Title: A Calendar Too crowded
Author: Sagarika Chakraborty
I’ve been putting off writing this review, because I don’t like what I want to say about the book. I don’t like being harsh and the book should be read widely, but I am harsh in my review and now, getting ahead of myself.
Sagarika Chakraborty is a lawyer and student at ISB. Her début book is “a collection of stories and poems woven around the theme of womanhood”. Throughout the year there are a few dozen days set apart for women and issues surrounding gender. As is usual, we hear a lot about these issues on the special days and then go back to routine stories for the rest of the year. She outlines her purpose in the introduction:
The attempt is to delve deeper and analyse whether it is merely enough to rely on statistics and be complacent in the knowledge that the numbers indicate a better society in the making, or whether there is an urgent need to look beneath the covers and realize that despite all such dedicated days, there are 300 days when there is nothing special that life has to offer.
The first story is narrated by a girl who has been blamed for everything that went wrong in the lives of people around her, right from when she was in her mother’s womb. At the end of the story, there is just no way not to feel immensely sad about how women are blamed all around us for anything that goes wrong around them.
I kept reading on and half way through the 3rd story it stuck me; I’ve read these stories before. Every single one of them. In fact, most of what I’ve heard about women in India are these stories.
The aim is to bring forth the bruises hidden beneath each lavishly draped body that needs to be highlighted even on days that are not dedicated to campaigns against domestic violence.
I’ve seen symptoms of these problems in my clinic, and the books and blogs I read constantly highlight them. I kept reading on, hoping for a “look beneath the covers” but all I could see was the nudity that I am already all too familiar with.
This made me sad. Not the sadness of facing the harsh truth about womanhood, but the fact that Sagarika falls short on her promise to talk about hidden realities. News and media outlets constantly highlight stories of dowry deaths, female infanticide and rape. While Sagarika’s stories don’t read as news does, they do sound overtly familiar, and sometimes follow stereotypical paths. There is the wife who is blamed for everything, the girl pushed into prostitution, the successful woman who is a prey to her own success and even a retiree who finally finds love in an old age home. Let me be very clear here, these stories are not caricatures. Every one of these characters can be found in our neighborhood or families.
In spite of their familiarity, in many of these stories there are hidden, beautiful nuances of culture and social norms that are often ignored but are significant contributors to the oppression of women. Hidden, I say, because while the author has great insight into the human condition, the nuances can barely be heard over the righteous indignation that her characters throw at me.
By the end of the book, I felt preached at and even a little manipulated.
There is a reason we refer to extreme imagery associated with development work as “poverty porn”. In their quest to draw the attention of the world to the horrors poor people suffer, they end up robbing the poor of dignity. As far as fund-raising goes, photographs of hungry naked kids do work, but at what cost?
I don’t want to label the whole book as womanhood-porn, not all her protagonists are helpless and undignified, but many are and most seem helpless victims of circumstances, societal injustice and of the supreme bad luck of being born as women.
The reason I am being so harsh is that a quick look around confirmed my great fear: that the those most receptive to what these stories stand for dont really need these stories. They know this already. And those who don’t,are going to be overwhelmed by the loud voices of Sagarika’s characters, and will miss hearing the soft voices and subtle realities that she tries to make accessible.
I hope her next book, for I sure do hope there are others, finds the right audience and the right voice . It would be a shame to see someone with Sagarika’s depth of insight and skill to get caught in the trap of self-congratulatory writing aimed at the “un-emancipated” and read by the “emancipated” that is unfortunately too plentiful in my world.