Five female authors discuss their struggles, their triumphs, their concerns, and their love for the city.
Most cities in India speak a language unintelligible to women, a section of the population not considered a part of the thrum. But not Mumbai. This city inspires, moves, enrages and soothes its female occupants and for five female authors – Paromita Vohra, Harnidh Kaur, Amrita Chowdhury, Shobhaa De and Meher Mirza, it also gives a voice to their writing. “Mumbai is much freer than other cities. It gives you the freedom to learn. And living alongside other people who are also struggling helps you overcome stigmas about cast and class,” says Paromita, who has live in a number of different cities before making this one her home.
Harnidh, who also dabbles in poetry, observes, “You write differently when you are in Bombay.” When Shobhaa asks what it is about the city that’s given them the courage to speak out, Amrita is the first to respond and says that unlike many other cities in India, Mumbai lets you be. “When I visit my father, who lives somewhere else, I am expected to have a certain vocabulary and body language. But Mumbai frees me of that expectation, and it allows me to be different.” Meher, too, is grateful for having a voice as an individual and as a representative of her community.
According to the writers, what makes Mumbai interesting is its unique spirit of comradeship. “There is a big space for women in this city,” says, Paromita. Shobhaa asks if they are subjected to a special scrutiny just because they’re female authors, and Harnidh responds saying that When you are a feminist writer, male readers and critics weaponize the idea of sensuality against you, and they de-sensualise you. “What defines us is whether you are submissive to the masculine definition of sensuality? If I want a feminine definition of sensuality, I will write it.” Paromita agrees, saying, “There is nothing wrong in being sexual, but in our own ways, not somebody else’s. It is up to the woman writer to put our definitions out.”
There are lenses through which critics and marketers view different works, and in those lenses perhaps there is a very traditional approach to writing, especially about sex, “there’s a certain perspective. But there are writers who are changing that,” Amrita says. Referring to Martha Nussbaum’s book The Monarchy of Fear, Shobha asks about women’s tendency to vent both online and offline. “The masculine tendency is to externalise anger, and the feminine tendency is to internalise it. Women will vent, but in small doses, and then they let things go on. Over the last five years, women are finally expressing their anger, especially through the #MeToo movement. So now, if you say a woman who expresses her anger is a feminist, you’re saying that you don’t like a woman to express her anger,” says Harnidh who adds that merely venting out serves no purpose unless it leads to some kind of change within us.
The writers also assert that to addresses a structural problem, there has to be a conversation where you have to get people to care about it. “With movements like the #MeToo campaign, we’re addressing years of inequality, and to expect us to vent all of our anger and move on at once is ridiculous, give us some time,” Harnidh explains. And it starts with just articulating the thoughts.” That is a huge step for us. A women’s anger is just like anybody else’s anger. It can be a starting point, but it cannot be my endpoint. You have to remain vigilant that you don’t get caught up in it, and that you do productive things,” she adds.