Correspondent Priyanka Tanwar spoke with journalist and author Nilanjana Bhowmick at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023 about her recent book, gender issues, equality, patriarchy, and how women balance work, life and a family in India.
Indian Printer and Publisher (IPP) – How was your experience at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023?
Nilanjana Bhowmick – It was amazing, JLF is a melting pot of thinkers, writers, the common Indian, and young people. As a feminist writer or gender advocate or even a journalist, I am always very excited to find young people and talk to them because our generation is too poisoned, we are too toxic, but there’s always hope for the new generation. I am really happy. I didn’t expect to see so many young people here. I am going back with renewed hope that we will be able to reach out to the younger generation, and maybe talk about the toxicity that women live with – this is how you talk about it, make people aware, and take care of it. I think that time is gone when we ask girls to not do this or that, and instead teach boys about consent, equality – simple, basic things. That way, JLF has been an amazing experience.
IPP – Tell us about your latest book – Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden.
Nilanjana Bhowmick – The book examines middle-class women because it’s obviously the largest social class in India. Many middle-class women work but they have a double burden of unpaid caregiving. The book is a journey through a woman’s entire life cycle – what she faces through her life. I am trying to say through the book that we shouldn’t make top-heavy decisions such as programs and policies because we are not in that space yet for women to take advantage of the laws and the rights granted by the Indian Constitution. Let’s go inside our homes, open the doors and talk about what’s happening inside the woman. Some of the patriarchy is actually unconscious – it’s an unconscious bias. Maybe there will be a visible shift when we start talking about it.
When I wrote this book, my first feedback was from a man, who said I thought of myself as very progressive. I realized I took a lot of pride in being progressive. I realized after reading the book that there’s nothing to be proud of. It is equality, it’s a given.
I think we’ve reached the right kind of audience. The book is in English but I am hoping it will get translated into different Indian languages. It should not be limited to just an English-speaking or reading audience because that’s a very small percentage of our population.
IPP – How was your experience with Aleph Book Company as a publishing house?
Nilanjana Bhowmick – It has been amazing. This book was rejected by every publisher in town. When I pitched it to Aleph and spoke with Pujitha Krishnan, she immediately got the story. Some other publishing houses were asking me to write potboilers and look at women’s achievements? But the book is not about women’s achievements. We have come a long way but there is still a long way to go. Our idols have not changed over the last 20 years. It is still the same when it comes to idolizing women. Where is the new generation? She (Pujitha) immediately got that and she said this is a big book.
Pujitha (Krishnan) is an amazing editor. Every writer deserves an editor who gets their book because that’s very important. Every writer writes from a different perspective; it’s not always about making money. For me, I had to write and publish this book, even if I don’t write another one ever again. I needed this book to see the light of the day. And Aleph made it possible.
IPP – Would you like to comment on the feminist publishing scene in India?
Nilanjana Bhowmick – I kind of feel that when you talk about feminist publishing, that in itself narrows it down. ‘Oh, that’s a feminist book from a feminist publishing house, I don’t need to read that.’ I think it needs to be made mainstream. Aleph took a chance with this book. I didn’t think as many people would be reading this book as they have been but they took a chance. I think more publishers need to take that chance. They need to encourage women to tell their stories – not just stories of 30 women who have made it or the 100 richest women. If you look at all the statistics, what purpose do books like these serve?
I have come a long way in my career, but when I pick up a list of women achievers in India, I always feel I am not enough or I have not done enough. I think it just gives women a sense of ‘no, we can’t do that, we just don’t have those privileges.’ The majority of women achievers come from a privileged background – it’s either a privilege of wealth or intellect. Where would a first-generation learner get that privilege? Even if she had the money, where would she get the guidance, and the intellectual privilege? I think more and more publishers need to come out and encourage women to share their uncomfortable stories.
IPP – Aleph Book Company is known for its offbeat and standout covers. How did you finalize the cover design?
Nilanjana Bhowmick – All the credit for the cover goes to Bena Sareen. She is amazing. When they first shared the cover with me, I was a little iffy because I felt like the image didn’t exactly represent the book. I had a different idea for a cover. But then I kept looking at it, and started reading about Bena’s work as well. And I just got the cover! And now I totally agree because you need context to people’s work. I cannot take any credit for the cover – it’s all Bena and Pujitha and the entire team of Aleph.
I just feel so blessed that they gave the book so much love. When my book came out, there was tough competition – there was Deepti Naval’s A Country Called Childhood: A Memoir and Shashi Tharoor’s Ambedkar: A Life. Despite that, all of them created the book, put such special attention, and that fills my heart. Bena brings in a very different perspective. I think she sees beyond the stories and that’s important when designing a cover. You need to not just see beyond the story but also have a pulse on what people like because we live in a world where marketing is important, running is important, everything is important. Obviously, the cover of a book is very important because that’s the first thing to draw readers; and then they read what it’s about. The cover is stark but at the same time there is a little amount of vulnerability, so I think it really worked.
IPP – Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden is an interesting choice for a title. How did you come up with it?
Nilanjana Bhowmick – In the beginning, when I was thinking of the story, I wanted to call it ‘Superwomen in Sarees.’ After I finished the draft, it felt like I didn’t want to glorify the term superwomen anymore because that’s how patriarchy manipulates women. After the book was finished, all hundred thousand words, it felt like I was really trying to reconstruct the lies. My mother told me about my future because she honestly believed that things will change. She was 30 years old and I was 10, you think things will change by that time. By the time I finished the book, it was not about superwomen anymore, it was all about what we were promised and what we did and didn’t get.
IPP – Every book takes us on a journey to rediscover ourselves. What important lessons did you learn while writing the book?
Nilanjana Bhowmick – Writing the book was very therapeutic for me – I grew up in a very traditional household where my father was very dominating. He was a lovely father but he was not so lovely as a husband. I think there were a lot of things I had hidden away in my mind, and I think while writing the book, I was able to face some of those demons. It really helped me unlearn a lot of unconscious biases. The challenge in our country is not teaching new things but making them unlearn the things that they have grown up with. That way, it was a process of unlearning for me as well.
IPP – Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden is based on the experiences of Indian women while growing up in a patriarchal society. What challenges did you face while gathering these experiences that have been used to shape the book?
Nilanjana Bhowmick – I love speaking to women. These are women who have been a part of my life – some of my friends, family, people I know as a journalist, and because I work with gender, I work with very strong women whose stories are never told. I was working full time and I was a freelancer so time management was tough. For two years, I’ve only slept for two, three hours a day. After I finished my work, I would sit down to write throughout the night. I would wake up at 5.30 in the morning as my son needed to go to school or one of the dogs needed to be walked. Once the story started flowing, I was so excited. I drank lots of black coffee and that really helped. Despite the fact that I was getting only 2-3 hours of sleep, I was working through vacations, and couldn’t go and meet my friends.
IPP – Throughout your career you have worked a lot on gender stereotyping and gender issues. What got you interested in the subject of gender?
Nilanjana Bhowmick – I am a woman with experience. Seeing my mother suffer and struggle left a deep impact. I was always a very sensitive child, I observed life very keenly. I am still like that – I go to the airport five hours before the flight and I just sit there and watch people. I got married into a family where my husband’s grandmother was feminist icon Mahasweta Devi. My mother, my mother-in-law and my grandmother are the three strongest influences in my life. When I think of them, I know that it’s possible, it’s difficult but it’s possible.
After my marriage, my father-in-law Nabarun Bhattacharyya, who was also a writer, pushed me to write because I would sit and talk about these things with him. He would encourage me to write every day – 400 words each day. He pushed me a lot. One of my biggest regrets is that all three of them passed away before my book was published. If my father-in-law had not pushed me, and if my mother-in-law had not stood like a strong support, I would not have been able to bring out the book. In India, for a woman to have a career, you actually require a village. You don’t require a village to raise your children but to have a career you really need that support, especially, from your in-laws. I think I was just plain lucky. My life could have gone an entirely different way with just a little bit of change in the equation, and I wouldn’t be here talking to you. That’s what is not right – that our lives and their outcomes should be so dependent on these equations.
IPP – Thank you for speaking with Indian Printer & Publisher.