Spunky, feisty older Indian women are central characters in new book
Spunky, feisty older Indian women are central characters in new book
A book portraying older Indian women – not the typical centres of Indian fiction – as spunky, strong, rebellious and flirtatious and no longer simply living their lives for others, was launched at Asia House.
Sleeping on Jupiter by Indian author Anuradha Roy, was launched as part of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2015 and was the first pre-Festival event. Gender is one of the key themes of this year’s Literature Festival which starts on 7 May and continues until 18 May.
In the same way that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) film gave older people a new lease of life as central characters of a popular movie, this book gives older Indian women the unusual role of being the main characters of an Indian fiction book as they set off on holiday together – without any children, or men. Whilst the book also shows a dark side of India by portraying child abuse in ashrams by godmen, through these three women’s feisty spirits and slight rebelliousness, the book also challenges the negative stereotyping of Indian women as oppressed.
“The book is set over five days with flashbacks,” Roy said in conversation with Claire Armitstead, books editor for the Guardian and Observer. “It is essentially about people facing completely unexpected situations in their lives by being in a different setting. Sometimes they have planned to be there and at other times they have found themselves there, but they are at a crossroads in their lives where they have to face things they haven’t before and this often brings them to some form of crisis.”
The book is about people who have reached a point in their lives where they need to find a different reality. One of the characters finds that in another planet that has 16 moons – thus the title of the novel, she explained.
Roy’s third novel is set in an imaginary Hindu pilgrimage town by the sea called Jarmuli: a deeply Hindu town full of temples, some ruined and some still in use. “The town is frequented by pilgrims who are there because they are religious or they are coping with questions of belief and faith; some have been scarred by religion and some enriched by it, but they are all there because of their religion,” she said.
Dressed in a red scarf and a pink kurta, Roy added: “It’s a town which brings together religion and sexuality in a very odd sort of way.”
The three old ladies, all good friends from Kolkata, are sitting together on a train going on a pilgrimage holiday. “They have lived a life of looking after their children and working but never before been on holiday like this as women on their own,” Roy explained. “They know inside themselves this is their first and last chance to have a really good time. A young woman gets off the train and does not get back on,” she added. “If there is any part of the novel that is autobiographical then that is it. I once was on my way to Dehradun to the Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival in Uttarkhand and I got off the train to get something to eat and I saw this train set off before I got back on and it had my luggage on it! So I ran to get on this running train. My heart was exploding my terror,” Roy recalled.
“Older people are often seen as irrelevant in Indian fiction, but in my book the older women are constantly thinking about their relationships with their children and their husbands and lives they have lived,” she said. “They don’t always feel that maternal or good about their children always demanding things from them and one of them still feels tugs of flirtatiousness. I wanted them to be just fully-fledged human,” she said.
Whilst on the one hand these women are quite feisty, at the same time “you feel they have had a lifetime of having to cope and having a hard time in India as every time you take a bus you have to think about how you can protect your front, back and side,” Roy continued.
“There is a hint one of the women is suffering from dementia and by the end of it you don’t know what’s going to happen to them, she added. “There are shadows over their lives,” she said. “I think any book has to have – right to the end and even for years afterwards – some areas of mystery and ‘unknownness’ that make you think about the book,” she added.
This novel started as a ‘long short story’ based on these three older women and Roy’s publisher told her to either cut it in half or expand it. “The short story was their holiday and they have an encounter with a girl on the beach during this holiday that leaves them extremely disturbed,” she explained.
A young refugee child called Nomi is another central character of the book who is searching for where she grew up.
“You don’t start out saying ‘child abuse is really important; I must put it into my novel.’ The character comes first. When I thought about her she turned out like this,” Roy said.
In the same way that the Aamir Khan record-breaking movie PK questions and exposes the practises of a godman (guru or holy men who often claim to have paranormal powers) in a Hindu Temple, the book also questions the practises of some Hindu godmen.
“In the book there are godmen using religion to abuse women or children. All the Brahmin patriarchal Hindu religious infrastructure is bent on crushing all the oppressed which are women, the underclass and Dalits. There are still Hindu temples in India that women are not allowed to enter. It was a very difficult book for me to write because it made me physically sick at times to read about it and write about these things,” she said.
The book is not all darkness; it has moments of comedy. Apart from the comic old Bengali ladies, the chai (Indian tea with spices) vendor who often fills people’s glasses with froth rather than tea is a favourite character of Roy’s.
Roy, a former books editor at The Hindu, now runs a small publishing house with her husband in India.
“Ever since The Satanic Verses both from fatwas to the Hindu right, liberals in India are embattled everywhere and people will always try to silence you. The problem with India is that if someone objects to a book there is no one to defend you and if it gets a stay order in a court in any part of India then you can’t sell it. What we really fear as publishers is that someone somewhere will object and it will go out of circulation,” she said.
She said there was a lot of competitiveness in India between those who write in English and those who write in vernacular languages because the books by the latter do not get translated enough and there is a perception that those who write in English get more readers and money, whilst those who do not may have extraordinary talent but can’t access the same number of readers.
“My Bengali is not good enough. I read Bengali but could not write in Bengali. In a natural way I write in English,” she said.
Sleeping on Jupiter was published in India a week ago, but has not been translated into local languages. “The Indian Government very rarely supports any kind of literary work by giving you grants. So only those novels that are expected to make really big sales will get translated like Salman Rushdie or Amitav Ghosh,” she said. “Publishing is not a rich industry in India. My Indian publisher might do some kind of launch if he can. You do as many festivals as you can. People won’t pay to come and listen to you talking about a book and there are no longer these champagne launches. I am going to some festivals in Bali and Sri Lanka but those are just to see nice places!” she said laughing.
The book switches between the first person and third person depending on what she is describing, she explained. “I feel certain parts of the books work better in the first person and I want the intimacy of the first person in those bits but in the rest of the book I want both, I want to sit and look at everything on high and also have the first person. I also worked very hard on the language the child speaks. My mother is very disturbed by the fact there is an orphan in each of my books,” Roy added laughing.
“All I want is for people to read it and think well of it. I don’t need it to start a social movement,” she said. “There are such huge inequalities that exist in India that it’s almost systematic to ignore the oppressed who are the poor, children and animals. But people in India prefer you to portray a happy picture of India. It happened years ago even when Satyajit Ray made his films. The Hindi movie world found it unpatriotic when he made a film which showed very poor village life,” she added.
“I don’t feel like a woman writer, I just feel like a writer. The joys of being a writer are if someone read it and likes it,” she said.
She denies the book portrays men in a negative light. “There are women in the book aiding and abetting the godmen in the ashram who know what’s going on and that is quite a normal scenario,” she said, adding she was fond of the male “temple guide and the tea seller” characters. “People might find it surprising I deal with religion as it’s not usually a topic in Indian fiction. Religion often enters Indian fiction by our mythology.”
But she insists the book is not anti-Hindu. “It has characters who are believers and looks at their problems of belief but does not, at all, run down the religion. But it sees this religious feeling as something that gives their life meaning.
“This is really about the feeling inside people of devotion, how it might make some people feel fulfilled and is a release them or for others it might oppress them. It is about religious feeling than a particular religion,” she said.
The book also shows there are many kinds of realities for women in India and they are not all suffering and repressed. She points out even in Indian villages women are becoming more independent. “Even very poor village women in the hills are talking outside more than the men and young people from the hinterland are making their way in the cities in the workplace,” she said.
To listen to the audio of this talk click below:-
The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival opens on Thursday, 7 May at 18.30 with the launch of Xue Xinran’s hotly anticipated new book, Buy Me the Sky. For more information on that event click here.
To see all the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival events click here.