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A must read book for anyone above 12, Like A Girl by Aparna Jain is a treasure house of the real stories of the great women of India.
I am the least religious person you would find, yet, every single morning the past 15 years has started the same way for me. I get up and switch on Vaalmiki Ramayana’s Sundara Kaandam. In case you feel lost, Sundara Kaandam is the part of Ramayana from the point Hanuman jumps from the tip India to Lanka and comes back to India with news of Sita. I have it on my phone and I play it the first thing in the morning. Though it is a 2.5 hour recording, all I really listen to is timeline 18 minutes – 20 minutes.
Yes, this is still a book review of Like A Girl by Aparna Jain. Please stay with me and I will soon connect the dots.
When Hanuman jumps across the ocean he is confronted by many obstacles and finally lands firmly on Lanka and the 2 minutes I listen to ends with,
“When a person is on a mission, he is faced with 4 kinds of obstacles. Self doubt, distraction and/or discouragement from family and well meaning friends, your enemies working against you, being tested by a higher power. Only the person who perseveres through all the above can be successful.”
This right here is my mantra for the day and for life in general. And every single day I hear this recording, I think, ‘Hanuman is a man and he faced only 4 kinds of obstacles, if he had been a woman he probably would have faced 400 different kinds of obstacles!’
Like A Girl by Aparna Jain is the story of a select set of Indian women who have faced many different kinds of obstacles and have persevered!
In the preface, Aparna makes it no secret that this book is inspired by Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. I was hooked on to the book right from the honest, from-the-heart preface, where she outlines the challenges she faced right from shortlisting the people she wanted to write about and what she wanted to write about them. The result is a book, with many layers and with content that is suitable for a target audience, slightly older than the age group Goodnight Rebel Girls targeted.
You have stories of people like Indira Gandhi and Jayalalitha, neither were firsts in terms of the world’s first woman prime minister nor India’s first woman chief minister, but both were formidable women in their own right. Aparna’s narration is simple, matter of fact and outlines their rise to power as well as their abuse of power, ending with their conflicted legacies without taking a moral high ground.
We read stories of historical figures like Sultan Razia and Chand Bibi who gave up gender specific clothing in order to shift the world’s focus away from their gender and to their actions. On the other hand we read stories of people like Amrita Sher Gill and Homai Vyarawalla, who made a statement by dressing up in sarees so that they stand out in a male dominated profession.
I didn’t know Savitribai Phule was from the shudra community. As human beings we have no control of the nationality, the social-economic class and gender we are born into, but it automatically becomes a factor in our success. Though comparing the struggles of a woman born in a progressive family, like for instance Rukmani Devi Arundale, to that of a woman like Savitribai Phule, is like comparing apples and oranges, one has to admit that a woman born in a shudra community already has a few things working against her. And it makes it exponentially difficult for her to stand her ground and not give up her ideal. A simple sentence like,
“…as young Savitribai walked to school, people would throw cow dung and mud at her. They were angry that she was teaching young girls from the lower castes… [so]Savitribai started carrying an extra sari to change into when she reached school.”
speaks volumes of the struggles and steadfastness of Savitribai Phule.
I didn’t know of some phenomenal women like Devika Rani, Rukhmabai Raut, Homai Vyarawalla, Birubala Rabha etc and it was delight to read about them. And it was equally wonderful to read about the people I knew, the bond Captain Lakshmi Seghal and Mirnalini Sarabhai shared, Leila Seth choosing to study law because it was the only stream that allowed the then young mother the least attendance, the sweet romance between Asha Bhosle and R.D.Burman and total goosebumps when I read about how Kishori Amonkar briefly lost her voice and coped up with it!
There are stories like that of Shah Bano Begum’s. These are stories I grew up listening to on the DoorDarshan news, but it was just news to me then. Presently one reads so much about triple talaq, and the story of Shah Bano Begum, drove home the point why what she fought for was so monumental! Bhanwari Devi’s story is also one such story that I have know of, but reading it in Like A Girl was eye opening!
Which brings to my mind the question, what is that, that made these women to single-mindedly pursue the one thing that mattered to them the most? People like Rashida Bi and Champa Devi Shukla were pushed into activism due to circumstances. While Aruna Roy had the kind of environment that shaped her into the person she is now. People like Barkha Dutt had a strong role model in the family to look up to. But in the end what makes these extraordinary women to fight so hard for what they believe in? What makes Medha Patkar to see a life time of work not leading to the ideal they have fought so hard for, and yet go on with so much energy and hope?
Since I cannot possibly talk about all the 51 women featured, I am just going to say that diligent work has gone into curating the content with utmost care to include people from all walks of life and from different time frames.
If at all I missed something, it is the date of birth of these women. Being aware of the rough timelines as I read the book would have definitely added to my perspective.
The book is supported by art work from 27 artists, each with their own style and potential make the book come alive. Rae Zachariah’s stood out to me and I am sure every person who reads the book will have their own favourites. Having a favourite does not reduce the importance of the work of the other artists. Each work, unique in its own way, sharing the same platform and touching people in different ways, that is the beauty of art isn’t it?
While Goodnight Stories leaves you exhilarated, Like A Girl leaves you with a sigh, a heavy heart, but with a lot of hope.
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Top image via YouTube/ Wikicommons, and book cover via Amazon
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Anitha Ramkumar is a teacher, librarian, a dreamer and an independent spirit. She used to
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