Some notes on 21 under 40, an anthology of short stories by south Asian women, published by Zubaan Books. I'm not overly interested in readings/discussions that don't include salmon canapes but the Delhi launch of this book at Habitat Centre was very enjoyable. It began with Anita Roy, commissioning editor, Zubaan, explaining why the launch was called “What’s New Pussycat?” (in addition to the more solemn “Words of Women”): “We wanted a name that would reflect the naughtiness and cavalierness of this collection,” she said, “There are lots of varied voices in this book, and I imagine any reader will hate some of these stories, be baffled or even horrified by some...and hopefully, enchanted by some as well.”
There were readings by two of the contributing writers and a discussion moderated by Jeet Thayil (who began by averring, to the immense relief of all present, that he was in fact a man). The discussion was lighthearted to begin with: Anita related anecdotes about getting submissions from “68-year-old white men” who demanded to know why they were being excluded (despite the publishers’ specification that the writers had to be women, under 40 and south Asian), and about an audience member at an earlier launch who kept asking, "yes, but what is the Purpose of this collection?" (“After a point,” Anita said in her inimitable, giddy-headed manner, “I felt like throwing my hands up and saying, ‘I just wanted to publish a book, that’s all!’ ”)
Among the more serious topics discussed were whether stories written by women are still being looked at in terms of convenient labels, "feminist writing", for instance. "Why can one not simply be a 'writer' and be done with it?" Anita asks in her Introduction, but she continues: "As anyone who has set pen to paper will tell you, there's nothing simple about being a writer. And for many of these young women, writing at all has required a large degree of courage."
That courage notwithstanding, the participating writers acknowledge their debt to an earlier generation of scribes who laid the foundation that has enabled young women of today to write with greater confidence and freedom. "Some battles have already been fought for us," one of the participants said. Another point of discussion was that some of the stories in the current collection manage to be funny and feminist at the same time, which might not have been a realistic option for Indian women writers of an earlier time – they would have felt constrained to employ a tone of gravitas when it came to discussing burning issues.
Mostly, though, 21 Under 40 is good storytelling. "If this collection is representative of anything other than the editors' own quirky sensibilities," Anita says, "it demonstrates that young south Asian women are boldly experimenting with form, style and subject matter." Even a quick glance through some of the stories bears this out. I’ve read only around 10-12 so far, but I enjoyed nearly all of those. Among my favourites is Paromita Chakravarti’s "Instant Honeymoon, or Love in the Time of Television", an acerbic satire of reality television but also of the traditional Indian marriage (where a close examination often reveals cracks in the façade of “normality”) – and perhaps, at a wider level, of the institution of marriage itself (with even the cosiest, most traditional family set-ups comprising individuals whose interior lives are built on self-interest).
Then there’s Nisha Susan's "Broadband and the Bookslut", a very assured and witty account of a bibliophile's attempts to find love – and more importantly, to deal with it – online (parts of the story reminded me of Woody Allen’s “The Whore of Mensa”). Diana Romany's "Ferris Wheel" is a dark, cringe-inducing tale about perversion and the relationship between sex and power. (Anita mentioned that she had second thoughts about including it, and little wonder; the story’s cool, detached tone, much like the narrator’s voice in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, is very unsettling.) There are quieter, more introspective pieces by Sumana Roy (who shows a fine ear for the sort of awkward, pause-filled conversation most of us are familiar with – in this case, between a well-known author and a fan, who gets to meet him for lunch after winning a contest) and Annie Zaidi (whose “ECG”, though a particularised account of a woman’s experience with lack of privacy, also plays on our common fears about hospitals). There’s a graphic story by Epsita Halder and even an engrossing Mughal-Era detective yarn by Madhulika Liddle. Yes, this is a varied collection alright, and much of it is pretty good.
It's worth noting that most of the best stories don't give the impression of trying too hard. At the launch, Anita mentioned that some of the submissions she had rejected read like the writers had pre-determined what type of story was most likely to appeal to a feminist publishing house, and tailored their work accordingly – which meant a compromise on spontaneity. Inevitably, the ones that did make the grade are, above all, examples of good writing and solid storytelling – independent of discussions about the gender divide.
P.S. There’s a related discussion on at this blog. In my view, N (the blogger) has either misunderstood or oversimplified Anita’s position on the issue of feminist writing (I don’t think she’s ever "denied the need for any writing that deals with social/gender issues"). Still, I’ll avoid holding forth too much on this subject, because 1) For obvious reasons, I can’t put myself in the shoes of an oppressed woman living in a traditional society, or any woman for that matter, and 2) My selfish and nihilistic side has trouble relating to a statement like this one: “…writers must give a true picture not just of themselves but of their milieu; they must give voice not just to their own thoughts but also to those of others who cannot do so themselves” Personally speaking, it’s hard enough for me just to get my own thoughts in order, without taking on other people’s burdens as well.
Anyway, do go through the post as well as the comments, especially the one by Anjum Hasan (one of the contributors to the anthology), N’s reply and Nilanjana’s comment further down.