Women's Day ka Bhoot
Issue #97: Also, a Womaning reading list!
When it rains it pours.
For a writer of women’s stories, it usually pours in March when Women’s Day fever is high.
In the spirit of the bhoot, this week is all about Women’s Day recommendations.
I unlocked an old middle-class achievement this week when I was interviewed by the Hindustan Times!
Sonya Dutta Choudhury writes Book Box, a brilliant HT column about all things bookish. She was kind enough to interview me for her column this week.
For those of you who can’t get past the paywall, here is the full transcript of my answers to her thoughtful questions:
1. Tell us about your reading as a child - where did you grow up - how did you get interested in reading - where did you get your books from? Was either of your parents a reader?
I was fortunate to grow up in a house full of books. Some were children’s books - purchased recently for my brother and me. But most of the books in our home were those sepia-tinted beautiful old books with delicate pages that belonged to my grandfather, father, and mother. All of them were big lovers of books. In those years, my parents were quite busy with the everyday struggles in the life of a middle-class family – work, home, school, commute – but they still made time to read with us regularly, and that is where my love for books was born.
One of my earliest memories as a child is a project my father and I undertook – to catalog all the books in our house as one would ‘in a real library’. We had a Godrej almirah full of books that looked like an unending tower to me as a 3-foot-something person. I remember we cataloged them as fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, etc. with serial numbers and everything.
Over the years, our ‘real library’ got scattered as we moved houses quite often. But every now and then, I still come across a book from my childhood with a random code and number written on it in Papa’s handwriting or my six-year-old scrawl. Every time this happens, it takes me back to that tower of books I used to climb and makes me smile.
2. When you look back on your reading, have there been phases - or ways it has evolved and changed?
Oh yes, definitely. I grew up reading whatever caught my fancy – which is a pretty wide range when you are a kid.
But somewhere along the line, as I went through my engineering and MBA years, I picked up some vague idea of the kind of books one should read – all the books that were looked at with respect and reverence among what I considered “the intellectuals”. I spent (wasted) years trying to conform to those vague notions. Those were the years I did the least reading.
Thankfully, sanity prevailed, and at some point, I decided to only read books that brought me joy. I realized I found a lot of joy in stories. So, now, I almost exclusively read fiction books or non-fiction books with a strong element of storytelling. A large number of books I like also happen to be written by women.
3. Womaning in India, your substack newsletter, gets very intense engagement. What is the best part of the newsletter job? And one thing you would change?
Thank you! I love the entire process of writing Womaning. I love coming up with aspects of gender bias that might be blind spots for most people. I love correlating it with my own life experiences. I love that my process gives me an opportunity to talk to so many women and hear their stories.
I am grateful to every woman I have ever interviewed for allowing me a glimpse into their lives with such generosity. I am a big Bollywood fan so I really like it when my brain comes up with Bollywood memes that fit the piece I am writing. And hitting that “Publish” button is the ultimate dopamine hit in my life.
The discipline of writing week after week can get challenging, especially as a working mother with a whole other full-time job. But I would not change anything about it since this discipline has given me so much more than I have had to invest in it.
4. You write about a range of topics- tell us about three Womaning newsletters that have had the most intense responses.
My most-read piece, by a huge margin, is the Raja Beta syndrome. In this piece, I wrote about how Indian sons are so pampered as boys that parents often forget to teach them basic life skills. And when the boy becomes a man, the parents somehow continue to see him as the same pampered prince who is too delicate to get himself a glass of water from the kitchen. The piece became a bigger hit among readers than I had ever imagined. In fact, I wrote a sequel to it a year later – called Raja Beta Reloaded – and that just won an award for humour.
There have also been quite a few pieces that were difficult to write. In the past, I have written about divorce, abuse, miscarriages, illegal abortions, and sexual harassment. Listening to the stories of women for these pieces was intense and writing the pieces was emotionally draining. But I am grateful that my readers have stayed with me through the heavy pieces as well as they did the funny ones. They read with an open heart and even enquired about my own mental and emotional health – showcasing an amazing amount of empathy. I love that my newsletter attracts just the best readers.
5. Which writers have had the most influence on your writing?
I grew up identifying as a Potterhead, and kept gravitating toward writers who wrote simple prose while I evolved as a reader. After wasting a few years trying to read books that sent me running for the dictionary every half a sentence, I came to realize that good writing should not look like an effort to impress your reader with your highbrow vocabulary. Good writing, to me, feels like the writer is a friend talking to the reader. That is the style I try to emulate in my own writing as well.
In recent years, I have loved books by authors who felt like they were my friends, talking to me through their words. A few names that come to mind are Tig Notaro, Tim Urban, Lindy West, Austin Kleon, Glennon Doyle, Liane Moriarty, Gillian Flynn, Andy Weir, and Fredrik Backman.
6. What was the first feminist book you read? How old were you and how did you discover it?
‘Feminist books’ is a fairly recent trend in most Indians’ reading lists, so I do not recall coming across any in my early years of reading. But I read stories and characters that impacted the budding feminist in me long before I had even heard of the word. For example, I always loved Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books. I loved that she was smarter than everyone around her, and did not diminish herself to be liked by the boys or to protect them from feeling threatened by a smart girl. As a little girl, Hermione gave me the license to be as nerdy or geeky, studious or brave, unkempt or beautiful, as I wanted to be. Nancy Drew was smart, the Famous Five had an equal number of boys and girls in the gang, and Draupadi was a woman who knew her mind and was not afraid to follow it. Powerful female characters were a greater influence on me growing up than many of the feminist books I have read since.
7. What are some of your personal favorites in feminist writing? Classic as well as recent?
The first out-and-out feminist book I read was as late as about a decade ago. A friend recommended Shrill by Lindy West to me. In the book, West says:
“Feminism is really just the long slow realization that the things you love hate you.”
That line has stayed with me for years, and I quote it every time someone asks me how I can call myself a feminist and still love Bollywood.
I recently read Dear Ijeawele by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and reviewed it on Womaning. I think it is a must-read for every parent trying to raise a decent human being in this warped world of ours.
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez needs to be made compulsory reading in schools. I love Sarah Cooper’s How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men's Feelings because, well, just look at that beautiful title! I admire the naked honesty in the writing of Roxane Gay.
I love stand-up comedy and I think I might be following pretty much every feminist stand-up comedian on the planet right now (Comedic writing is writing too, and quite possibly the hardest kind there is!)
I am afraid I have not read any of the classics, but every now and again I find a quote by bell hooks, or Simone de Beauvoir, or Maya Angelou and make a mental note to get around to reading all of them someday!
8. Over the last few years, what trends have you observed in writing on women?
One trend that I love in the way women are written lately is that we are no longer trying to force-fit female characters into the tropes of the Madonna or the tramp. Women characters written today in books and movies are no longer binary – either sacrificial pious souls without a shred of grey, or scheming evil vamps without an ounce of decency. I like that we are finally giving women permission to be full humans, at least in our stories if not yet in reality. I really like reading women characters who are flawed, grey, funny, generous, murderous, loving, passionate – sometimes all at once!
9. Any favorite newsletters and blogs?
If you are interested in reading stories featuring full women characters like the ones I described above, a Mecca for me to find leads on good books is Reese Witherspoon’s book club, Hello Sunshine. Brilliant women characters, usually written by brilliant women authors.
I love Austin Kleon’s newsletter which is a weekly 10-point list of hyperlinks to the insane variety of things he was interested in that week. A lot of great advice for creators in there, and, links to beautiful stationery items which is my number one vice!
Another newsletter I like is Oldster which is a collective of various authors. Women from all ages and stages of life write about their stories, their experiences, and their lessons in the newsletter. I sometimes go down the rabbit hole of reading their old posts, and am never disappointed.
I also love a number of blogs about Bollywood, including Imaan Sheikh’s now-discontinued ‘Accurate and Honest’ summaries of classic movies from the 90s, and The Vigil Idiot by Sahil Rizwan. I still go back and re-read their old posts when I feel like I could use a laugh.
10. And lastly, what books are you currently reading?
I am usually in the middle of several books at once, so I am glad you asked about books, in plural!
One that I just started this week is What’s Our Problem? by Tim Urban, whose blog Wait But Why is another one of my favorites. I love how he breaks down complex scientific and historical facts using stories, examples, and cartoons that everyone can follow. I am excited to read the book that kept him away from his blog for six long years.
I just ordered My Daughter’s Mum and Immortal for a Moment by Natasha Badhwar. I discovered Natasha quite late but am now a regular reader of her newsletter, and look forward to diving into her books. I am sure I will emerge a better parent after reading her books.
Another book I am reading is Dr Cuterus by the always hilarious, Dr Tanaya Narendra, and can’t wait to learn some jaw-dropping facts about my own body from her book, as I have from her viral Instagram reels.
I am also really enjoying a Bollywood trivia book called Bollygeek, by Diptakirti Chaudhuri.
Finally, I am a few chapters into the book Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention by Johann Hari, because look at that list of books I am not finishing!
That’s all for the week. I hope you discovered some fun books from this one. Or at least enjoyed the memes.
Before I sign off, here is my final recommendation - a gentle reminder of how (not) to exorcize your Women’s Day ka Bhoot:
Womaning in India is a reader-supported newsletter. If you appreciate my work, show me your love by becoming a paid subscriber or buying me a coffee.
You will run out of middle and not so middle class achievements to unlock Mahima. There is so much here that I didnt know pehle. Yes I will ignore all the book reccos because you know…
But credit where it’s dur, thank God the set of questions were not cringe inducing
Hello-ji, Congratulations once again ... may every week be an achievement. Loved your answers. Especially the new rabbit holes you pointed out. Never thought R. Witherspoon had started a reading club. I loved the vigil idiot, and am glad he's started subscription... more power ..
I thought you'd mention Amit Varma too... as i am a huge fan and was the place i discovered your blog in the first place.
I was hoping this time around, you would write about Holi. I have never understood the festival of holi. Is there a write-up that you may point me to, to understand why women enjoy Holi? I have always found it quite the free play for toxic masculinity.