My story on looking for quiet places to read my new manuscript in the Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, featuring an elephant surprise, is in Condé Nast Traveller India. You can read it here.
The historical Rani of Jhansi, 19th century Maratha queen and Indian nationalist, is frequently portrayed on a rearing horse, brandishing a sword with an infant tied to her back. That last detail is pure fiction: the child in question, ostensibly her son, was 10 years old at the time of the battle memorialised, and no evidence exists of his having accompanied her in combat. The maharani’s role of mother – a pleasing one within the patriarchal realm – is merely reinforced by the symbol. Nearly a century later, it was her spirit (or at least, symbol) that Subhas Chandra Bose called upon to form the Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the Indian National Army’s all-woman unit.
Largely considered a footnote of sorts in the anti-colonial struggle, the RJR was primarily given interest due to its charismatic Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan, who later became the illustrious Dr. Lakshmi Sahgal. Vera Hildebrand’s Women At War: Subhas Chandra Bose And The Rani Of Jhansi Regiment does not simply stop at the cursory, but separates fact from myth, and fills in gaps in public knowledge. Swaminathan’s own memoirs were largely embellished with vivid scenes of combat – which the Regiment never actually participated in firsthand. The RJR propaganda project, and Bose’s order to destroy INA records, also created misperceptions. The book presents a compelling case that what actually happened is more interesting by far.
Bose organised the RJR in 1943 in what is now Singapore, and the total number of recruits is an estimated 450. These recruits were often teenage girls – even as young as 12 – although rules stipulated that they had to be over 18 years old. Dr Swaminathan and other Indian women like the teacher Protima Sen in Burma were tasked with convincing parents to sign the permission slip (curiously, married women were required to obtain this from their husbands, a point that undermines the stated premise of gender equality).
Hildebrand sets the context of the Indian independence struggle and charts Bose’s personal and political growth extensively. Numerous gender-related issues abound in the formation, and indeed legacy, of the RJR. Bose initially shared Gandhi’s prudish views on sexuality, and was even disappointed that his own firstborn was a girl, but later grew to become an advocate of birth control and women’s rights. Gandhi used women in sexist ways in the freedom struggle, and it is clear from this book that some of Bose’s initial motivations were also objectifying in nature. He eventually developed the view that complete gender equality also meant military action. That the RJR did not engage in combat disappointed all concerned. Hildebrand’s neutral, thorough research allows for a wide range of questions to emerge. For instance: did Bose select impoverished illiterate women for the task as their bodies, and lives, were considered more expendable? The historian H.N. Pandit suggests that the entire enterprise was to shock, and thereby destabilize, the British army with the sight of slain women on the frontlines.
The little known, and thoroughly fascinating, truth about the RJR is that most of its members had never been to India. 60% of them were young Tamil women from the Malayan plantations. 20% were Sikh (Hildebrand was unable to find any surviving Ranis from this category). Joining them were college-educated, Burma-raised women and others from various parts of the motherland. Hildebrand’s extraordinary research culminated in interviews with all the living Ranis that she could track down, the majority of whom are elderly Malaysian ladies. A centrefold of photographs attests to Hildebrand’s description of them as “sweet old women” – but more importantly, sweet old women who still remembered their bayonet exercises, which they gladly demonstrated to her, even when unable to rise out of their seats. “With a grimace and a grunt these octogenarians thrust the rifle hard forward, and made a swift upward movement with the fancied bayonet. The training mantra still etched in their brains, ‘[Maaro, kheencho, dekho] – kill, pull out, look.’ Then they usually smiled and said, ‘That’s how you kill the enemy.’”
For two years, the Ranis trained as soldiers, although it emerges that they were ill-prepared for the jungle. While they did not go to war, their time in Rangoon in particular contained many grueling demands, including long-distance night marches and jungle treks. The RJR was formally disbanded in 15 August 1945, just three days before Bose’s sudden death in a plane crash, although groups had been sent home at various points for some months. Hildebrand writes that most of the Ranis “found no audience” for their stories, instead quietly assimilating back into ordinary life, and sometimes concealing their military participation in order to do so.
This participation, lionised as being for race and motherland, was in fact more likely to have been about poverty or about escaping oppression. At 14 years old, Rani Muniammah, the daughter of a rubber tapper, was encouraged to join the RJR so as to have regular meals. Decades later, in a living room with a dominating portrait of Bose, she repeats army slogans to Hildebrand but admits it wasn’t until she enlisted that she had considered the Indian identity. Rani Janaki Bai, too, was encouraged by her father to enlist in order to avoid an arranged marriage. Hildebrand further contextualises the background from which most of the Ranis came: “Many of the women who joined the Regiment from the large rubber estates in Malaya lived and worked under conditions that approached slavery. Sexual abuse by the mainly white estate managers was a common occurrence. The Rani of Jhansi Regiment offered an environment where for the first time the young women found themselves respected and freed of the social stigma of ‘coolie’ status.” After their stint in the RJR, Ranis Rasammah Navarednam Bhupalan and Janaki Thevar Athinahappan turned their attention toward Malaysian independence (won in 1957) and various social justice causes thereafter. However, the book glosses over the problems of race in Malaysia.
The RJR belongs not only to Indian history, but to South East Asian history as well; Hildebrand notes the absence of material on them in Malaysian archives. They were willing to fight, and even to kill or to die, for India’s independence, but as Rani Janaki Bai tells her, “In India we would be foreigners.” The story of the RJR is shot through with far deeper colonial implications: born and raised in South East Asia, but belonging to disenfranchised communities in a region with sociopolitical problems that did not allow them to forget their roots, and with no sentimental attachments to India other than those roused by Bose, these women complicate facile narratives of patriotism.
This book is very much a historian’s tract, not a biographer’s. While the Ranis’ intricate personal stories are not explored in depth, Hildebrand clearly classifies apocrypha as such but uses it in an enlivening fashion. For instance, there is mention of a secret service within the Regiment, which involved a blood oath. Thirty or so Ranis were said to have cut their own fingers to paint a tilak on Bose’s forehead before signing a pledge; Bose was said to have wept with joy at this sacrament. Rani Mommata Gupta, meanwhile, insisted to Hildebrand that a hole had been drilled in one of her teeth, in which she was meant to smuggle microfilm to India.
This much is poignantly, powerfully made clear: what these unlikely soldiers experienced was not only an unusual adventure, but in a strange way a reprieve. As Hildebrand notes, many Ranis described those two years as the best ones of their lives. Their lives before they enlisted were chiefly as daughters; after, they continued in ways that largely recognised them only as wives, mothers, widows and grandmothers. Women At War is a fascinating testament to some women that history almost forgot, who like the apocryphal baby on the back of the original Rani herself have never been seen as anything other than figurative.
An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.
In a strictly-segregated metropolis of an India in a believably near future is a sector known as the East End, the last bastion of liberal sensibilities. Everywhere else, sectors are divided by caste and religion (and the way these dovetail neatly with class), and each one upholds its own standard of morality and customs – or in the lingo of apartheid, “culture” and “community”. Beyond the sectored zones are the slums, the only places that remain more or less precisely as they always were. In this almost-here India are looming walls, their partitions enforced by armed Repeaters, men who move like mobs, imposing law and order with their long bamboo staves. To a city plunged in drought, the excesses of the East End, with its swimming pools and its oblivious prosperity, its sexual mores and overall happiness, are less bearable than usual. On the night of a party at one such house – where the affluent, interfaith couple Shalini and Riz live with their toddler Leila – the Repeaters storm in. Riz is murdered. Shalini, arrested and sent to the Tower, spends bides her time for years, waiting for a transfer that will allow her to search for Leila, or at least the truth about what happened to her.
Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila opens on a mother longing for her child, trapped in what we see through her eyes primarily as an era of misogyny. Shalini has waited years for a tribunal that will allow her to work where she will have access to bureaucratic records. If Leila is still alive, she would be nineteen years old. It was on the night of her third birthday that the family was shattered, and Shalini has honed the need to find her to become the pure purpose of her existence. Memories of her baby are interposed by the grimness of what has happened to them all, and how Leila is unlikely to still know her at all. “When I think about this, it’s like I’m burning on the inside. She wouldn’t know me if we crossed on the road. To her, I am an emptiness, an ache she cannot understand but yearns to fill. No. I have left more, a glimmer at least. The blurred outline of a face. A tracery of a scent. The weight of fingertips on her cheek. The warmth of her first cradle, my arms.”
The narrator, Shalini, is a brilliantly etched character, one of the finest portrayals of privileged Indian womanhood seen in recent fiction. The author has honed her so convincingly that she maintains our empathy even when the more unpleasant sides to her personality are seen. At a rally not long before her arrest, where she finds out for the first time that her domestic worker’s locality has been without water for three years, her discomfort is evident. This is what happens when she sees a woman scratching an old mosquito bite: “The wound, a small black ring with a flaky white centre, looked deeply ugly against her dark skin. A spot of scarlet appeared and bubbled into a small drop. This she wiped with the pulp of her grubby finger. I turned away, suddenly sick, desperate to move to the better section, where at least the men weren’t wearing all this stinking polyester.” Yet, we somehow forgive her, accepting her moments of remorse, such as when she is put to work at the Purity Camp where new inmates are indoctrinated, and introspects: “I learned to properly sweep the floor with a jhadoo, down on my haunches… For the first time, it occurred to me that no one – not Riz, not I, our friends, family – had through to buy long-handled mops and brooms for our homes. Did we enjoy keeping these women’s noses to the ground as they cleaned? We brought in televisions and cars and phones and everything else from abroad, why not these simple things?”
That rally that Shalini accidentally attends also serves to complicate the politics of the time and place she lives in. Gradually, the various sectors had rigidified not from pressure from the very top, but from hardline stances from within. Riz and Shalini left their respective sectors for the East End precisely to avoid religious fundamentalism in their original ones, and were able to carry on with their lives with the surety that theirs too was a sector that would protect its own ways. At the rally she encounters the political rhetoric behind the segregations and the insistence on “purity”. She can no longer see it only in its fragments, in small differences of opinion that she can dismiss or look down upon. But neither can she quite see it all. Even once she is a resident of the Tower, having lost that life completely, she retains a mismatched admiration, tinged with nostalgia, for how it all works. She remembers: “Riz’s parents used to serve this special kebab, spicy, soft as pastry, prepared by a thirteen year-old, a bawarchi boy who came to their kitchen from the Qassab Slum outside their sector. They were happy to have him and he was happy to have such good masters. A fine system.”
Akbar has a style that is prone to loveliness and adept at finding tenderness even in so dismal a storyline, with evocative lines such as, “She sits by a window, centred precisely in a square of sunlight. Once in a while a frizz comes loose and falls on the side of her face like a lash of laburnum…” In one of the most surprising, endearing passages in the book, Shalini and Riz become physically intimate for the first time as teenagers, and she tries to not have him roll her T-shirt off completely, despite already being braless. “He looked at me again, smile gone, confused. Nothing’s wrong, I said, I just can’t take my shirt off. He laughed and wanted to know why. For many minutes I refused to explain, as he nibbled at my breasts and my ribs, sure that I would yield. When he didn’t stop asking I had to explain. Innocent of where this afternoon would lead, I’d forgotten to shave my underarms.” Elsewhere, and quite unrelatedly, he subverts the common word “godman” into “man-god”, cleverly defusing and lampooning the term.
It is astonishing how multi-pronged this novel is in its critiques. It critiques not only, and most obviously, the overt dangers of theocracy creeping into statehood, but brings individual accountability into the equation in very subtle ways. Shalini, having survived the night of the raid on her family, is ostracised by the same people who had enjoyed the freedoms she had had in the East End. Meeting one such friend years later, she hands her a gift, nailpolish in a pink box, for the friend’s daughter. It is declined ignominiously. “Pari isn’t this type of girl. Her father would never let her use it…. We have to bring up girls the right way. It’s the main thing. Everyone is watching. Comparing. Until a good man takes her away we have to be careful.” The friend is utterly unaware of the irony of her phrasing. She has simply allowed the establishment to enfold her and her mind, in exchange for a comfortable security.
Indeed, Leila’s power as a political novel lies not at all in what seems to be its overt premise of the authoritarian state, but in the undercurrent of easy privilege that lies just beneath it. This is what makes it lose its dystopian tag and firmly contextualises it in the current and the real. In doing so, it also throws up a great many questions toward the literary firmament. How often does something qualify as a dystopic work merely by recasting the privileged in the role of the helpless? How often are readers more horrified to recognise someone like them in a book about extremism than by what takes place daily in democracies held together by their votes, in their names? This mordant truth is finely elucidated by Akbar throughout the novel.
In one telling scene, Shalini tracks a woman named Sapna to a slum, believing she will find Leila there. Sapna laughs bitterly as she explains to her own daughter who Shalini is: “Remember this woman. The Tower is where they put high-borns…. Still they get big, big buildings. Toilets, fans, electricity, flush. Even when they break the rules they’re too good to be put out here with us. But us? Our crime is being born. We don’t get anything. We don’t deserve it.” Through Shalini’s eyes, we see gender politics. Through her choices and reactions – through the fact of her having those choices, which produce those reactions – we see the truly large picture: caste, class and communalism in a late-capitalist backdrop.
Leila is a devastating debut, a book that both mirrors and forewarns the India of today.
(An edited version appeared in Biblio, July-Sept 2017)
A boy is knifed in a train and bleeds to death on his brother’s lap on a station platform and no one sees. A young woman is stabbed and bleeds to death on another station platform and no one sees, but someone covers her with a shawl so that her womanly shape isn’t visible, for that is all they can see of her. Something cold sits on my heart, listening to them; how do they do it, looking me straight in the eyes and blithely revealing that they are among the unseeing?
They don’t register the headlines, the statistics, the faces, the stories. They demand proof even as it plays out before them. They claim blips and skewings, and when faced with facts, claim conspiracy. Last weekend I saw someone carrying a poster with a version of Bob Dylan’s words: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” Some – no, many – deaths don’t count because some (many) lives matter less than others. There’s a quota that can never be filled enough for them to say “Enough”. That’s not a riot, they say. And a riot’s not a holocaust. And at least a holocaust is not… well, no one will be left to finish that sentence.
And someone will ask me (I know the script) – how can you connect them, the boy with the skull cap and the girl with the stalker – and like a fabulist I will have to try to prove a theory of invisibility. About how there are reasons why some people can only see some things and not others. And I will play right into their hands when I tell them: when a girl was raped on a bus five years ago, you lit candles and raged, when the same thing happened to another girl in Salem a month ago, you scrolled past her, just like you did the one whose body was towed in a garbage truck, the pregnant one found brutalised at the bottom of a well, the one who was never written about at all but whom you would have ignored anyway.
Then they’ll say: where were you when the earth first wept (not yet born), or when that other silence stuck like tar (raising my voice, then as now, but it didn’t carry in the wind) or when those other dead were named (I hadn’t known then – but you had). As though their wilful, obstinate unseeingness is vindicated because of my not being omniscient. And they never turn the same question on themselves: where are you now, as this unfolds, and why do you justify it? And if you ask, they say flatly, “But there is nothing happening.”
They cannot see the forest burning for all the ashes in the trees. Cannot see structure, system, sense. Cannot see anything beyond their own noses, even as they fill with noxious smoke.
Here’s what I see then, if you can tolerate a Cassandra in the kingdom of closed eyes: nothing we have not already seen. Nothing humanity does not already know. Nothing humanity can forget – unless humanity has forgotten the meaning of itself.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 6th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
I learned a new adjective to describe myself last week. It’s “lady-oriented”. This expansion to my vocabulary came courtesy of a Central Board of Film Certification document banning the film Lipstick Under My Burkha. Everything about the trailer of the said movie looks amazing. Women having conversations with other women, women exploring fantasies, women admiring themselves in mirrors, women experiencing pleasure. Lady-oriented, definitely. By a woman (Alankrita Shrivastava), full of women and most importantly, for women. What’s not to like – unless maybe you don’t really like women?
Instead, the industry (and its gatekeepers) commend films like Pink (starring Amitabh Bachchan and, sorry, who were the female actors again?). I didn’t like it, but understood: it was a feminist film about women who are not feminists, made for other women and men who are also not feminists. It was not a film made for me, frankly. But Lipstick Under My Burkha might be. Will we ever know? Not if the CBFC has its way.
In Hollywood, meanwhile, a sexual predator just received an Oscar. But Casey Affleck, with multiple sexual harassment allegations against him, is hardly the first. Roman Polanski is only the most obvious example: his 2003 Best Director award was accepted on his behalf as he cannot enter the United States without being incarcerated for rape. Meryl Streep gave his win a standing ovation.
But Brie Larson, who had to present Affleck’s Best Actor awards at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars, refused to even applaud. This, like Denzel Washington’s visible anger at being thanked by the perpetrator, also caught on camera, was the only permitted expression of her horror. For Larson, who won an Oscar herself last year for portraying a sexual abuse survivor, to have to twice felicitate Affleck is a perfect example of the glass ceiling: no matter how hard a woman works, she is ultimately forced to kowtow to the patriarchy, which will always validate even its worst abusers. Sometimes to standing ovations from other women.
To come back to the situation in Indian cinema, actor Prithviraj recently pledged to stop supporting sexist films, apparently having an epiphany after his colleague, who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted, came back to the set. I liked the gist of his statement, as reported, but could not read it beyond “God’s most benevolent yet intricate creations. WOMEN!”, its patronising introduction. What I wonder is this: why did his colleague have to return to work in order for him to achieve enlightenment? If she had chosen to retire, would he have also have kept choosing to play chauvinists, unable to make the connection between environment and effect? Awe for her bravery – incidentally, a favourite trope of films about, but not for or by, women – is just another form of objectification.
Sigh. How sad it is that nearly every time we want to talk about women’s empowerment, we’re invariably drawn back to the context: misogyny.
That’s why I like this word, “lady-oriented”. It doesn’t even have to consider the male gaze, like literal lipstick worn under a burkha or peaceful ignore-the-doorbell bralessness. May we have more lady-oriented films. May we have more lady-oriented everything.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 2nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.
“Little is known about the lives of turtles underwater, but this much has long been understood: Where a turtle hatches is where she comes back to nest, a dozen or so years later. In the nearly three decades of the SSTCN’s work, Venkatramanan estimates that 2,50,000 eggs have been transferred from the beaches to the hatcheries, of which 2,00,000 hatchlings have been released into the sea.”
Read my piece on turtlewalking in Chennai, and the increasingly threatened marine ecosystem, in Hindustan Times.
When Anjali and I were really little, we were sort of afraid of our grandmother, Ammuchi…
Aditya and Anjali love listening to their grandmother’s stories, particularly the scary one about the ghost in the tree. But the night their grandmother passes away, all her stories seem to lose their meaning. Then something happens that is more mysterious and magical than any story. Could their grandmother still be with them after all? A poignant and moving story about bereavement and healing, stunningly illustrated and told in gorgeous poetic prose.
Selected reviews & interviews
‘Sharanya Manivannan’s beautiful story will help sensitive children from the world over make friends with loss, and Nerina Canzi’s colour-drenched, jewel-like illustrations bring this tale of grandmothers, families and a very special butterfly to radiant life. The Ammuchi Puchi will take children, and adults, of all ages, on an unforgettable, sweet-sad journey from grey back into a world of glorious colour.’ – Nilanjana Roy, award-winning author of The Wildings
‘Stunning, vibrant illustrations bring this book to life… Not only is this a poignant story, handling the issue of bereavement with tact and understanding, it also shows children that grief is a universal emotion, shared by all cultures and peoples. Simply beautiful!’ – North Somerset Teachers’ Book Awards blog
‘This is just a beautiful book, about love and loss and magic and subjective truth, the hugest of subjects delicately handled for the smallest of people.’ – Preeta Samarasan, award-winning author of Evening is the Whole Day
‘I was genuinely very emotional by the end of this book. I loved these children and their grandmother so much, it’s a very important relationship exemplified with emotion and heart…. The story itself is artfully done, we learn about a strong, sparky, joyful and creative female role model in Ammuchi, who adores her grandchildren, inspires them and ignites their imaginations! … A traditional story feel, bursting with bright colours and emotion set to the backdrop of beautiful India. One for every bookshelf and library.’ – Alexis Filby, Book Monsters
‘The essence of Ammuchi Puchi is of universal appeal and relevance. It’s a beautiful picture book, both for sharing and, with its satisfyingly substantial text, for an older child to read alone. It is a moving, thought-provoking story that doesn’t offer any answers, but only asks of its readers that they have an open mind – and is all the richer because of it.’ – Marjorie Coughlan, Windows, Mirrors, Doors
“On Magical Butterflies And The Special Love Of Grandmothers” – Interview on the Lantana Publishing blog
The Ammuchi Puchi ~ written by Sharanya Manivannan and illustrated by Nerina Canzi ~ Lantana Publishing, UK, October 2016