Huge support for London launch of Desi Girls, a collection of brilliant short stories by Indian women writers living away from their native land, By James Brewer
London’s Nehru Centre was packed for the launch of Desi Girls: Stories by Indian Women Writers Abroad, a collection which has quickly been acclaimed as sharply illuminating the dizzying challenges that face women as traditional societies break up.
Each of the 22 writers, who were born in different Indian states and now live variously in Canada, Denmark, Norway, the UAE, UK and US, import briskly lucid and engaging style to their tales of women striving to cope with modern life in their adopted countries and often with chauvinist and exasperating males.
During an evening permeated by a strongly emotional response to the book, members of the celebrity platform lauded the editor, Divya Mathur, who has in all edited three anthologies of literary work of Indian women abroad. An energetic promoter of contemporary literature, Ms Mathur has had a long association with the Nehru Centre, the Indian government’s cultural centre in London, and is founder president of the group Vatayan: Poetry on the South Bank.
Chief Guest at the July 16 launch was Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a leading London journalist and author, who underlined that being a writer could be a hard battle if you were a woman – Ms Alibhai-Brown is possibly the only ethnically Asian columnist in the mainstream British press. “It is a very slow process when writers like us are admitted into the national conversation.”
She said that Asians of the Diaspora “have, I think, often feared the written word – whereas the Jewish Diaspora understood the importance of the written word. It has always astonished me that we have not done that as much as we should be doing. Without books we have no past, no present and no future.”
Ms Alibhai-Brown, who grew up in Uganda, lamented the lack of record-keeping that there had been in that region: “People in East Africa were dying, and we don’t know their story. There were no books by us, and no books about us. We have not written our stories – I think it is a terrible tragedy.”
As to the English, they had colonised much of Asia but “again and again and again fell in love with the East. They did not want to… but they did.”
Writer and film-maker Lady Mohini Kent Noon, said that women had been strongly disadvantaged over the centuries, “but now intellectual strength has become the dominant force, and here women can compete with men.”
She said that women had to find a new way of becoming comfortable in their own skins, while being as successful as men. “Sharing stories is a powerful way of inspiring others to become part of the dialogue of growth… stories of struggle and redemption in such writing are very inspirational.”
A collection such as Desi Girls brought solace, broadened horizons, showed different points of view, and helped to universalise consciousness. She remembered as a child in India reading Enid Blyton’s story The Magic FarawayTree, and ever since, “books have been magic carpets for me. Words really are magic.”
Lady Noon, who is chair of the anti-trafficking charity Lily Foundation, said: “Violence against women remains an acute problem. A woman’s life should not be held any cheaper than a man’s, but unfortunately in many places in the world, it is.
Baroness Flather, the first Asian woman to receive a peerage and a trustee of Vatayan, said that Ms Mathur put her heart and soul into her endeavours and was utterly persuasive in involving people: “I cannot say no to her.” Lady Flather said that her reaction to the Desi Girls project was: “What a wonderful idea!”
Compère for the evening Lalit Mohan Joshi, director of the South Asian Cinema Foundation, added his praise for Divya Mathur. He asked: “Is Desi Girls just a whacky title, or does it have a deeper meaning?” (In fact Ms Mathur defines the word Desi as the expectation that women should follow Indian traditions, be pure and unblemished, always give and ask nothing in return…)
Mr Joshi declared: “These stories are not mere fiction; they are the essence of what lies beneath us.” They were not simply about exploitation, but about women “breaking through.”
Joan Deitch, a London-based fiction writer who was copy editor for Desi Girls, said she had entered deeply into the stories, having read them so many times: “I loved every single one. They were about general morality and behaviour, and how that impacts on self-fulfilment.” Of the heroines, “I rejoiced with them, and sometimes I prayed for them.” She quoted from Manu Smriti, the Sanskrit law code said to date from the creation of man and which lays down obligations for Hindus: “Where women are honoured, there the gods dwell.”
The many guests were welcomed by Sangeeta Bahadur, director of the Nehru Centre, who said that the writers had shown a talent for weaving their experiences into a colourful and original tapestry.
Dramatised performances and readings by Uttara Sukanya Joshi, Pervaiz Alam, Karl Rhodes, Chaand Chazelle and Shalini Peiris had the audience spellbound.
Part-funded by the Big Lottery Fund, Desi Girls: Stories by Indian Women Writers is published by HopeRoad (www.hoperoadpublishing.com) an independent publisher with a focus on Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
Desi Girls writers were Achala Sharma, Anil Prabha Kumar, Anshu Johri, Archana Painuly, Arun Sabharwal, Chaand Chazelle, Divya Mathur, Kadambari Mehra, Ila Prasad, Neena Paul, Purnima Varman, Pushpa Saxena, Shail Agrawal, Sneh Thakore, Sudershen Priyadarshini, Sudha Om Dhingra, Susham Bedi, Toshi Amrita, Usha Raje Saxena, Usha Verma, Vayu Naidu and Zakia Zubairi.
A full review of the book Desi Girls will appear in this site shortly.