Tag Archives: women

The Venus Flytrap: Stripping For A Cause

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There’s a reason why you may not have heard of actor Sri Reddy before she stripped in front of Hyderabad’s Movie Artist Association (MAA) to protest the sexual exploitation of women in the cinema industry. That reason is why she chose to protest: Reddy alleged that despite coerced sexual favours obtained by gatekeepers in the field, she and other women were still denied career opportunities. The protest came shortly after MAA rejected Reddy’s application for membership. Later, Reddy also told the media that she had been raped by a producer’s son.

One does not have to agree with everything Reddy said or did in order to support the larger cause of her protest. In one interview following the protest, the actor seemed to both vilify sex work (“Big directors, producers and heroes use studios as brothels. It’s like a red-light area.”) as well as make a derogatory statement about caste (“Naresh [veteran actor and senior member of MAA] said we have to clean that place [where she stripped] with water. That is a big crime. How can you talk like that? I’m not an untouchable girl.”). Her articulations are undoubtedly problematic.

But to claim that her protest was just a performance or an attempt to steal the limelight is wrong. The use of the naked body as a last resort to reclaim power or demand attention to a cause has a powerful history. Without seeking to draw facile parallels with Reddy’s protest, other examples span the range from preventing doxxing to political insurgency. In 2004, 12 Manipuri mothers stripped in an iconic anti-military protest after the custodial rape and death of a young woman. Australian musician Sia released a nude picture of herself last year to foil an attempt to auction it off. Just weeks ago, farmers from Tamil Nadu stripped outside Delhi’s Rashtrapati Bhavan demanding drought relief funds. The body in protest is not sexual – in fact, it subverts the gaze by drawing attention elsewhere, to the cause for protest.

Reddy has been blacklisted by the MAA. She will not be able to work in Tollywood, and given that the exploitation she speaks of is widespread in most fields in India, may find it difficult to find employment anywhere. Disappointingly, other actors have not validated her allegations, despite the widespread awareness of sexual harassment and assault in cinema. But she joins the ranks of Sruthi Hariharan, Parvathy, Radhika Apte and a brave handful who have challenged the normalisation of misogyny behind the scenes (and onscreen) in their respective industries by speaking up.

Finally, there’s this. On MAA’s website, the very first category on a list of Galleries is literally called “Hot & Spicy”. This line of text precedes gratuitous images of women: “Maastars.com is an Official website of Movie Artist Association, you can find here Actress Hot and Spicy Photo Gallery. (sic)”

Proof, and how flagrant. A frustrated artist and rape survivor choosing an incendiary form of protest is not nearly as obscene as a mighty institution like MAA so openly celebrating the objectification of women on its online presence. Reddy is right – the industry is rotten, and thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to be.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 12th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Lady Snacks

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A writer in her 20s, to borrow from Virginia Woolf’s iconic treatise, needs a room of her own and disposable income. A writer in her 30s needs a room of her own, disposable income and no concern whatsoever for her slowing metabolic rate, because book-making and binging go hand in hand. Just ask the pretty inlaid tray that sits at the back of my laptop, currently filled with almond biscotti, dried fruit trail mix, coconut-coated peanuts and assorted chocolates (I already ate all the potato chips). It is literally behind every word I write. In the acknowledgements page of my next book, I will have to thank Netflix for a good work-life balance, Swiggy for recognising that a woman’s place is not by default in the kitchen, and God for inventing all the ingredients that go into peanut sticky chikki with rose petals.

Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s CEO, has been thinking a lot about snacking women lately. But there’s a sticker over my webcam, so her friends in surveillance couldn’t have included me in her recent field studies, based on which she concluded that there exists a need for a snack innovation: gender-specific Doritos. This might be why there’s only one line in this interview she gave about this breakthrough that applies to me (I think you can guess which one it is): “[Women] don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth… For women: low-crunch, the full taste profile, not have so much of the flavor stick on the fingers, and how can you put it in a purse? Because women love to carry a snack in their purse.”

The lazy way to make a product gender-specific is usually through colour and design. Children’s toy manufacturers are notorious for this kind of thing, making everything from pink globes to pink go-karts, but equally so are several men’s grooming products, an entire category which can be described as “putting the same moisturiser in a dark blue bottle”. Doritos could have gone this way, and we’d have been appalled for about two seconds before gluttony and a Pavlovian attraction to vivid fuchsia packaging might’ve had us whipping out our ladies’ debit cards – the one with a stereotypical graphic of a shopper on them (this is a real thing). The amount of consideration that went into Nooyi’s announcement makes laziness preferable.

A chip without crunch is a soggy, less tasty one. But Nooyi is not wrong in her observations. From hiding the messiness of dining to hiding its very fact, should it invite commentary on the body, many women are conditioned to downplay their eating habits. Which means they probably will eat the inferior chip rather than the loud one. What PepsiCo plans would, in a classic capitalist move, irresponsibly perpetuate such conditioning under the guise of sensitivity.

The best way to point fingers at a corporation like this, which only mirrors society, is to relish licking the flavours off those same fingers, knuckle deep in a bag of carelessly self-loving, mojo-feeding, tummy-cheering yumminess. Shamelessly. Slurpily.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 8th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Desires Unmet

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In Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, a group of mostly illiterate older women share and write down sexual fantasies and revelations with one another in a gurudwara classroom, while those in charge believe the old ladies are actually learning English. In Alankrita Shrivastava’s film, Lipstick Under My Burqa, four neighbours with significantly varied lifestyles conduct the shine-and-subterfuge that so many women in conservative places like India do. In secret, they work, party, sing, join protests, read erotica, conduct affairs – slipping on and off masks (or more literally, articles of clothing, be they burqas or swimsuits) that allow them to move between their true and ordained selves.

In both cases – the book, set in suburban London, and the film, set in Bhopal – the women’s solidarity with one another is a natural falling-together, an effect of proximity and circumstance. They have not been influenced by rhetoric, or raised with exposure to it; they have been moved only by logic and desire, despite how incompatible the two may seem. Indeed, I can see both groups together, crossover-style: among them, the resourceful Shireen who climbs the ladder of a sales career without her husband’s knowledge, the elderly Arvinder who reveals a memory disguised as a story, the wilful student Rehana who articulates rebellion in front of the sudden spotlight of a camera, the grieving Kulwinder who finds that life can still hold pleasure.

It was by coincidence that I watched Lipstick Under My Burqa on one of the days when I was also reading Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. They complemented each other so well, such that the middle-aged, widowed character of Usha in the film, played by Ratna Pathak, would have found herself at ease in the English gurudwara. Like the migrant widows, she is regarded as a non-sexual being. In truth, they are anything but – something which is routinely unacknowledged, either in fiction or in life. It was only extraordinary to see her portrayed in Indian cinema, for the many Ushas around us are dismissed daily, their desire seen alternately as non-existent, humourous or shameful.

Lipstick Under My Burqa left me saddened for hours afterwards. Was this the movie that had caused such a controversy with the censor board (not to mention the creation of that odd little phrase – “lady-oriented”)? There’s a little bit of sex, sure – but more vividly, there’s rape. Marital rape, to be precise, which does not legally exist in India. And humiliation, heartache and helplessness. It’s a film about women’s fantasies, yes – but more pertinently, it’s a film about women’s realities. About need and nature and how both are crushed by force. Nothing titillating about that.

It’s a film about fulfilled desire only as a matter of luck, and sexual repression or frustration as demands. I won’t say more, because I shouldn’t give away what happens in this poignant and disturbing film. But I will say this: if, like me, you are filled with sorrow afterward, turn to the surprisingly uplifting Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows as a chaser. I’m grateful I was consuming both pieces of art at once. Book and film, too, fell together in quiet solidarity.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Women Infantilised By Society And Law

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A young Indian woman named Hadiyah, moved and perhaps given meaning by a faith other than the one she was born into, decided to convert. She eventually signed up on a matrimonial website that would allow her to find a like-minded partner. Despite Hadiyah being 24 years old, and despite the fact that Kerala high courts had rejected two petitions filed by her father claiming she had been forcibly converted, a third such petition resulted in her marriage being annulled – and her being sent into parental custody with this infantilising statement: “A girl aged 24 years is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited…”. The Supreme Court has since ordered an investigation into the marriages of formerly Hindu women to Muslim men as a potential terrorist conspiracy.

The concept of “love jihad” is not only Islamophobic, it is also a clear insult to all women. And with violent overtones: recent reportage has revealed some truly terrifying tactics including kidnapping, coercion and even drugging women (at an Ernakulam hospital) so that they comply with their parents’ wishes. In every such scenario, the freedom of an adult woman to make her own choices is either questioned or curtailed. It is also worth iterating that marital rape is not criminalised in India. Marital rape cannot exist in this worldview because women’s autonomy – the right to reject or consent – does not exist. She is her family’s, community’s, state’s – or in a panchayat-style redressal, her rapist’s – property. A woman in India can’t assuredly choose or refuse a partner, but a man can rape his wife under protection of law.

Another recent case involved Irom Sharmila, who ran for election in Manipur after a 16-year hunger strike. After defeat at the polls, she retreated from public life and reportedly found solace in Kodaikanal. But when she announced her engagement to her long-term partner, the welcome proved to have been short-lived. A Tamil Nadu-based Hindu group filed a petition to keep her from marrying there, alleging that the city’s security would be at stake. Oddly, it was marriage – the antiquated notion of “settling” – that had roused the petitioners.

To these two high-profile cases relating to marriage, mobility and the denial of adult women’s agency, here’s a third one that suggests how such a societal milieu comes about and is maintained. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court denied an abortion to a 10 year old who had been raped by her uncle, ignoring medical experts’ caution that the risks presented by a late-term termination were outweighed by the risks of carrying the foetus to term and undergoing childbirth. (Abortion is legal up to the 20th week, after which special permission must be given). She gave birth via caesarean section last week. According to reports released after the delivery, the survivor was never told that she was pregnant, but that she had a “stone” in her stomach. This can only mean that despite having undergone the horrors of rape, she continues to be denied basic sex education, or the right to information. Neither her body nor her mind have been treated with respect.

She gave birth to another girl. And so the cycle continues.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 24th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Breastfeeding – In Public, In India

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We had just ordered lunch at the 5-star hotel when Shamala Hinrichsen’s 8-month old got hungry too, so his lovely mom reached right into her dress and started to feed him. Our conversation continued as she rocked him gently. That was the first time I’d seen a woman breastfeed publicly in Chennai, without hiding her body. A foreigner of Tamil origin who’s been travelling extensively around India on work, she says, “I’ve seen women in rural areas do it with unapologetic authority. It’s a perfectly natural act.”

The Indian railways announced recently that 100 of their stations will have segregated nursing areas. In a letter to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, these areas were specified as “[a corner] provided with a small table and a chair with appropriate partition/screen around it.” But is that enough? Dentist Dr. Deepa V., whose child was recently weaned, never nursed openly owing to shyness. She says, “In public facilities, people still turn to the wall to hide themselves. I remember the looks my relatives gave me whenever I lifted my salwar to feed while travelling with them. I think this discomfort is the main reason why we train babies to accept formula milk earlier.”

Another mother, now nursing her 7.5 month old, related how she sat at an eatery in a Chennai mall and started to nurse, unable to do so in the stuffy public toilets. Immediately, the staff directed all the male customers to sit away from her. She was appreciative of the concern for privacy and comfort. “I think the horror stories we read about breastfeeding moms being fined, shamed or trolled are really a US problem,” she says. “There’s a solid sisterhood solidarity everywhere for the nursing mom. No judgement if I’m in a salwar kameez or saree or tank top or shorts and I want to feed the baby – that’s it, the sisterhood comes into force.”

Theatre director Samyuktha PC returned to work 3 months after childbirth, bringing her daughter to rehearsals, and openly nursed when required. “At first, I did cover myself, but the cloth over me just made Yazhini and I sweat so badly. And it felt cruel to do that.” From then on, she simply asked if others were comfortable, and carried on – anywhere. “But outside of home and work, bad experiences happened quite often – men staring, women thinking it was their right to drape me. But I was also supported and told I was courageous. I would rather it be normalised.”

While it comes down to personal preference, there’s no doubt that these preferences can be inhibited by societal norms. Which is why Shamala’s unapologetic public nursing seemed especially triumphant to me. In Mumbai recently, when she began to breastfeed on the ground floor of a café, men on the balcony level took their phones out and started to photograph her. She kept feeding. “Would I be gawked at or judged if I were feeding someone with a spoon? I think not. Possibly because it is from an appendage. My breasts. I would like to think people would be as judgemental if I were feeding from, say, my nose.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods, Blind Screens, The Sun And Her Flowers, Wild Embers

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Even when Tishani Doshi writes of the strange gratitude of “not being in the nicer hotel”, for the inspiration that comes “Because if it weren’t for this mouse-spiced/ air, this particular desire to be anywhere/ but here, how else to turn the howl/ into song?”, or when Ranjani Murali takes a recording-assisted tour of Alcatraz, the blood and body of their new books of poetry is quite literally just that. No matter what their other preoccupations or locations, both poets circle around and back to the subject of female fear. Doshi’s Girls Are Coming out of the Woods is underpinned by macabre newspaper headlines that cut close to home, manifesting in brutal crimes, and memories and dread that breathe down one’s own neck at all hours. In Murali’s debut, Blind Screens, she often employs as her canvas the cinematic screen, and in technicolour or off-camera, she situates several of her most politically loaded poems from a tangential gaze, always framing as her subjects women in relation to morality and society.

This is the most visceral of Doshi’s three books of poetry, reaching into the wounded places of the feminine psyche in ways that ache with how universally they are experienced. Some of the poems have direct triggers, cases that make the headlines, and the triggers open out onto traumas. Take this powerful description in the poem “Disco Biscuits”: “… most of us have known a man/ who arrived like Bill [Cosby] – sleek and proud as a July/ thunderstorm. How so many of us gave in to that sleekness/ because when you’re young you don’t know that your bones/ have been giving way the second you were born. So you give/ and your giving’s large and uncalculated. But then/ there’s the haunting.”

Throbbing through the collection are many hauntings, among them murdered women unknown or beloved. In “Everyone Loves A Dead Girl”, the poet says frankly, in the voice of such a ghost: “I would like to talk about what it means to suffocate on pillow/ feathers, to have your neck held like a cup of wine,/ all delicate/ and beloved, before it is crushed.” The poet does exactly this, pinning down images of death and decay unflinchingly. Even musings on aging relatives and crematoriums don’t come from nowhere: at the centre of them is something beyond idle morbidity. In “The Leather Of Love”, she writes: “And when we lie in bed and talk/ of the body’s failings, of the petulant dead, of / disenchantment and insufficient passion,/ we’re chewing through fears so thick our/ teeth are beginning to rust.” An army of girls – girls “with panties tied around their lips”, “girls “found naked in ditches and wells”, girls who didn’t survive or maybe did – emerges in the collection’s eponymous poem, dedicated posthumously to a murdered friend of the author’s. Rather than rouse, it chills. “Girls are coming/ out of the woods, clearing the ground/ to scatter their stories” she writes. You can almost hear her breathlessness in the last line – the poet passing the baton to the voices coming through her: “Girls are coming out of the woods./ They’re coming. They’re coming.”

In Blind Screens, Murali slips a cast of heroine characters, female actors and women in celluloid-stronghold cities like Bombay and Madras into poems in several registers, and just like all subtext cinematic and otherwise, they bind the collection together. Sometimes, we see them through the dehumanization of the male gaze, as in “Circa 1970’s Tamil Film Stalker’s Ghazal”, which escalates quickly from admiration to physical violence. Murali’s voice changes deftly; in the very next poem, “Mangaatha, or The Case of the Former Circus Artiste Now Distracted”, she takes on the persona of a performer as she flees a gang of men, all whom have handled her, literally, in less that professional ways. She holds tightly to her trapeze bars and swings away – but straight into the gaze of “the young policeman…. his mouth blackening/ at the sight of my pooling silk”.

This deft interplay between stage illusion, misogynist delusion and the literal difficulty of being female in a society trained to perceive itself as entitled to putting its hands on all it rests its eyes on comes together most forcefully in “Historical Movie Scene”, in which a male audience member heckles the narrator as she gets up to leave a theatre. Onscreen, a woman dances, “a glitter-filled belly button zooming into our faces”, while the man screams, “Ey, figure da, looking, going”. She stumbles and keeps walking, while “The same heckler calls out, “Wait, ma, watch/ where you’re going!” to me as the actress dances a stream of blood/ into an unfenced balcony, where a throng of snarling,/ cotton-stuffed, cross-eyed vultures claw into her mouth.”

This accomplished collection contains many variegations that fill and colour its pages with all the elaborate textures of Indian cinema: among them, “Beggars”, with a fortune telling parrot electrified with terror by a feline scent, which morphs beautifully through Murali’s phrasing into predators of another kind: “the director who recently/ celebrated the hundredth day jubilee,/ the local minister, the mayor, and even/ the child-star who likes to play with/ cheetah cubs in his spare time.”

In “Female Lead Waits For The Kurinji”, she juxtaposes two tropes: that of the flower that blooms once every twelve years, archetypal since ancient Tamil literature, and that of the modern heroine for whom a flower is but a metaphor. In the poem’s final lines, the narrator says to the kurinji, with or without self-consciousness: “Your own curse/ is not that of lack, but of being watched as you bloom.”

One imagines that the girl who becomes a woman – who “blooms” under watch – may often speak to herself in the rudimentary voice of Rupi Kaur’s poems. The Sun And Her Flowers is a book that surprises: nothing of Kaur’s work online suggests it will be anything but craftless, but placed in context, in page after page rather than in pithy cropped Instagram lines, a different effect accrues. Not quite beautiful or original, but together, the poems carry a clarity that is convincing, a soft voice that soothingly intones the familiar. A few pages in, one is reminded of a specific multi-genre work of art, discussed below, and understands that a slow-release impact is intended. What is not achieved in craft is compensated for in fine emotional control, the tenor in which Kaur writes about topics as personal as rape and the poignance of knowing how little time she has left with the mother who she has finally begun to understand. Some of Doshi’s girls, too, along with Murali’s women, must have had these thoughts.

But this is not to suggest ingenuity. In interviews, Kaur deliberately presents the image of being a non-reader. A recent article on her sardonically points out her interest in a book of Kafka’s – not for the contents but for the cover design. It’s an image that those who love to loathe all writers of her ilk, and the Instapoetry fad itself, enjoy. But it is patently false. As even just the first pages of The Sun And Her Flowers turn, there’s a clear debt to Beyonce’s Lemonade – which was scripted by the poet Warsan Shire. Again, in the sections that speak of immigrants and refugees, Kaur transparently aspires to resonate like Shire does. It would be remiss to not bring up Nayyirah Waheed’s allegation that Kaur plagiarised her work, an allegation layered with an undertone of anti-blackness. So the poem “legacy”, which goes “i stand/ on the sacrifices/ of a million women before me/ thinking/ what can i do/ to make this mountain taller/ so the women after me/ can see farther” begs the question: whose shoulders has Kaur chosen to stand on, unacknowledged? It is not enough that she labels two illustrations as homages to two Punjabi visual artists, Amrita Sher-Gil and Sobha Singh – more problematic is how she devises the image of herself as a literary pioneer in her lineage, without credit to the many pools from which she sourced her syntax.

But here, another poet similar in background – female, Punjabi, raised in the West, famous through social media – bears mention. Read side by side with Nikita Gill’s new book, Wild Embers: Poems of Rebellion, Fire and Beauty – which attempts to revise fairytales without ever moving past the Disney versions and is replete with confusion about its emotional and political core – The Sun And Its Flowers appears all the more sincere in its naïveté. It’s an uncanny contradiction: Kaur is clearly winning for she has studied how to be accessible, but the work somehow comes across as true. Which is why we can’t dismiss her on the basis of craft alone – not only is she better than her contemporaries who attempt depth, but the struggle and sentiment conveyed in her work is also the very pathos that moves stronger poets like Shire, Waheed, Murali and Doshi. Whatever their calibre, the girls are certainly coming out of the woods – bearing words, accusatory and revelatory.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.

Book Review: Women At War: Subhas Chandra Bose And The Rani Of Jhansi Regiment by Vera Hildebrand

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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.