Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Sangeetha Shinde Tee talks about The Naked Indian Woman

The naked truth 

Sangeetha Shinde Tee talks about the journey and purpose of her book, The Naked Indian Woman, and the lifetime that went into the making of it.


 


 What set you off on this particular quest?

For as long back as I can remember, I have been told to be silent. My parents urged me not to speak out on family issues when relatives behaved badly, I was expected to hold my peace in order to maintain social harmony. My teachers and professors said I spoke too much and asked too many questions. Society expected me to stay silent when an uncle tried to proposition me in broad daylight by the side of a busy road.

Every time I tried to speak up on issues that mattered, the control I was subjected to, the colourism that was my everyday life, the boys in school who dropped filthy letters into my bag, the women who thought I was too ‘bold’…  I was told not to speak out,  as if the injustices being thrust on me were my shame and burden to carry.

Something happens to women in their forties. They start questioning their own silence. And this is what happened to me. Now staring at the BIG FIVE- OH, I realised that I had to speak out or I would physically stop breathing.

And in my work as a healer I have spoken to countless other women who all felt as I did. Who were, as the great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau beautifully said, “living lives of quiet desperation.” And in finding my voice I wanted to give other women a voice, too.

What was the gestation period of this work?

At the beginning of April 2020, laid up with a badly broken back, and suffering the sting of betrayal as is only too common for girls like me in small towns like mine, I decided I had enough.

On October 3rd we launched the book online, with the charismatic presence of Kabir Bedi and Suhasini Maniratnam.

So six months in all, and that too because this time I decided not to go the traditional publishing route. Tradition has not served me or other women well, and I wanted to have some control over the message of the book.

Was it tough to get people willing to sign off on their stories?

Through the women I work with and a few women’s groups I am a part of, I shot off a call-out,  asking women to tell me their stories for a book on everyday Indian women. There was only one criteria. That I be able to give their real names, ages and locations under their stories.

I interviewed almost 160 women who responded. Heartbreakingly, only 15 were willing to bare their true selves to the world. The rest were terrified of what would happen to them, and the shame that would be brought to bear on them for telling their truth.

All the stories were uniformly devastating for me to hear, despite having lived through all of it myself.

The hardest one was writing the story of my own housekeeper – in 15 years of employing her I had not any inkling of what her life was like, and The Rani of Jhansi, which is her story, still makes my soul cringe for my blank ignorance of what the person who had looked after me for over a decade had endured and survived. I had to see myself through her eyes to write the story and, unfortunately, I did not like what I saw.

The accounts are written up in free verse. Did the women send in their accounts in prose, which you then tweaked to suit the format of the book?

I had a published writer pen a piece, and other than the odd change to commas, A Game Hopefully Well Played ran as sent. This Is Me, what I consider to be an incredibly powerful piece of writing, needed tweaking for flow, but otherwise the literary elements remained unchanged, The last piece in the book was my own.

All the other 13 stories were written in free verse, a first for myself, and were done via interviews as I took extensive notes, and through the bullet points and essays I asked the women to send in. One sent an email she had written to her former husband, and I wrote the entire story from that.

For the most part, these are women who are mostly not trained writers or even aspiring ones.

I pretty much wrote the entire book from scratch and self-edited it. It helped that I have edited magazines and newspapers in the past, and written three books too, previously.

How exactly did you go about compiling  your list of contributors?

I wanted to cover a lot of ground in the book, which basically meant encompassing the stark realities of the everyday Indian woman into a single book that was easy to read, but still carried enough punch; a book that would make a reader wake up to what was going on, both in their own lives and that of the women that they encounter every day.

The stats for domestic violence are scary, for example. Eight out of ten women experience it. In reality, count off ten women you know; eight of them have been physically beaten, probably for the crime of not following the prescribed social code.

The book takes the stories of 16 women and each story talks about a different issue. From sexual abuse, to marital rape, to domestic violence, to being suppressed and controlled by parents and in-laws, to divorce to virginity, to being single… these stories were common to all the women who were interviewed, but I only chose those where the women were unafraid to state who they really were.

I wanted complete authenticity from start to finish. The Naked Indian Woman is just that: the naked truth,  with no sense of wanting to hide anything from anyone.

What is the single stark message you want to put out there with this book?

I want women to start voicing their truth. To brave the ‘shame and stigma’ of being honest about what is happening and to show other women that only by finding our collective voice, will we be able to create meaningful change.

And we need change. Women need to stop supporting patriarchy as much as men need to stop being prisoners of it.

Too often,  I have seen women turn on other women like spitting cobras. A best friend will turn on her soul sister to please a misogynistic boyfriend, a woman will call out another  woman for having an affair with a married man, but will stay friends with the married man; women will stay in toxic partnerships for financial comfort; a daughter will be denied the privileges given to the son in terms of freedom and education, a girl will be viewed as  ‘paraya dhan’, a dark-skinned girl will be s expected to beat her genetics and become ‘bright and lovely`… the list is endless.

And the worst of all of it is, that it is us, the educated of India, that are guilty of the most heinous of social crimes.

I should know. I have been slammed for being a misfit that chose not to have children, one who chose to leave my violent ex-husband, didn’t conform to the small-town standards that I was expected to adhere to, became a vegetarian and animal rights activist, stood my ground and called people out on their blatant hypocrisy… and became persona non grata as a result.

I want women to know that it’s okay to buck the norm. It’s okay to speak up and not care about popular opinion. The world is not changed by the opinion of sheep. It is changed by the roar of the lion who walks alone.

Women need to embrace their inner Shakti and be unafraid. We need to band together and lift each other, not tear each other down. We have so much to accomplish as a tribe, and to do so, we need to channel our inner lion… or should that be lioness…? We can do this!

The Naked Indian Woman showcases 16 women who have done it most beautifully.

I want every Indian woman to read it and gift a copy to another woman. I want every Indian man to read it.

 

being singlebeing suppressed and controlleddivorcedomestic violenceFeaturemarital rapeSangeetha Shinde Teesexual abusestories of abused womenThe Naked Indian Womanvirginity

Sheila Kumar • October 29, 2020


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