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Plan India’s Because I Am A Girl is a non-fiction anthology which hopes to tell the varied stories of women in India.
Review by Unmana Datta
Because I Am A Girl is a small book of non-fiction stories by different authors published in collaboration with Plan India a child development organization, as part of its global campaign to fight gender inequality. It is actually shorter than it seems from the page count (178) because the font size is large. Is it meant for children then? Probably not: only two of the seven protagonists are actually young girls, and the first story contains descriptions of child prostitution.
The reason I’m not fond of anthologies in general is that they’re usually too uneven. The problem is compounded in this book because only two of the authors are (professionally, or arguably, in any other sense) writers.
The editors wisely kept the best up first: Anjum Hasan’s Walking the Line is an interesting exploration of prostitution, and is at once shudder-inducing and full of hope. Mina was pimped out by her father when she was a little girl and later worked as a bar dancer in Mumbai. Today she lives with her husband, Mahendar, and daughter, Abhilasha, in a village in Rajasthan and runs a small store. Yet it’s emphasized that Mina’s is the rare happy ending.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s profile of Radha is almost as interesting. As a teenager still in college who lives in the slums and is proud of her office job, Radha is both a success story and someone we can cheer for. While there’s a looming prospect of her being married off to her uncle, she seems confident she can resist the pressure. The only letdown in this story is the long page and a half of explanation on how the author’s life is different from the character’s, and “how we take everything we’re blessed with for granted.” What kind of unfeeling person did they expect to be reading the book to need this spelled out? Or is this just a devious call to support Plan India? (All the stories in the book are about women or girls who were helped by Plan India.)
But Madhavan’s story is the only other one remotely worth reading. The others reveal not just the deficiency of writing skills in the authors, but also, in one case, a stunning display of privilege and arrogance. Shahana Goswami writes proudly of condescending to talk to a fellow commuter in a Mumbai train, asks her probing personal questions, asks to be invited to her home, and exults in her opportunity to understand how “an average Indian woman leads her life.” She doesn’t even ask this young woman for her name until after she’s done visiting her house and prying into her private life for her voyeuristic pleasure.
The lack of editing weighs heavily on this book. A skilled editor could easily have moulded some of these stories into more interesting, nuanced ones, since the protagonists themselves are interesting, but the authors (barring the first two mentioned above, who do this admirably) seem to find it difficult to get over themselves and actually learn about the people who are ostensibly at the centre of the story. Also left in are sad errors like “the Sharma’s building” and “Maggie noodles”.
Govind Nihalani’s introduction is superfluous and full of spoilers, and contains a brief synopsis of every story that follows.
If you are interested in gender issues, the first story by Anjum Hasan is well worth reading: but probably not worth the price of the entire book.
Publishers: Random House
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Unmana is interested in gender, literature and relationships, and writes about everything she's interested
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