I started reading to my daughter when she was about two and struggled to find books with female leads. Barring Peppa Pig and princesses, I had to keep changing the pronoun for every tiger, bear and child from a ‘he’ to a ‘she’. In 2017, ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls’ eased my problems some bit by stringing together stories of 100 accomplished women from around the world. My daughter loved reading it, but she was quick to point out, ‘Mama, there are mostly Americans in this book. Where are the stories about Indian girls?’
Not so far away from Gurgaon, Aparna Jain – leadership coach and author of two books – pondered over the same question. Why not introduce Indian kids to the amazing Indian women who have challenged status quo and are leaders in their own rights? With a little nudge from Karthika V.K. and Gautam Padmanabhan of Westland Books , ‘Like a Girl’ : Real Stories for Tough Kids’ was born. The rest, as they say, is blood, toil, hard work, collaboration and history. Ayesha Broacha, the creative director, incollaborated with twenty-six artists to make the book larger than life. ‘Like A Girl’, released in July 2018, covers 56 Indian women icons.
This event was attended by members of GurgaonMoms. The Quorum Club hosted Aparna for an interactive discussion on a Sunday morning as a part of their ‘Writers in the Q’ series. Aparna is a straight taking feminist and a Diversity and Inclusion activist, and I was excited about leading this conversation with her.
Sometimes, the power of a message is not conveyed what you say, but through the response and introspection that you invoke. Aparna used this beautifully to kindle the audience (and me) to rethink our deep-rooted beliefs about ‘like a girl’. She turned to the audience and asked them about the usual connotations of ‘like a girl’. ‘Cry like a girl’, ‘behave like a girl’ ‘Ladkiyon ki tarah maar rahe ho’ came the responses. Then she flipped the question around and asked, ‘Who runs like a girl?’ Pat came the reply – ‘Hima Das’. ‘Who boxes like a girl?’ ‘Mary Kom’ ‘Who smashes like a girl?’ ‘PV Sindhu’
By the third question, we had all realized that ‘like a girl’ isn’t what it’s made it out to be – and we have living examples of that. Like our star performers in the Asian Games 2018, the 56 women in ‘Like A Girl’ are bound together by strength, curiosity, bravery, determination and resilience to question the status quo. They truly show what a girl can really do.
A few of the icons like Indira Gandhi or PV Sindhu are household names but many come from obscure parts of the country or are rarely covered by mainstream media. Bama, a Tamil Dalit activist, is one such icon. Aparna’s niece read a few lines about Bama from the book – lines that made her angry that casteism still existed in our country even in the 21st century. Aparna talked about Bama’s life including the realization that caste was so deeply entrenched that it transcended religions and was rampant in the caste-less halls of Christian missionaries. Bama’s autobiographical book ‘Karukku’ got her banished from her own village but today is a bestseller and has been translated into various languages.
A number of the life stories of these icons aren’t easy to tell, as they are horrifyingly brutal and agonizingly unjust. When asked about it, Aparna said that it is important to tell the good with the bad, especially to children, and we should focus on the strength of the subjects. She recalled her meeting with Bhanwari Devi, diminutive and swathed in a ghaghara, the old lady had one advice to women under threat of sexual assault – ‘Fight back with all the might you have!’ Fear is the weapon of the bully and it is important to stand up for oneself.
Aparna also talked about how histories get distorted and women are short-changed – like Sultan Razia is referred to as ‘Razia Sultan’ in history textbooks and movies, implying that she was the monarch’s wife when in fact she was the monarch herself.
Aparna also stressed that it is important to talk about certain taboo topics like mental health and develop sensitivity. She cited the example of Vandana Gopikumar and Vaishnavi Jayakumar – friends and college mates – who set up ‘The Banyan’ to help those mental health patients who have been abandoned by their families.
Through the story of Gauri Sawant, the transgender mom, Aparna introduced the idea of gender fluidity and the society’s rigid gender identities. Gauri, born as Ganesh, was mocked as a child for being effeminate especially as her father was a ‘masculine’ police office and was denounced by her own family. Despite the odds, she has worked for the welfare of the hijra and transgender community and adopted an abandoned child.
We also had a special guest for the event, Ritu Dalmia – chef par excellence, owner of Diva Restaurants and one of the petitioners for decriminalization of homosexuality in India. Ritu, in her affable and effervescent manner, recounted a tale from her school days as her first brush with hypocrisy and discrimination. She talked about being a rebel in school and pursuing her dreams amidst opposition from her traditional Marwari family. In her tongue-in-cheek manner, she goaded kids and parents alike to look beyond formal education and marks, and focus on passion, attitude and skill development. When asked about her role as the petitioner against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, she replied with candor that throughout her life she had worked for accolades and in her social circle, it didn’t matter that she was a lesbian and in fact, her mother had been accepting of her partner. This crusade was her way of fighting was what she stood for – for everyone who is different from the narrow heterosexual norm – so that no one is treated as a criminal on the basis of his or her sexual identity. She signed off saying that failure is the stepping-stone to growth.
It was great to have the kids and parents join in the free wheeling discussion that followed – a great way to start conversations to carry back home. It was indeed a Sunday morning well spent!
‘Like A Girl’ forms a part of our daily reading and is the top-most on our gifting list and I highly recommend that you add to it yours. You can follow @likeagirl.co.in on insta for inspiration.
The official photographer for the event was the young Aashna Sethi.
Venue: The Quorum Club, Two Horizon Center, First Floor, DLF5, Golf Course Road, Sector 43, Gurugram
This write-up has been contributed by Shweta Markendya
Shweta was born in an argumentative family – squashed between two siblings and two lawyers as parents, to negotiate with. She spent most of her
working life, post the mandatory engineering and management degrees, in Mumbai – as an investment banker and private equity investor. Motherhood put her on another track and now she reads, writes and travels. Her seven-year old daughter is the inspiration for her travel blogs and posts – you can follow their adventures on the Voyages Petits blog and on Instagram. You can read Shweta’s book reviews on her blog – Her Story and History.