughters and sons would never do what they did.

“Issue of dignity and conviction are foremost. First, they speak openly about the issue, they then decide to come out from the hell and then they stick to it for life,” she points out.

But the path to rehabilitation is never an easy one. Obstacles come in the form of family set-up and caste hierarchy. “They (women) try to discourage them by saying that other world is not possible,” she says. But these women manage this front and in many cases they become co-operative also. But the biggest hurdle is political apathy and castiest administration. Their rehabilitation benefits are not given to them.

“The State and leaders are shamelessly in denial mode. They have not even utilised the money allotted for rehabilitation. It was with the force of people movement that the Union Government brought in the new legislation,” she reveals.

The future and winning the war

The tale of Narayan Amma from Andhra Pradesh is that of a woman who fought to make her state manual scavengingfree.“ She came out with vision of Wilson Bezwada—a new beginning,” says Bhasha. She assures that it is also happening in other states.

On a personal front, Bhasha says that this exercise changed her life entirely. “Now I think I am also a solider to end this inhumane barbaric practice. It has helped me understand the process of De-caste and its importance. Being a writer I can report and visualise how things are moving and how justice should be restored. I wish this book to become a weapon in this crusade,” says a confident Bhasha.

In the hearth of Manipur

Book: On a Fine Day, You Can See India
Author: C Balagopal
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India

C BalagopalBalagopal began his professional career as a probationary IAS officer in Manipur in the late 70s. “My book is an anecdotal account of my first impressions about the land,” he explains. It was mélange of awe, discovery and revelations. “I believe that IAS, IPS officers possess a very rich source of personal accounts. However, we are not great chroniclers,” he admits. But for a person known to be a natural storyteller among his friends, Balagopal reveals that finding his own voice was the greatest challenge while turning a writer.

A refreshing take on Manipur

The work on his debut novel began nearly four years ago and was completed in just two months. But what was the need for such a refreshing account?

“When I was in Manipur in the 70s, I tried locating books about the place. But I only found books that are written before Independence. However, why would you read the old account about the state? We all want to read something new,” he points out. Thus, Balagopal goes beyond the geography of Manipur chronicling his experiences. So, he keeps the tone conversational while spicing it up conversations, incidents and anecdotes.

“This helped me think as a 25-year-old at 60 years which is otherwise very difficult,” he adds. The idea behind the book was essentially to present a worm’s eye view i.e. a common man’s take on Manipur. So, he chose to make common people the characters of his book. For instance, Nair Saab created a police wireless on a shoestring budget with available local materials. Or sample the ‘Magic Jeep’ from where we could speak to anyone, district officers and so on.

A closer view

He admits that Manipur, according to him, was always shrouded in mysticism and is no different today. “Manipur is not too far or different from other parts of the country geographical but really more psychologically. So, people from the North-East are still not considered part of India,” he adds. He says the fact that people from the North-East region are not Indians is deep-seated. “Back then, out of the 30 IAS officers posted, not even one was a Manipuri. It felt like a colonial administration,” Balagopal explains.

Bridging the gap

Going a step further, the book offers solutions to some existing problems such as creating jobs for the Manipuri. He ends the book with an essay on what Manipur is. Balagopal says that it was an interesting addition to his book. “My editor felt that is was a cut off from the old accounts about the region,” he says.

He further adds that the response has been well resonating. “I have tried to keep the book biased yet not biased. Many people from the region have thanked me for that and I am grateful for it.” Further, he hopes that his book would motivate more babus and ex-babus to write their experiences in various regions across the country.

The ‘real’ Americans

Book: The Americans
Author: Chitra Viraraghavan
Publisher: Fourth Estate

Chitra ViraraghavanChitra Viraraghavan has been into in some form or the other. But her association w i t h f i c t i o n b e g a n w i t h writing short stories. This w a s a r o u n d nine years ago. Talking about her foray, she s a y s : “ M o s t writers’ lives are shaped by the fact of their being readers from a very early age. Mine was no different. All the reading gives you refuge; it also shows you what is wrong with the world. Most writers are uncomfortable people and write from a place of discomfort, of wanting things to be different and better, somehow.”

Indians or Americans?

Her debut novel The Americans explores the life of a particular group of people who are constantly are torn between two different societies and constantly trying to create an identity for themselves.

“I’ve had the opportunity to observe these people, both in the US and in India, when they come visiting to either of the nations. They come here and are ‘Americans’; but their identities back in the US are not so clear-cut,” she begins explaining. In a sense, they are ‘American’ to all of us. She adds that it might be a matter of pride for them. However, the book tries to delve into what really is their social position in their adopted homeland. “Also, I thought it was high time an Indian writing from an Indian point of view turned the gaze back on this community, members of which are always advising us and writing about us,” says Chitra.

The Americans’ identity

Talking about Indian Americans and Indians, naming the novel ‘The Americans’ seemed interesting. “The title was meant to be somewhat ironic trying to speak of the distance between perception and reality in terms of identity. It was really about wanting to belong, of not belonging to a place and the effect it has on a person,” she explains.

So, how would Chitra define ‘Identities’? “In the modern world, identities are constantly negotiated, aren’t they?” she asks. She adds that when you have a sense of otherness from the mainstream, the quest to belong to an invisible majority that is predominant in the world becomes critical to one’s sense of identity. “This is a phenomenon that exists as much in India as elsewhere in the world. Every aspect of life comes to be defined by one’s distance or closeness to that so-called ideal position. This is what I’ve tried to explore from different points of view and situations in my book,” says Chitra.

Protagonist and others

Tara is the heroine of Chitra’s book in every sense. She is bound to the USA to meet her sister’s family. She is the linking character in the novel with the ten other characters in the book. Each of the ten narrates his/her own stories from their own point of view. “Tara is the character that holds the narrative together in different ways,” she says. So, is Tara inspired by someone whom Chitra knows? Yes and no, clarifies Chitra. “As far as I used my experiences of living and observing things in the US to create her. She, like many of the other characters in the book, has some very dramatic things happening to her, things that could happen only in fiction,” she says.

Each character is unique. While a majority of them are entangled in web of making sense of their identity. Some are embroiled in a world of their own like little Rahul who is autistic.

“In a way, I suppose this character could symbolise all the others. Each one is trying to make sense of a world that bewilders them in some way, to which they do not fully belong for various reasons,” says Chitra. According to her, it is an attempt to present different characters in widely differing situations and allowing the emergence of the questions of identity from that.

The Mummy-ji tales

Book: Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in Your Marriage
Author: Veena Venugopal
Publisher: Penguin Books India

The break and ‘Mother-in-law’

Veena VenugopalFor journalist Veena Venugopal, writing books happened organically. An avid blogger on reading and books, she was approached by her first publisher to do a collection of essays on the topic. “It (Would You Like Some Bread With That Book?) was a fun book and my only focus was on keeping it honest and interesting.”

Her second book came in the form of The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in Your Marriage. “ C h i k i Sarkar of Penguin wanted someone to write on the unique Indian phenomenon of mothers-in-law. I wasn’t sure as my relationship with my mother-in-law was at times okay and at times rocky. But when I started talking about the book, every time someone heard mother-in-law, they jumped in to say that I should write about them,” she reveals. Simply put as ‘Pentheraphobia’ (Fear of Mummy-ji).

Reality bites

Though initially she researched for a funny book, Veena realised that certain experiences are often dark and very traumatic. “I realised that a lot of people were desperate to talk about their situation. A marriage is a bit of a windowless box. You can’t talk about your mother-in-law too much to your husband because he eventually feels defensive about her. Your own parents would rather not hear the gory details and feel bad because unless there is abuse, their advice is largely that these things happen and you should ‘adjust’,” she explains.

Largely written from the daughterin- law’s perspective, some characters are juxtaposed. What, according to her, is ‘Mother-in-law’? “Control freak, obsessed mother, confused custodian of culture and traditions. I discovered that this is the worst generation for Mummy-ji conflicts,” she says. The gap has widened because of educated and worldly daughters-in-law and Mummy-jis who are still stuck with pre-liberalisation values. So, the educated, urban, Englishspeaking, middle-class women married to Indian men are the heroines of this nonfiction work who talk about their lives.

The accounts range from shocking to harrowing ones. “Keisha is a victim of mental and physical abuse, as well as a survivor of marital rape. Her mother-inlaw was witness to most of it. Keisha was treated like a domestic help at home. It was shocking because Keisha is someone like us – if you passed by her in a street you’d never guess the trauma she has gone through,” she says.

The ‘Adarsh bahu’

The concept of ‘Adarsh bahus’ also varies from region to region. “The north Indian mother-in-law has rather rigid notions of how she should dress and conduct oneself. She is often adamant that the daughterin- law should be a housewife and not a career-oriented woman. The south Indian mother-in-law is a little easier on both these counts,” she explains.

While asserting the concept of ‘Adarsh bahu’ on one hand, on the other hand they offer solace to these traumatised women. “It’s a bit of a vicious cycle between real life and soaps. Keisha revealed that watching soaps made her feel she wasn’t the only one suffering and that her life was normal,” says Veena.

Read and accepted?

Veena reveals that it was a difficult book to write. “The response has been great so far by reaching out to two kinds of readers: those who feel grateful that their mothersin- law aren’t as bad as some of those in the book and those who feel happy that there are other people who are going through similar stuff,” she adds.

The book offers other solutions that might help the daughters-in-law. On the future, she opines, “My sense is that in another generation, when these young, educated daughters-in-law become mothers-in-law, they would be far more liberal and emotionally less high strung. For now though, the era is modern but Mummy-ji is not,” she says.

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