The Story Rules Podcast E05: Sowmya Rajendran: A Literary Torchbearer for India’s Gender Movement (Transcript)

Sowmya Rajendran
5. General

The Story Rules Podcast E05: Sowmya Rajendran: A Literary Torchbearer for India’s Gender Movement (Transcript)

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Intro hook: 

“So, I used to tell her these fairy tales also like Cinderella and Rapunzel and somehow when the part got to, you know when the story got to the part when Cinderella had to be rescued or Rapunzel had to be rescued, I would find myself changing the story because I didn’t like it. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up thinking that she needs to wait for some boy to come and rescue her and that she is going to be this passive person who doesn’t take charge of her life”.

Welcome to the Story Rules podcast with me, Ravishankar Iyer, where we learn from some of the best storytellers in the world, find their story and unearth the secrets of their craft.

Today we speak to Sowmya Rajendran, a brilliant, thoughtful writer who I would describe as a literary torchbearer for the gender movement in India.

I came to know Sowmya first through her children’s books – which by the way, pack in a world of meaning in them. For instance, take her book, “Girls to the Rescue”. In the stories in this book, Sowmya overturns the typical ‘damsel in distress’ plotlines of most fairy tales. Instead, the girls in her stories are smart, independent and take charge of their own lives.

Later, I read some of her interpretations of the depiction of gender in cinema and how that is changing – ever so gradually – especially in south Indian films.

Finally, I read Sowmya’s only adult fiction novel – The Lesson – a scathing indictment of the patriarchy deeply embedded in Indian society. The book, for me, is the 1984 moment of India’s gender movement.

In a world divided by nationality, religion, language, customs… the one unifying theme is patriarchy. This mindset – which is several millennia old – will not be easy to change.

Thankfully, we have storytellers like Sowmya who are putting in their best creative efforts in bending this arc of history towards fairness and justice.

In this conversation, Sowmya talks about her atheist upbringing, the early reading and writing influences, the seminal impact of her years at Stella Maris College and the unique literary vehicles she has chosen to share her stories.

Let’s dive in.

Ravi 000008

All right, Sowmya, welcome to the Story Rules podcast.

Sowmya 000011

Thank you so much Ravi, thank you for having me.

Ravi 000013

My pleasure. Sowmya, what do I call you as, right? So, I read about your stories for children, but I also read this, the scathing book that you wrote, called The Lesson which was for adults, which was fascinating, I’ll come to it in a while. And I read your, you know, very interesting reviews on the latest South Indian movies, or stars, so very different things that you’re writing, but at the core I’m finding you know two themes that are emerging. And I want to know what is it that you define yourselves in a stronger way by; one, do you call yourself a storyteller who happens to write about one area of passion which is gender issues, or are you a person who is really passionate about gender issues and storytelling happens to be your way of talking about it with the world.

Sowmya 000110

So, I define myself fundamentally as a writer, and I write about things that are of interest to me at that moment, depending on which phase I am in life. So, I’ve always wanted to be a writer from the time I was a child, and I’ve been writing, ever since then. So obviously when I was a teenager, much of my writing was very angsty poetry because that’s where, you know, I was in life; at that time, and then as I grew older, I went to Stella Maris College in Chennai, and I did my BA in English there. And as part of our course, we discovered feminist philosophy and suddenly, much of my life suddenly started making sense the questions I had about the world and why things were the way they were and I know my anger and all these issues started gaining a kind of a framework where I could place them within. So, then I started articulating myself about that. So, for me primarily, writing is the process by which I make sense of the world around me. So, it’s something I do for personal benefit. And it’s only then that I go beyond that. When I first put my pen to paper, that’s what I’m looking to do, I’m looking to make sense of something. So, then life changed I got married, I had a child and now my writing reflects that too because I have changed. So, it’s not that I pick up something and then I am I’m focused on that it’s it doesn’t happen that way so you evolve as a writer because you evolve as a person.

Ravi 000255

That’s very interesting and it reminds of this quote on writing by – Flannery O’ Connor – “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” 

I want to actually dig deeper onto both of these, you know key I would say incidents which is one, thinking of becoming a writer when you were young and two about the courses that you took at the Stella Maris so let’s start with the childhood right so, can you describe your childhood in terms of what were your early influences, what were you reading; and how did writing come as an interest to you so early?

Sowmya 000338

Yeah, So I grew up in an atheist, South Indian family in Chennai.

Ravi 000345

That itself is interesting, Atheist itself is very interesting, right? Which is rare in Chennai

Sowmya 000350

Yeah, so I actually am a third-generation atheist so my grandfather was an atheist, my parents were atheist and obviously my brother and I also grew up in an atheistic household. And I’ll tell you how that helped. It’s because you know you grow up without believing that something is true, because it is said somewhere. You grow up with a kind of a questioning, attitude, and that includes whatever your parents are telling you so. In our house there were no there was no rule that was sacrosanct that we couldn’t question that you know if our parents said this is how it is. It’s not that we couldn’t argue with them about it. So, they may not agree with us ultimately, they may not let us do what we wanted to do because you know we were still under their control, but there was no such thing as “I’m the adult. This is said somewhere so you have to obey whatever I’m saying”. So, we grew up in a very argumentative household, we still are (argumentative). If you take a look at our WhatsApp group, you know, it’s full of arguments.

Ravi 000449

When you were young, what were some of the things you would disagree with your mom or dad for?

Sowmya 000455

Well for me, I have an older brother, so even though they were quite liberal as parents when compared to you know the typical parents still there were a lot of differences in how my brother and I were brought up like for example, if we ate a meal at the table, I would be expected to clean up the rest he would, you know, he could, like, just leave. So, these things, I mean since my parents are also part of the same society that we are in so they were also conditioned to believe that certain things are meant to be done by the girl child and certain things are meant to be done by the boy, but of course when I questioned them about it, they did, you know, see my point of view as well.

Ravi 000534

What would be your age at this time Sowmya

Sowmya 000536

Ah, maybe around eight, seven or eight

Ravi 000538

That’s quite young yeah, to be even aware of such a thing. I mean, were you reading something to bring (up with the family) 

Sowmya 000545

No, for me it’s just that he doesn’t have to do it. Why do I have to do it. So it was a sense of childhood injustice that you know, like, he’s getting away with without doing something

Ravi 000555


Sowmya 000555

then why do I have to do it. So that’s a question that I mean, so that’s something that I felt very strongly, you know, within me and my mom has three siblings, and among cousins my brother is the oldest boy, and then there’s the youngest boy in between there are all girls. So always these two would always get this special treatment

You know the uncles would take them out for an outing and whereas the girls they’re a little too difficult to manage or you know they fuss too much so these were all the excuses that used to be made. So, I mean my parents never discriminated for like food or education or none of that. But still these very subtle levels of, you know, differences in treatment used to exist. So yeah, so growing up, it was quite fascinating looking back because I know I know from conversations I’ve had with my friends that that’s not been their experience at all. In terms of the questioning that happened, you know, in our house. So, we never had to follow any religious rules or rituals, like many of my friends, for instance, they were not allowed to go into the puja room when they were on their period, but in my house, there was no such thing, and that was unheard of. And we never had to do the mandatory temple tour that is so popular in South Indian families. So, yeah, I grew up in a very open, kind of house, and that continues to this day. Even if my parents and I, we disagree on a number of things but we are open to, you know, having that conversation out there. It was never push it under the carpet and forget about it.

Ravi 000741

As a child, were you lot into books? and what kind of books would you normally read?

Sowmya 000746

Yeah so, since my brother and I, you know, there’s only three years between us but he was kind of the genius of the family. He was a total bookworm and he used to read these, thick, fat, encyclopedias, even as a child. So, since I wanted to rebel against that for the longest time, I pretended that I was not into books.

Ravi 000808


Sowmya 000809

Yeah, so I wouldn’t really, I would read these children’s magazines like Champak, Tinkle and Gokulam but I wouldn’t actually sit with a book and read. So, what happened was, it was in my fourth standard, and I fell sick and then there was a Enid Blyton’s book ‘The Adventurous Four’, you know, in the cupboard, and I had nothing else to do at the time I was just supposed to stay in bed, so I just picked up this book and started reading it and I couldn’t believe that something so exciting could exist there. So, then I was hooked. I read that book in one sitting. And then I picked up everything around me and I started to read so I just ran through the entire stock of Enid Blyton books that she had written. And after that, you know, as a convert, I was I became reader after that.

Ravi 000859

Fascinating, can you trace your reading evolution? So, 4th standard (you read) Enid Blyton and then you know how did you then evolve as the years went by.

Sowmya 000908

Then I read, I used to read R. K. Narayan, Premchand

Ravi 000916

That’s interesting. That’s a rare one.

Sowmya 000918

So, my house was filled with books we, my parents, my mother

Ravi 000922

Both, Mom and Dad?

Sowmya 000923

Yeah, my mother went to a Malayalam medium school and my father went to a Tamil medium school, And both of them were very convinced about their children’s education the need to, they the need for us to have a very good education. And my father was a lawyer. My mom was a homemaker, so it’s not, and my dad was just kind of establishing himself in the profession so it’s not like our you know, job where you get a salary at the end of the month, there is no guarantee that at the end of the month that you will make this much money, but they have never said no to a book that we wanted to buy, and in fact the even before EMI and all that came into, you know, came into the picture. I remember he bought us the series of encyclopedias and classic literature paying installment because at that time, all those books. I think it cost him nearly 25k. They were these, you know, hard bound, beautiful books. So it was, I mean 25k even now for a bunch of books is something most parents will not pay.

So, but my parents did back then. And it’s not because they could afford it but because they wanted to you know make that choice. So, I truly appreciate them for that. So, I never had like, you know, there was no, never a moment when there was nothing to read because I just had to open the bookshelf and there was always something there (to read). Something my brother had read or my mother picked up. We also had all these lovely Russian picture books. I don’t know if you remember them but they used to be very popular back in the day, they were very good quality paper and really lovely illustrations with very you know distinct style. They were like oil paintings. So, I was fascinated by those books too. And then I remember this copy of the Arabian Nights that we had; it was a huge hard bound book. So, and then I graduated to reading, Agatha Christie. I used to be, you know, I read The Three Investigators, Alfred Hitchcock’s Three investigators, and then yeah once I started reading Agatha Christie, P. G. Wodehouse. So, then you know I start I moved to reading adult literature. I discovered J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, all of that so yeah.

Ravi 001142

But all of this is fiction. The encyclopedias I’m sure would have been nonfiction right, or was it.

Sowmya 001148

Yeah, so I was very much into biology I use I was very fascinated by animals and the natural world so I used to spend a lot of time before Discovery Channel and National Geographic and Animal Planet and all of that so I did not read much nonfiction, other than this at that point. it’s only much later in life that I started reading nonfiction, especially after I got into journalism, of course in college we used to read, Ramachandra Guha and the people that you know the text that we used to pick up. I used to love reading Virginia Woolf’s writing, of course she’s well known for her fiction, but this one text of hers A Room of One’s Own, which pretty much changed how I looked at the arts and culture and literature at that point. So A Room of One’s Own. The premise is very simple. The premise is that if you want to be a woman writer, you should have your own room, and money in the bank, or you cannot write with freedom of thought, because you’re always going to be dependent on somebody. So, that book was a very practical (piece of advice) because at that time I was still in college. So, when somebody says they want to be a writer, and this is very romantic idea that people get right you’re sitting under the tree and you’re waiting for inspiration to strike and then you know one fine day just comes and then you lock yourself up in a room when you’re writing, but that’s not how it happens in real life. And so, in that book Virginia Woolf also talks about how across the ages, women have been written by men, in literature, and how, even if these are like celebrated as classic works of art you can still disagree with it because you don’t see that representation as being something authentic. So, all of those views were really you know fantastic for me to discover that well.

Ravi 001351

But how did the thing to become a writer is what was the seed for that

Sowmya 001355

To become a writer? No, that’s just something I don’t really know it’s just something I wanted to do from childhood, I guess because I started reading a lot, I started wanting to write myself, I wanted to be

Ravi 001408

Would you write for like a school magazine or something.

Sowmya 001409

Yes, all the time. Every year we had the annual school magazine and then we would be encouraged to submit our writing, and the best, you know, submission would from the class would make it to the magazine. So that was my only aim in school, to get my, you know, poem or story, whatever get published. And then I used to write plays for our all these inter school competition competitions that used to happen. And then, when we were in high school, they had this magazine called The PSBB times I went to Padma Seshadri, Bala Bhavan in Chennai

Ravi 001448

Which is supposed to be a very conservative and very academics focused, I don’t know. I mean

Sowmya 001453

It’s not very, I wouldn’t say conservative compared to many other schools like DAV, and all which had no rules like boys shouldn’t talk to girls. We didn’t have that silly nonsense but it was, Yeah, but like you said it was a very academics-oriented school. So, and I, as I mentioned, my brother was very much into science, so everybody assumed that all my teachers assumed that I would also get into the sciences and they were quite shocked when I

Ravi 001523

You like biology

Sowmya 001524

I liked biology but I was pretty sure that I didn’t want a career in medicine because I would also have to do physics, chemistry and math along the way to get there, so

Ravi 001534

And, were they not of interest because of the way it was taught or you just never found for them interesting.

Sowmya 001539

I just didn’t I don’t think I have the aptitude for Maths like right now, nobody’s forcing me to do it but if you show me a sheet full of numbers, my head just starts spinning, so I don’t think I have a head for it. But yeah, so I was very clear that this is what I wanted to do in life that I wanted to become a writer, so I wanted to do the arts, that’s clearly where my interests, lay, and my parents were very open for that. So I did my 11th and 12th in the Commerce stream and then I did my literature in Stella Maris

Ravi 001615

That’s great and so now at Stella Maris you are going in with your mind focused on learning from literature and honing your skills as a writer so then what are some of the courses that really blew your mind away.

Sowmya 001633

So, we had a very good syllabus, I realized later that not all colleges do. This was an autonomous college and the professors had come up with a really modern and contemporary they’re really some of the texts, we read back then they had such a huge impact on us because we were all very young people are just 17 or 18.

Ravi 001656

Ya, very impressionable

Sowmya 001657

Yeah. And, yeah, and we were reading about existentialism and, you know the great literary movements and so on. So, I would say that this one paper was called The Story of ideas. It’s basically a paper on philosophy, all the, you know great philosophical movements, and the writers. So, we learnt everything from existentialism to Marxism to feminism and post colonialism and all of these things. And once you have read all that. And then you go back to looking at any literary text, you understand it so much more you understand where the writer is coming from and where he or she is going with that text. So many things that we had, you know, read earlier, we started looking at it with fresh eyes.

Ravi 001752

Anything that strikes you now, any particular text or a book that you.

Sowmya 001756

Oh, I remember this book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it, it is credited with, kind of, you know influencing the Civil War in, in America because it’s a Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel and it’s about this black man, this slave, he’s called Uncle Tom and what happens to him; his life. And I read that book as a child and I remember being extremely moved by it, you know, very angry about racism and slavery and I used to think, Harriet Beecher Stowe is such a great writer, she’s a white woman and the level of empathy she’s able to, you know. That’s really something remarkable. But then, after I studied post colonialism and all of that. Then I’ve also read criticism on that book which made a lot of sense so it spoke about how Uncle Tom is kind of this ideal black man, because his salvation comes from Christianity. And, you know, it’s the white savior, kind of, book. So, I guess when she was writing that book, you know, it was ahead of its time for her time but then looking back, you still see that the writers’ own prejudices and biases and what she actually thinks about race kind of makes its way into the text. So, a black writer would probably wouldn’t have written that book that way. So, your perspectives change when you read more about, you know, about literature and not just literature, you understand these perspectives, a lot more and the same goes for also gender and books. Like Enid Blyton books which I had grown up loving. You see it from new eyes, you know, The famous five, the girl characters. The one girl character Anne is not really doing anything in the book she’s just cooking and cleaning all the time. and then there’s George. She’s like (active), but then she wants to be a boy

Ravi 001958

She has looked like a boy (not sure), my god yes yeah it’s now so obvious, now that you

Sowmya 002005

Yeah so, two boys who are deciding everything and you know making all the active things and Julian and Dick they are like the cool characters. So yeah, so all of these things you start looking at it differently. It’s not that I grew to like these texts, lesser, but I just understood them,

Ravi 002024

I mean, do you feel, not betrayed, but do you feel oh my god you know what was I thinking. What’s your reaction at that time?

Sowmya 002032

I think that it is a bit too harsh to go back on a writer and then say that why didn’t you

Ravi 002039

I mean (holding them to) today’s day morals yeah, it’s okay fair enough

Sowmya 002044

So, I think that just as any form of art should exist, I believe, even if somebody was writing this today. I believe that the work has the right to exist and you have the right to critique it, and it is through that dialogue that more books come and you know the things improve

Ravi 002101

and better

Sowmya 002101

and things evolve. So, writers don’t write in the same way all the time so you know they’re also changing their views about the world are also changing.

Ravi 002113

So, these influences are happening, and while you’re in Stella Maris, are you now, figuring out what to do next, what happens next?

Sowmya 002122

Yeah so, I had in my initial plan was to I think do a PhD in literature and maybe teach somewhere, in a college. But then as I said, I discovered feminism and that just blew my mind. I was just so,

Ravi 002140

Do you remember that moment when that happened, what was it?

Sowmya 002144

Yeah, So I went to a girls college so, you know, and I went with a very bright bunch of people. They were like really rebellious people who broke every kind of rule that I had built for myself in my mind. So, it was really lovely also, to be in a very heterogeneous group because I like you said, a PSBB, it’s, it’s one of those very homogeneous kinds of school you know, typical upper class, upper middle-class kind of School, whereas Stella Maris had a mix of people from everywhere. There were people who were on scholarship, you know, people who are from different caste groups, different communities. In my school, everybody was more or less from the same kind of background. So, here we had like such an interesting very diverse mix of people. So yeah, so these conversations we used to have in class were really interesting because people would come from different you know mindsets. So I remember we were reading Nietzsche in class. He’s an existentialist, and one of the first lines in his book is, God is dead. So, there was this Christian girl in my class and she just went “O, god is dead-o”. She just couldn’t stomach it. And yeah, so we used to have these very interesting debates and even though the school the administration, I mean the college was admin administered mainly by the nuns, but still we had a very open the Arts School was completely different. You know, we had professors who are very, very open and who would engage us in all kinds of debates and discussions who would set us some very interesting assignments. And I think yeah, that’s when I learned to think for myself, originally, and I wasn’t just looking at a textbook and just trying to, you know, pass an exam or ace them. In the arts, you really have to think for yourself. So, I remember feeling enlightened, you know, and had point like, oh my god, what was I doing with my life until now. And the power of that awakening when you’re just like 19 or so it’s really something that marks you for life. So, to answer your question after that I discovered feminism then I wanted to do, Gender Studies. I wanted to do more work in this area so at that time nobody had even heard of the course gender studies. So, if somebody said I’m going to do if I told someone I’m going to do gender studies they would ask Ah general studies? oh you’re doing general studies like what you are studying generally. So, yeah, so I went to the UK and did my Master’s in gender studies from the University of Sussex.

Ravi 002456

So, was there also Sowmya, one, is of course what you’re reading and getting influenced by but you’re also living in. This is 1990s, early 2000s Chennai, and India, and we have had a strong, long history of patriarchy, which is still going on so I’m sure all of those are also influencing us, you know, your regular interactions, was also a big influence in you taking this up?

Sowmya 002523

Yeah, so when I discovered all of this, I was a very angry kind of a teenager, you know, I used to have these huge blow outs with my parents and mainly it was about all these rules and restrictions that existed, you know how to dress, where to go and

Ravi 002544

When to come back

Sowmya 002544

when to come back and my parents were all the time. Even now my mom, worries when I’m traveling somewhere else and I’m like, I’m 35 I’m a mother myself so. But still, you know they can’t let go of that, so they live with this fear that if you’re a woman or a girl in India something can happen to you at any moment and that’s the end of it. So, I’m not denying that anything can happen but I don’t see it as the end of it. I acknowledge that reality but I also don’t believe that I should allow my life to be defined by (it). So, so yes, I found at that point that this was a philosophy that really made me understand the world around me, and validated much of my anger. It told me that I’m right to feel this way. And then (I felt) I can question things and to challenge it. So, and I found how widely it can be applied (gender studies). I was mainly focused on gender and literature but then there are people who go on to do gender and law for instance, because our laws are also manmade, you know, emphasis on the man. So, there’s a wide application for this. If you’re looking to work in in the in social service for example, gender has application there too. And in popular culture like what I went on to do later in life reviewing films, there too, it has a certain application so that really appealed to me, the fact that there was so much I could do after that.

Ravi 002726

So, at any point during this time. Are you thinking that you know in 10 years I’ll be writing books for kids?

Sowmya 002735

 I was interested in children’s books even in college, my friend, Nivedita Subramanyam with whom I’ve collaborated on quite a few books. She is also an illustrator. And I remember right after college, she went on to do an internship with Tulika books in Chennai.

Ravi 002755

Oh, okay nice. They were around since then?

Sowmya 002758

Yeah, they’ve been around since the 90s. So, there was this big bookshop in Chennai, called Landmark. Yeah, it’s no longer there. It’s in this bus stop, called Gemini bus stop, so we would just take a bus from our college, get down there and we would go to this bookshop and just spend a few hours there. The Tulika books, which this bookshop used to stock, they were nothing like what we had grown up with, you know, I like I mentioned I grew up with Russian picture books but nothing, Indian, which had these big illustrations with one line of text, and the stories were so beautiful, they were so simple but still making a point and they were really entertaining too, so we used to spend quite a lot of time in looking books there, looking up books there. So, and we had already discussed, working together at some point in life because we had a very similar wavelength. And we were very interested in doing this, maybe even start a publishing company so we used to discuss all these things back then. Ya, so after I came back from the UK then I sent a couple of stories to Tulika, and they got accepted.

Ravi 002919

Oh wow, so, that this was when?

Sowmya 002923

Um, 2008 or so

Ravi 002928

And which was that book, which is the first book that got

Sowmya 002931

the first book I published with Tulika was Aana and Chena.

Ravi 002934

Oh, that was Aana and Chena. Okay, okay, and that I remember you talking about that earlier right which is you talking about your own feelings and experiences through those two characters, it was amazing and how, do you want to quickly talk about that so that you know people can get to know.

Sowmya 002950 32:14

Yeah so, ‘Aana and Chena’ is a picture book about an elephant who does not like how he looks so he thinks his eyes are too small and his ears are too big and his body is too fat and so on. And Chena is Malayalam word for Yam and Yam exists in the story, mainly because it rhymes with Aana; Chena. So, the yam tells him that you are just the way you are meant to be because you’re an elephant and this is how you’re supposed to look. And then Chena has this eureka moment and he’s like okay, he has this epiphany and he’s like okay, you know, and then he learns to be happy with himself so the book is just several lines of repetition. But then the character, evolves through that. Also one of the main reason for this book comes from the Malayalam word Aanachandam , the elephant is a very important symbol in Kerala Culture. And they have many words in Malayalam, which are unique to the language, which have to do with the elephant. So Aanachandam means beautiful as an elephant, and it’s used to apply to people whose individual features may not be so great, but overall, they look nice. So, they say oh, you know, “ore aanachandam minda”  Okay, and it’s a word that my grand

Ravi 003116

She has got the grace and beauty of (an elephant)

Sowmya 003118

Ya, so overall, you know that person looks nice, even though they may not be so striking indeed each individual aspect. So, it’s a word that my grandmother used to use a lot while describing people, and I always used to, I liked that word a lot, you know, because it’s so unique to the language. Yeah, and I like elephants too so when I started writing out the story that I just fused together my own experiences and this word. So, talking about my own experiences, the idea for the book also came from the fact that, like every other teenager, I used to be unhappy about what I look like, and have body image issues and all this has a term now. You know, you say body image issue, you know what it is. But back then, nobody knew what it is, right? You just suffer through it yourself. And your parents, their main attitude is ‘get over it’. Nobody is going to be sympathetic and talk to you and have these conversations that parents these days are expected to do very patiently. So, I learned to like myself and what I looked like much later in life. So, this was also my attempt to go back in time and talk to the teenage me that it’s not so bad after all

Ravi 003243

Such a beautiful message, I mean, given in such a beautiful manner. I think we’ve all gone through this I remember I was I think in fourth grade or sixth grade must have been around that time yeah, I think close to (being) teenagers must be sixth or seventh grade, I remember telling my dad, and mom very clearly that there are three things that I don’t like about myself. One, I have specs. Two, I am too dark and three, I am too thin. I don’t remember what they said. It was just my way of (being) self-berating but yeah, I think we’ve all been there and I think. Stories like these are, again, I mean, it’s in your case I find a lot of things, happening quite organically maybe for someone else is to have just fresh come out of college to even write a story the first story which is so good, and gets published is amazing right actually at some level. So, do you reflect back on that and think you know hey, that was, you know, again, it’s not just because you know you started writing right after the post grad in the UK, you’ve been thinking and writing for a very long time so it’s not like an immediate thing, but do you think that was the main reason why it all like got started as soon as you came back?

Sowmya 003357

Yeah, so I always tell people, you know, there have many parents coming to me and saying ‘”my child has written a book and how can I get it published?” So, I always think, let’s say your child is acted in a class play, would you ask a theater artist, how do I get my child into Broadway go tomorrow. It’s not going to happen. Like any skill you need to practice it for a number of years, and writing is an art like any other, you can’t just pick up a violin one day and you know, come up with a Maestro performance, you should have put in that many hours into developing your skill. So, and getting published also means you do your research on what sort of books that publisher is bringing out and see whether what you’re sending them makes sense to them also. So, if I’m going to write, you know, an adult book and send it to a children’s publisher obviously they are not going to accept it. Then, similarly if you look at Tulika’s publishing list. They are very they bring, they’re very focused on Indian books, not generic books where there is some character called Tom and Jack comes into the story so they’re very specific about the cultural aspect of the books as well so you have to fit in somewhere there. So, I did my research on that too, you know, which publishing house would be welcoming of a book like this, and then I sent it out to them. I went through the manuscript guidelines on their website so nowadays all publishers take manuscript submissions by email. But back then, you have to send a hard copy. So, I did all of that, you have to send them two copies and so there’s that groundwork, also that you need to do once you finish your do book, and then I also sent it around for feedback, to some of my friends, especially Nivedita because she was also you know, into writing for kids and she had worked there, so she knew what sort of manuscripts, they were looking at. And she liked what I had done so she thought she had it had a chance. So then that’s it so I just sent it to them and then I didn’t hear back anything for several months together. So that’s one thing you need a lot when you’re, when you’re a writer; patience. So, a lot of people once they’ve finished a draft, they think this is this is so great and it has to be published right there. Publishers don’t care, they’re getting manuscripts from writers like you all the time. They will take their time they’ll sit on it; they’ll have editorial meetings on it, people will go on vacations, people will fall sick, I know that you (as a writer) are sitting in a chair and stewing but that doesn’t change anything. You need the patience to wait. So, when they sent that email, I remember, it was like late at night 1030 which was late for my house. And I couldn’t believe it when they said. They said they said yes so, I ran and I woke up, my parents who are asleep by 930 I told them I’m going to be published. And they say, “oh, okay, good for you”, and that’s it and they went back to sleep, so, but that’s how it was in my house they never really you know, inflated any of our achievements too much, so they kept us very grounded about everything, yeah, so that’s how it happened

Ravi 003723

So, so, this this is your first and then so I want to come to some of the adult writing in some time but I want to talk about the other children writing which is the fact that you’ve, you know, almost like this is a mini genre I think in children’s writing that you have done so well, which is representing girls and their achievements in such a beautiful way. So can you talk about some of the book that you have written in this, how did those come about in your mind and you know what do they talk about

Sowmya 003754

So, yeah, representing girl characters in my book is something very close to my heart. So, one thing is that writing from a female perspective comes naturally to me because many of my childhood memories, I what I channelize into my books. So, in one way it is organic. And secondly, I believe that we don’t have enough girl hero characters in our books. And I think that does make an impact on you when you’re growing up and when you’re reading, I remember one of my neighbors was really smart boy. I gave him this book Matilda to read. And he didn’t pick up that book for nearly three months because it had a girl on the cover. So, once he picked it up and he read it, he loved it. He loved the book so much that he started reading everything you know that Roald Dahl had, but there was so much resistance to pick up a book just because it had a girl on the cover. And this is something that has been well documented, not just in children but also in adults, like a lot of female writers, they, you know earlier they used to use pseudonyms. Because women were not allowed to write like in Victorian England and all that. But even now, for crime writing especially people generally go with male names, because you know it kind of, apparently it makes readers want to pick up the book more because they think a man will have more knowledge about a subject like crime. 

Ravi 003928

Was that one reason why even JK Rowling, used (her initials). or was that just she because wanted to be anonymous.

Sowmya 003933

It could be but even her name, the name she chose for her children’s book is

Ravi 003935

Ya, was Robert

Sowmya 003937

No, even for children’s books, it’s JK Rowling right that could be anybody. It needn’t be a woman.

Ravi 003942


Sowmya 003943

Yeah. So, all of these things do you know, make a difference. I and I remember my book, Mayil Will Not be Quiet, which I co-authored with Nivedita. We went to this very posh school in Chennai to do a session with kids there. And this was before we had even launched the book officially my publishers just wanted us to do a session so we get the sense of it and it was the first time that they were also bringing out a book like this. So, they give a short summary, Mayil Will Not be Quiet the diary of a 10-year-old girl and her coming of age and growing up experiences. So, when we went to the school. The book has a bright blue cover with a girl’s face on it. So, the teacher, a woman teacher she picked up the cover and, she said “oh it’s a girly book”. You know what, what on earth is a girly book to begin with. So, but at the end of the session, interestingly, more boys wanted to buy the book than girls.

Ravi 004047

Wow, what happened in that session?

Sowmya 004051

I guess it’s because there is a certain universality to the human experience that everybody connects to. And for children, I think, after a point it doesn’t matter if the story is something that is engaging, they go with it. And because I think this book was written in the first person, it made a big difference to the children because they felt like this was not this was a child, talking to them, not a grown up. So Mayil, there are three books in that series now. ‘Mayil will not be quiet’, ‘Mostly Madly Mayil’, and ‘This is Me, Mayil’. The other book I’ve done this called ‘Girls to the Rescue’.

Ravi 004131

I love that I love that premise, can you talk about that.

Sowmya 004134

Yeah, so “Girls to the Rescue’ (the book) happened because of my super long, you know, feeding sessions with my daughter. So, this was a time when I she was shifting from breast milk to solids. So, and, I’m sure you have experience with, you know, trying to make a child who does not want to eat, eat. So, I used to tell her stories. That was my go-to and I used to, you know, tell her all kinds of stories and the longer story got

Ravi 004205

And it’s like you’ll not say the word (of the story), till that morsel (of food) goes inside the mouth.

Sowmya 004211

Yeah, and she was very interested in stories from a very young age. So, I used to tell her these fairy tales also like Cinderella and Rapunzel and somehow when the part got to, you know when the story got to the part when Cinderella had to be rescued or Rapunzel had to be rescued, I would find myself changing the story because I didn’t like it. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up thinking that she needs to wait for some boy to come and rescue her and that she is going to be this passive person who doesn’t take charge of her life. So, I started changing those endings, you know and by. So, I would just take the story and then I will change it I would add more progressive women characters. If you look at the conventional fairy tale, the women always hate each other. The stepsisters are squabbling, the stepmother is cruel. The father is conveniently dead, or he doesn’t intervene. He doesn’t intervene but he’s never judged for it. So, the women are always competing with each other over the beauty and over the attention of a man, and I didn’t want my daughter to grow up with this, so I thought okay, let me try rewriting this so that’s how ‘Girls to the Rescue’ was born

Ravi 004329

This is like so fascinating, Soumya, because, and I’m so glad that someone like you, who has gone through this (did write that). I don’t think anybody else would have seen this because the problem with these stories is they are into our conscious consciousness right we have been they completely seeped into us from millennia and almost I think and it’s so difficult for us to even step back and then see how wrong they are on so many levels. But yeah, to then you know channelize your skills and your learning about and your knowledge about this world and your talent for writing to then bring this out it is fascinating. So yeah, tell us about some of the stories in this book

Sowmya 004413

 So, the first story is that of Cinderella, and she is this person who’s doing a lot of housework all the time and she believes that’s her duty, and then the godmother in. In this book, The Godmother just tells her that you know, you’re also meant to have fun in life, so that’s why you should go for the princess party and Cinderella has the largest feet actually in the kingdom. So, that’s how the Cinderella goes for the party and she realizes that life can actually be so much fun. So, she comes back and she tells her sisters, so she doesn’t have step sisters she just has sisters. She tells them that you know from now on, we are going to share housework, and that’s going to be a radical way of running the house. So, the prince does fall in love with her and he comes and he finds her with the big shoes. And then he asks, “Will you marry me?” and she says, “No, but we can meet for dinner, if you want. That’s one story and then there is also Rapunzel. So, Rapunzel’s problem is that her father has very strict views on what women should look like. And he’s convinced that she should have long hair, whereas Rapunzel plays basketball and the hair gets in the way when she dribbles the ball, so she wants to cut it, and her mother is an astronaut and she’s gone to the moon and that’s why she’s not there so

Ravi 004537

Lovely, I love that inversion there

Sowmya 004539

Ya, and that angers the father even more because he already has a disobedient wife and he doesn’t want a disobedient daughter, so he locks her up in the castle, and then there comes a prince. So, there is a suggestion in the story that the prince is actually gay, even though it’s not overt. He wears a rainbow cloak, and he’s actually not interested in rescuing Rapunzel so she just tells him you throw the sword up, I can take care of myself. And then, she chops her own hair and she climbs down, and then the prince is like you know, “do we really have to get married now because of all this. I’d rather not”. And then Rapunzel is like “no, let’s just enjoy the moment”. So, in our stories as well as in real life, you know, you’re not settled in life, unless you marry somebody, especially if you’re a woman. Yeah, that’s kind of your life goal, and that starts right from the fairytale you know where the only aim of the princess is to meet a guy that she can marry and that’s the end of the story, but that needn’t be the end, right? I mean why do you have to end the story at that point. So, that’s one (story). There’s also a Red Riding Hood, which is kind of a darker story in the book, it deals with abuse. So, yeah, so the, the wolf in the book is actually the grandfather, who has abused red Riding Hood’s mother and is kind of, you know, trying to do the same to her but then the grandmother kills the wolf in the story, so it’s not very overt. I didn’t make it, you know, very obvious for a child reader, but it can be a story that a parent uses to talk about these issues. So, I also believe that a good children’s story should be something that works for the parent, as well as the child, and there should be layers to the story that you can revisit, as you grow older, something that you didn’t know was there as a kid, but you as you grow older you come back to it and you read it with new eyes.

Ravi 004742 50;09

Fascinating, yeah. These are great and do you see the scope for using a lot of Indian, there are no Indian fairy tales, but Indian mythological tales, also to rewrite some of this?

Sowmya 004755

So I have done one princess story which is Indian base. This is with Pratham, it’s called the weightlifting princess. So, they wanted to do stories on a series called contrary princesses; princesses who don’t follow the rules. The story idea for this came from my daughter, and she told me that in all illustrations children’s books illustrations. She asked me, why are the girls’ arms are so thin. And she said, even in ‘Frozen’, which is kind of reinvention of the princess tale and you know,

Ravi 004834

Where the (characters), they take their own decisions.

Sowmya 004837

Yeah, she said, even there the princesses are drawn like that, you know, with very thin arms. So that that’s something that really struck me I think as an adult I don’t pay as much importance to the visual, as I do to the text, whereas for the child reader, the visual is primary, and they know they learn from the visual before they go to the text. So, this question of hers is really fascinating to me so when Pratham asked me if I can do this story, I thought okay let me do it about a princess with big arms. So that’s how that character Nila (came about), she is a weightlifter and she wins this championship in her kingdom and the story ends with the king, saying, “Good. Now you’re fit to be the wife of a champion”, and then she says “no, I am the champion”. So that’s how the story ends

Ravi 004931

Some of these, the lines, Sowmya the idea now of course you know this the spark might be coming from, Adhira, your daughter’s saying that, but do you have a process for letting that creativity flower that you know hey this is how it should be. So do you have like early morning walk or no, what is your process for getting some of these cool ideas.

Sowmya 004954

I don’t really have a set way to go about it. I think the idea just stays in my mind, and when the moment comes, then I pluck it out of my brain and put it down. So, I tell my students, you know, when I teach creative writing, I tell them all the time that for a writer, life is your material, everything that happens to you is material. So, any conversation you have, any person you meet. So even when something horrible happens to me one part of my brain is thinking okay how can I use this. So, you become that kind of, you become hungry for material, and then you’re waiting for it, then when you are expecting it, then it comes to you. So, my parents whenever one of my new books is out, they read it very eagerly, not because they love my writing so much, but because they want to see okay, I know, we know that this girl would have put something you know about us, we want to find out

Ravi 005052

about her childhood and, you know, something berating the mom and dad,

Sowmya 005056

So, they are always, my mom will always ask me “this is that, no? This is what happened, this is that Uncle you met” so yeah, so it happens like that. I think I store these conversations in my mind and I put them into my books and I feel that, it’s right to get them out there

Ravi 005115

Do you have when you say store in your mind do you actually also have a way to like store it down electronically somewhere in a notepad or something.

Sowmya 005122

Not for my books and stories, no I don’t do that. It just becomes a part of me and like there’s this book, Ashwathy and the Boot of God. It’s a book for (ages) 10 Plus, it’s a detective novel. And that book begins with a Ashwathy discovering a boot in her grandmother’s backyard, and she thinks that she’s discovered a dead body. So, this is a girl who wants to be a detective and she thinks, she has found a dead body. But actually, this scene comes from way back in my childhood. My memories of going to Kerala during my summer vacation. So, and we spent this afternoon where there was a disused boot, lying in the, you know, in the front yard. And I remember we all as kids, we were all because obviously a boot in that place was very rare, just a village, so the kids made up this story that this was the boot of God. They said they know this is God’s leg or this is God’s boot. So, we used to do offer prayers and do some funny rituals, like putting down flowers in front of it and doing puja for it and so on. So, that memory, just stayed in my mind, and then out of nowhere when I sat down to write, I was thinking I should start doing a book and so this memory just came into my mind out of nowhere, and I just started writing the first scene, and from there the book took off. So, I don’t really know at what point I will use. What, so it’s quite dangerous to have writer in your family

Ravi 005301

No, fascinating but I think it while you’re using it for fiction I think even for people when they are, you know, for leaders if they are talking about a cause that that’s that matters to them, I think, tapping into their own personal experiences, is what I think we are kind of arriving at here right it’s a powerful thing because it’s you, it’s part of your experience and nobody else can have that so that that itself makes it original right so that’s fascinating. Let’s move shift gears to the, to the other genre of writing that you do, which is movie reviews, and how did you get into that as a space. Were you always into watching movies?

Sowmya 005342

Yeah, I used to watch a lot of movies growing up I am a Malyali who grew up in Chennai, so I had access to two big industries. Yeah, so I used to watch Malayalam films as well as Tamil films both have very different sensibilities. But I used to like both. I used to enjoy watching both. But I had no plans whatsoever of writing about Cinema. So how that happened is because after my gender studies course, one of the things we learn to do is also critique popular culture. Because popular culture is a huge influence on all of us, you know these images that we see whether it’s advertising or cinema or even calendar art for that, for that matter. All of this plays a role in how we are conditioned to think about certain things you know the messaging in it. So, then I started writing about the films that I watched from that perspective. And my first assignment was with So, one of my seniors was an editor with them, and she asked me if I could write a column for them regularly. So, I started doing this from gender perspective. And this was in the I think this was around 2010 or so. So, this was still very new, back then, especially for South cinema nobody was writing it from this angle at least not in the digital medium

Ravi 005506

So even at that time when you were writing, there was a thought of writing it from a gender perspective or to have that, not just a pure, simple review okay, got it

Sowmya 005516

 I was not reviewing films for them. I was writing about (films). So, after a movie has come out and if I watched it, and if I have a certain perspective to add to that. Why was it shown this way and why not this way. And, you know the stereotypes that we see in cinema, so I used to write about things like that and I had a kind of a grudging audience for it, over, over a period of time. So that was the first time I started writing about cinema. And then, when The News Minute was launched. I started writing for them as well. My editor Dhanya Rajendra who’s not related to me. So, she asked me if I would like to write for them and I used to write on a number of things centered around gender, but when I started writing on films from this perspective, I think they realized that there was a big readership for this. Because a lot of people were interested in looking at our cinema from this point of view and so they so and so I started writing more and more for them until I joined them full time. It’s been nearly five years since I joined them.

Ravi 005632

And so, I would love to take one small example as a case study which is Drishyam, which is Drishyam 1 & 2. fabulous movies great screen play and you know the story itself is very well thought through it is gripping and especially after the, the way one, the first movie came out and set such a high standard to beat it at a screenplay level I think I think was quite amazing. But when I read both your reviews I was blown away by the, the interpretation that you have taken from a gender point of view, especially, you know how the evolution has happened. So, I’d like to first I think get you to talk about that evolution. For those who have watched the movie, and then I’d love to know how did you even approach doing that analysis so maybe first of all the evolution.

Sowmya 005722

Yes, so when I first watched the film. I watched it with my mother I remember in a theater in Chennai, and even then, I found it very disturbing that the girl’s mother uses that language to, you know, beg with a boy and say that we all, we have no choice but to kill ourselves’ If this video comes out. So, see when you are a creator, one thing is that, it’s true that your characters have to speak like themselves. Like, if every character of yours, spoke like you and what your views are, then you will not have characters, you will you will just have a bunch of opinions that are actually yours, and you’re just using them as puppets to voice that. So, I get that I get the fact that a creator needs to create characters who have their authentic voice, but I was also bothered by the fact that nowhere does the narrative question this, right? So you could have had one other character in the plot, who says, okay, so what if this had happened, why didn’t you deal with it this way, or even later in the movie the mother herself having that realization. When she has a conversation with the daughters because they have a younger child too. Right, so I was disturbed by the fact that the, that it had not occurred to the writer that putting this out there, is very damaging to the psyche of a girl child who’s watching this film. And these crimes happen very much in reality it’s not that you know, this doesn’t in fact there is an episode like this that we have dealt with in a book, this is me Mayil. Where, one of Mayil’s friends, goes through something like this or one of her, her friend morphs her photographs and uses it to blackmail her. And then we have adult characters in the book who say, this, you know, so what if this has had happened, it doesn’t mean that you know this is the end of your life, it shouldn’t be. So, I was bothered by the fact that this voice was not there in the, in the film, and the entire movie, kind of, that’s the starting point that’s the trigger so I felt you know it should have been addressed and none of the remakes addressed this either. They were all the same. They all you know stuck to the same mold, but I feel the second film has kind of evolved from there, because the family is supportive of the girl and there are a few lines where the mother does say that she did not do anything wrong. It was a boy who was at fault the boy who took a video of her like that it was his fault. And that is why all of this happened and she is blameless. And I also found it interesting that they do not restrict the life of the younger sibling because of what happened to the older girl, which is typically what happens in real life also, you know. In our society, even if the older girl elopes with someone she likes and gets married, you find that the younger siblings immediately the restrictions become way harsher for them. And if you’re a woman, then you’re you, you may even be forced to give up your education so none of that happens in the second film I found that, you know, there is a willingness to deal with the issue also professionally and all of that made me feel like, okay, the script has kind of evolved from the first film.

Ravi 010042

And the father allowing the friends to come home, including guys to come home, I think, when I was reading all those, like you had made I think, or connected, four or five such disparate points in the movie, all with the thread of things, see how they’ve evolved in their (storytelling) and to me as a storyteller that’s finding a pattern finding a higher-level pattern right, which is just not an easy skill. It comes from having a keen eye. You know it’s a bit of that you know that jeweler’s eye to know that who, this is interesting, I you know, so if I mean I’m know I’m clearly seeing where that eye comes from. Since you’ve worked in this area for so long. But again, do you have some sort of, when you’re watching a movie at that time itself, do you quickly take notes, or you go back and revisit you know what is your actual process to do this.

Sowmya 010140

So, okay, I’ll treat this as two questions. One is how do I review a film, and two is how do you connect these threads. So, when I will, see, I am a writer myself so I know that when somebody is telling a story. There is nothing which happens there, accidentally so no these are deliberate deliberately the director presents a character to you by showing you certain characteristics, like for example, if you take a story where the writer wants you to like a fat character writer will say he was a jolly person, he was he had around, you know jolly tummy, like take how JK Rowling describes Hagrid, right, Hagrid is this huge guy like massive but she paints a very loving portrait of him, but you take somebody like Dudley, who’s fat, who’s also fat. But she makes him sound very you know, she uses that physical characteristic to make him look really, you know like somebody you should despise

Ravi 010245

Very entitled, rude, very interesting, ya.

Sowmya 010247

It is the same kind of body shape that she is describing (of Hagrid and Dudley), but the adjectives she chooses the way she chooses to characterize the person makes you have a different opinion about them. So as a writer myself, I know that nothing that a creator puts there for the audience is there by accident, it is all very deliberately staged. So, so for. So when I’m watching a film I don’t watch it only as a reviewer I’m also watching it as a, as somebody who writes, so I can kind of pick up the details that are there on screen, which will assume significance later you know what are the red herrings that the writer is planting there and which dialogue, you know, I feel, I think this will come back later. I know that connection is going to happen. So, I think when you learn to analyze text for a long time that that happens kind of organically. And you remain alive to catching details. Because, you know as they say, the devil is in the detail so what, what is there in the story which is going to matter later is something that you record in your mind and you also get a kind of a juvenile thrill when you’re proved right you know. See, I knew the this was going to happen, kind of, you know, validation. Number two, how do I review a film, I hate taking notes when I’m watching a film. I just cannot stand people who take their phones out and are typing and I know that there are some reviewers who do because they’re so worried about whether they will forget to say something that they are actually missing out on what’s happening right there. Right, and I feel it’s also unfair to the director because you’re not allowing yourself to be absorbed by the story. So, what I do is during the interval, I take quick notes on what I watched in the first half, any points that I feel must be written or sometimes if I’m watching a really ridiculous film then if there’s a good joke that comes to my mind and I note it down so that I don’t forget it because my memory is really bad these days and you know I don’t want to lose a good joke so I write such things down. And, yeah, after I’m done with the film, I do the same with the second half, so I just jot down these things as a draft on email and then I sit and I write it up. That’s it, I don’t take notes in between a film

Ravi 010520

In OTT given that you can actually pause it, do you end up doing that?

Sowmya 010525

No, I don’t , unless it is a really boring film, and I wanted to take a break, actually if it, then it is really boring on OTT. It is really difficult not to fast forward but I don’t do even that when I’m watching a film because, for your job, I think, you know, when you are doing it professionally, I don’t think it’s fair to fast forward and do all that

Ravi 010553

In your, now it’s been how many years of watching popular culture, movies?

Sowmya 010559

Including my experience with Sify, I would say about seven years

Ravi 010601

Seven years, so, Drishyam was a great case study in point but overall, in general, and I guess you can talk for both Malayalam and Tamil cinema and other cinemas that you’ve been following, what’s your sense on how gender is shown in movies?

Sowmya 010619

So I think, is it has been a lot of conversation on cinema and women’s representation in recent times. And I think that’s a good thing. In Tamil cinema I remember the Swati murder case were, you know, it was a big deal when it happened, there was this young woman called Swati. She was stalked and killed by allegedly by this young man who was in love with her but she refused him. So, that case created a huge, you know, sensation in Tamil Nadu because this happened in broad daylight in a railway station, on a working day. And then there was all this conversation that happened about stalking in cinema and how it is romanticized because in our films traditionally, the hero pursues the heroine and she keeps saying no , and her lack of consent is never taken seriously. And finally, at one point, she understands that this is actually true love and then she falls for him. So, this kind of very toxic, you know, the idea of romance has been promoted by our cinema for a very long time. But after this case, I remember there was a lot of conversation around this issue and a lot of women also started talking about it. So, I think the power of social media has really influenced this because you’re also hearing voices that you wouldn’t have heard otherwise right because earlier, people used to write cinema reviews in the newspaper, or they would, you know, it happened through television, we didn’t hear the voice of the public that much, you know, you needed a platform for you to be able to write about these things but now anybody can have an opinion and voice them too. So, and after this I remember there was this Tamil movie called Remo Sivakarthikeyan Remo which came out. And one of the songs from the film which was released as a promo, it clearly glorified stalking. Okay, so I remember there was even a boycott campaign that somebody organized around that film. I mean, it’s another thing that the film went on to becoming a big hit because he’s a big star, but still this kind of push back.

Ravi 010831

I think five years back that would not have happened.

Sowmya 010832

Yeah, yeah, it wasn’t you know that strong. So, and then people started asking stars these questions in interviews, you know, do you not feel that you shouldn’t be doing such a thing, and then they were forced to confront that, you know. So, then I think they see stars have humongous power over the script the main stars, they dictate, you know, what should so, so I think they also started thinking about it, like Ajith is a very big star in Tamil Nadu, and he recently did the Tamil remake of the Hindi film Pink; Nerkonda Paarvai. So, and he said during the promos that he himself has promoted such ideas in his films, you know, of stalking and romanticizing violence against women, and he wanted to make it right. And that’s why we decided to do a film like this. So, I think that change does exist. And as far as Malayalam cinema is concerned. They’ve always had strong women characters and scripts, but now I think Malayalam cinema is exploring what toxic masculinity is in a way that other industries are or not. If you take a film like Kumbalangi Nights, Fahadh Faasil’s Kumbalangi Nights, you will see that, you know the character there played by Fahadh is actually portrayed as a psychopath, he is your average patriarchal man. But then, you know, the film categorizes him as a psychopath because that is what you are if you’re a toxic man. So, they have been making some really you know interesting films but of course the cinema industry itself, there is a lot of scope for change. When it comes to issues like the pay that women stars get or the facilities they have on the sets. And of course, workplace sexual harassment and so on. Yeah, but at least are talking about it now, it’s not. Earlier it was all just, it was all considered to be glamour. But now people see the issues that are there, you know,

Ravi 011043 1:13

I think it’s a great time to you know segue to talk about The Lesson, and I’ll give the link to the book and because I realized that that was is that the only book for adults that you’ve written, Sowmya?

Ravi 011059

So, so I picked it up and did a speed read from yesterday to today, and it’s, it’s very disturbing … as you meant it to be. So, for me, like, three or four thoughts that you know and we’re just taking down some notes as I was reading, reading this book. For me this book is, it’s quite obvious the major insight in this book is that it is like 1984 for the women’s movement right and how in 1984, George Orwell talks about a dystopian future of the Totalitarian state which is basically his criticism against Stalinist to Russia and you know what was going to happen. Similarly, in The Lesson you paint a dystopian totalitarian situation where it’s. If we take masculinity and this you know hyper patriarchy to its extreme conclusion what would happen. So just talk to us about you know how this book came how the idea for the book came about and you know, what is it that you were trying to talk about for this book.

Sowmya 011210

So, I think it happened with the Nirbhaya case. And then there was this explosion of women sharing their experiences, their own personal experiences of sexual violence and of course as a woman in India, none of this was new to me, per se, but there was just this, it was like somebody had just blown the lid off this, this silence with which so many women in this country lived. And I wanted to go beyond just saying that this whole concept of stranger danger you know everybody just thinks that it’s only if you step out of the house that this happens no it happens because we live in a culture which makes it possible for it to happen right from our laws, from our social structure. And, you know, our families, take the National Crime Records Bureau data every year, every single time. It is been shown repeatedly that over 90% of violence that women experienced comes from their own families. It’s from your own immediate social circle that you are at threat, and it is not this, you know, some man who comes from outside, who’s the real danger, such cases would get reported more, because there is no problem with filing a complaint, and no problem meaning at least mentally you may feel more willing to complain about a stranger than about your uncle or your grandfather or your neighbor. So, that is what I wanted to do with this book. (I wanted to) Talk about how patriarchy isn’t something that just exists out there, but it is there, all around you. And you know how that leads to a culture where such violent crimes happen. So, it’s not that they happen out of the blue or in a vacuum, there is something leading to that. So that’s why you have all these characters within the family, you know, the second daughter is the name of main character. And I specifically named the second daughter because the first daughter, people are somewhat okay with because she’s there but then you know there’s like, if you have two daughters, then that is the ultimate burden in Indian society you know you have to get two of them married off and you know, it’s like too much financial trouble and you’re not getting anything in return like, I know you would with a son like he you can take care of you, but a woman cannot do that so that that is specifically why she’s second daughter and not just a daughter. So you know that the brother in law he works as a dupatta regulator right, so in a in a university so actually you know this call these colleges in Chennai, there are colleges like this in Chennai, where they have security guards, who can go around engineering colleges. They have security guards who go around telling women that they’re not wearing their dupatta properly they’re not dressed properly, they can fine you for it

Ravi 011511

What?! This really there?

Sowmya 011515

Yeah, so and they have these buses where there is like a metal rod in all these compartments and the boys and the girls can’t talk to each other, and, and they actually even have, you know this may sound really absurd, but it is true because I know a lot of my friends have gone to these colleges. They even have spies in nearby malls in the area to make sure that the boys and the girls of the college are not talking to each other outside of it.

So, the idea there is that you have to stay focused on academics and you cannot be, you know, have any distractions that you’re not allowed to be human, you just have to keep writing exams all the time is the kind of thing. So, this dupatta regulator character may seem like a comic character because all he does is he, his job is just, you know, making sure that your dupatta is pinned right, but we don’t we may not take such a character seriously but it’s ultimately what leads to the larger crimes in the book. And, yeah, and then there are there is good news channel. where they’re obsessed with (good news) … so that came from my own experience where you know, when my husband and I, we did not want to have a baby immediately after we got married. So obviously, anyone in the family who sees, like any good news (pregnancy). Any good news. So that’s why good news channel comes from. Like I said nothing that happens to me is a waste because I will always find a-

Ravi 011648

You will always channelize and I want to talk about that a bit here because a lot of what has happened here. (It) Must have really because really angered you, and this is like really strong emotion, and I, when you’re talking about this no Sowmya, you’re so cheerful and you’re so relaxed about it. But in your writing. I can sense that it was actually disturbing because I wanted to do an interview, I read it but, it’s disturbing to read, but I guess that’s what you want to convey. It’s amazing how you channelizing that that emotion into your writing and not into does it actually affect you on a regular basis.

Sowmya 011730

I think for me is a coping mechanism, like I said, you know, I write to make sense of what’s happening around me so I think. I think a lot of artists are like that, you know, whether it is painting or music or art, they find a way to channelize the darker, emotions and feelings that they have into creating something. And when you do that said I think the work is always more honest than what it could be because you’re allowing yourself to be vulnerable and you’re allowing these, the reader to see those emotions, you know, and I think that makes the work more relatable, more, more immediate to them than if you were to disguise that, and I think a lot of women writers tend to self-censor themselves because they’re always worried about what if somebody in my family reads this what will they think about me. And can I have nudity in my book and can I have this, can I have that. And I think you have to break past that wall in your mind and not. It’s only when you allow the world to see that they can, they know they see the value in your world.

Ravi 011844

But, do you sometimes worry that, there is of course a contract between you and the reader, where you’re telling the reader that I’m going to be absolutely 100% honest with you, but in that opening up. When that opening up when that opening up, involves somebody else, who was with you, would that person also be, sometimes be equally open to his or her interaction with you being shared with that honesty. Do you worry about that? Do you actually feel that I should talk to them get their okay?

Sowmya 011918

No, I don’t get anybody’s okay when you’re living with me you have to be okay with it. I would, I think, see if it is something that is sensitive, and I feel that I could hurt the person by putting this in the book. Then I disguise it. You know, it may not be apparent to a random reader that this is who I mean. So, I think that is a good way of taking from reality without it, you know, hurting someone. But I should be honest and saying that when I am writing I really don’t care about these things. And I think if you start letting other people into your brain too much then you will hold yourself back too much so. In Mayil, for example there is this character next door, you know, he is communist and Mayil has big crush on him she thinks, he’s really cool guy is like revolutionary and he is fighting against injustice but this is the guy who doesn’t do any house work at home and he, he is a really patriarchal man, and you know, the bubble kind of burst for her when she realizes that, so this is actually based on the communists I grew up with, the men in my own family who were all like, all for equality and against social injustice and, but the minute they enter the house, they’re just like anybody else, you know, they’re just like, they expect the food to be served and so my parents when they read the book they know who exactly I mean, but the ordinary reader will obviously not know that because the character, the age of the character is different what he does is different and so on.

Ravi 011209

So now you know coming to coming back to the book, right, as I mentioned, for me it was a bit like reading 1984 Dystopian (genre) it’s gripping reading but it’s also very disturbing, but it’s I think very required reading. And I wish more people would read it to just know what the absurdities that we have gotten used to in our life right so it’s storytelling I have this concept, Sowmya, of norm and variance which is that what attracts our attention is if something is above and beyond the typical norm that we ascribe it to, and you know, this is actually a very simple thing that works in all kinds of story(telling). So data stories I’ll just to take a very mundane example, if your sales has been growing at 10% every year and this year also grows at 10%. That’s a norm, that’s nothing great suddenly this year it grows at 40%, then it will raise eyebrows right so it will people will take up and notice. What’s happened in society, is that the absurdities against women have been on for so long, for centuries and millennia, that our norms have all shifted right so if somebody says hey there’s a guy who’s moving around in buses and checking for whether the dupatta is pinned right. We almost like take it like “haan, thik hai” you know the, and the that’s why the other term comes in, which is the Adjustment Bureau. He’s like, let’s, okay we’ll adjust to it right. So, our norms have become so warped, that it doesn’t things like these, which should shock us don’t even surprise us anymore. So, for me I think this book does a great job of resetting that norm that you know this is not the norm. This is not where it should be you should be getting shocked by this day in and day out. And so, I think, ya, for that it’s it’s a great job. But then I was thinking that you know, this is a centuries long fight, it’s not going to be, you know, and you know even 1984, the book came out, I looked up in 1949 and communism as an experiment went on for many decades after that 1989 You could say is when you know it kind of suffered 40 years after the book came out, we have a long way to go and it’s a, I think it’s, it’s writers like you who are crucial torchbearers in this journey. But, if I now ask you to take a step back and look at this movement, let’s call it the gender rights movement right and every movement has had their share of powerful storytellers. And one great example that everybody talks of M. L. King in US Civil Rights Movement and there are not just you know, they are not just great storytellers, but there are these great story moments that nobody can forget like I Have a Dream speech. So, these are defining moments in that movement, where somebody uses the power of storytelling, and in this case speech writing, which is you know a form of storytelling for me to use a nice phrase by Obama right to bend the arc of history, a little bit in the gender movement. What are some of these moments that you have seen that really have helped. From a storytelling point of view and what would you like to see more of.

Sowmya 012439

So, considering that women make 50% of the population, right? We are talking about a huge (part of) the population there. So, the women’s movement itself when it started out, it has changed a lot over the years, right? So, initially it began as a movement for labor rights. I know equal for women to have their share, the eight hours working thing and double wages and things like that, it was about labor laws, and then it evolved into more and more things like you know that then people started talking about reproductive rights and divorce laws and maintenance and property rights and so on, and countries also it has changed a lot like in India for example, did not have the issue of women being denied the vote, which was a big thing in the US right, the women in the US are not allowed to vote. Whereas an India, men and women received the right to vote at the same time. So, I would say that women’s movements across the world there are different moments, you know, in history. And just like how in the west you have African women of African origin having their own movements because they believe that white women do not represent them. Similarly in India also they have Dalit feminists who are speaking about how feminists who are of Savarna caste, do not represent their interests authentically and they do not talk about the intersections of caste and gender enough. So I feel, it’s difficult to pinpoint, because, simply because it’s so huge, it’s such a huge movement spread across like for example, in Europe, in Ireland for example it’s only recently that abortion became legal, you know women from across the world, Irish women from across the world, flew down to Ireland to vote for that law to change, but in India, our abortion laws and our laws to do with reproductive freedom are more liberal, simply because one, we do not have, we do not follow the

Ravi 012655

Religious (reasons), the Catholic religion was a challenge 

Sowmya 012657

Yeah, and that is why that is the main thing (religion) and the second is, of course, due to our population also we do not have such stringent laws on reproductive freedom. So, I would still say that for us in India, I think our laws on sexual harassment, the workplace sexual harassment law. It’s a big, you know, it was a big moment. Similarly, the POCSO law, which deals with sexual crimes against children, is a big moment, and similarly the #metoo movement which broke out in India also, I think that was a very big moment. So, workplace sexual harassment law of course dates back to the Vishakha guidelines and how that is, you know evolved over time. So, the feminist movement in India has been fighting for a number of years, whether it is about dowry and now recently, they are also allies to other movements like for example scrapping section 377 You know, which has to do with criminalizing, same sex relationships so the feminist movement is also extends its allyship relation to these movements because liberty should be for all, it’s not only about liberty for women, it has to cut across all sections of society, and the question marginalization wherever it happens. So, and I think now we are also seeing women come out in a big way, whichever political movement, there is in the country also right. Whenever we see the big protests are happening whether it is the farm bill recently or the anti CAA protests, we see women’s faces in the public life in a big way even if they are students or young women who are coming to the fore and I think that is a very positive sign because it shows that your women today are not only thinking about themselves and their homes, but also about a place in larger society and politics

Ravi 012915

No, it is, powerful yeah but yeah, I was trying to, you know, around this thought here which is that I myself was trying to think of powerful storytelling moments for me, you know, your book and your writings are some of them, because many of these spark thoughts in the future leaders of the movement. and that’s why they are important, and a lot of these are good outcomes whether these acts, so #metoo for example I think that was a good communication spark right because one lady in the US decided to go against the producer (her harasser) and so that’s of course you know just maybe a single event, but I’m just thinking aloud here do we is it required to have some of these powerful storytelling moments or is it just you know, overdramatized and you don’t really need something like I Have a Dream speech to galvanize a movement.

Sowmya 013027

I think just the hashtag, ‘Me Too’ (#MeToo) itself is very powerful, if you think about it, because ‘Me Too’, it’s just two words but it says so much to women because it says, it talks about a shared experience, that women across the globe have it just needed two words, to know what the story there is. 

And these things really have a huge impact because you know one woman spoke up and told her story. It has made it possible for many more women in future to open up about

So, I think such moments are indeed, you know, very important they redefine our history and how we’ve been telling our story so far. So, for instance, earlier, if you read film magazines, workplace sexual harassment would be categorized as the casting couch that was the glamorous term given to it and it would come under the gossip columns. But today, the same thing will be the lead story in the magazine and it will be written in a sensitive way and an editor would have read, and read through it multiple times to make sure that the reporting language is correct, and so on. So that changed because of this, because of the fact that you know something like the metoo movement happened and so many women opened up and told their stories. So, I wouldn’t discount, you know the importance of such moments at all. I would say that they do, you know, drive us forward. So, there are many seminal feminist texts over the years, which, which I think, like I mentioned A Room of one’s own and what a huge impact that had on my life. There are many other books you know the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, and so many books, which talk about life. So these are nonfiction books The Feminine Mystique for example is how talks about how women are supposed to be are projected as being better than men, you know, there is this is the air of mystique to them, and then you are expected to live up to that standard. So, Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex is another really well-known text where she talks about how women are categorized as second in everything. So, all of these books have changed how we look at women in our culture so they’re all big moments but it’s just that you know, there are like so many of them and spread across cultures that it is difficult to pinpoint and say this is the one or two thing which has had an impact. So, I think anytime a woman breaks the rules or ask questions, I think it’s a big deal like even something like Sania Mirza going and talking back to Rajdeep Sardesai on national television I don’t know if you remember this, he asked her, “So Sania when are you going to settle down”. She had won a huge title I forget some grand, slam and he asked her, so when is when the Sania Mirza going to settle down and make a baby or whatever, and she gave it to him, then and there she was like, I don’t think I’m settling you know I’ve achieved so much and this is what you have to ask for me, and recently DMK MP Kanimozhi. A reporter asked her, “So, you know, did the Kalaignar, her father Karunanidhi did he like your cooking?” And do you cook?” and she asked him, “Do you ask, you ask these questions to male politician, do you cook?” So, I think all these push backs that are happening now and are also getting amplified by the media, all if it makes us question, what we have taken for granted so long

Ravi 013417

That’s Powerful. It’s a long fight, which will, I think we have long way to go but all of these efforts are I think super critical in that journey, and including all your fabulous writings, Sowmya yeah so thanks for that. I like to end with some quick questions on what have been some of your recent big influences in terms of books, podcasts, in case you listened to them, any movies that are, you know that you really look forward to or, like,

Sowmya 013457

I’m not really into podcasts sorry, because I’m mainly because I don’t have the time for it, because I work as a journalist and then I’m also doing my writing so I hardly ever get the time to sit and listen. But books yes, I am reading something or the other all the time so the series that I really enjoyed in recent times is Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, It’s a four-book series. She’s an Italian writer. It’s a really, it’s about an intense friendship between two women. So that is one series which I really enjoyed. In nonfiction, I love  ‘Sapiens’  I mean I think everybody must have read by read it by now I also read Obama’s ‘Promised Land’ and, I’ve also discovered this British writer, called Celia Fremlin. So I am very fond of thrillers. I’m very fond of thrillers because I think it’s an excellent way to learn plot, from reading a thriller, because everything has to come together in the end and it has to be very tightly knit and you know you can also play mind games with your reader. So, she is this very underrated writer and she writes these domestic thrillers, where you know the crime happens at home. And, you know the different characters in it

Ravi 013627

cast of characters is quite limited, so you’ll be constantly guessing.

Sowmya 013631

Yeah, and most of her characters are very exhausted women and (they are) first-person account. So, I find it very relatable Oh, yeah, so that’s what I’ve been reading in recent times. And then I keep going back to my old favorites, you know, whenever, I read it Adichie’s books, I love her writing. Yeah, Americana and you know, all these books and my comfort reads, are continue to be J. D. Salinger, because I think I read them, I was at a very impressionable age and I read those books so many times that the pages are literally falling off. Yeah.

Ravi 013712

Amazing Sowmya. Hey, thank you so much ya. Thanks for doing this. I think it’s been mind-opening for me just I think preparing for this interview and then getting a peek into how you approach life as such you know as material for writing. And then how do you then translate that into some pretty clutter breaking and very influential writing so I’m sure a lot of young kids, I think boys and girls would hopefully turn out to be better citizens of the world, having read some of this so it’s useful, good stuff

Sowmya 013751

Thank you so much, thank you. I love this conversation. Thank you.

And that was Sowmya Rajendran – one of India’s foremost literary torchbearers of the gender rights movement.

A few things which stayed with me:

  1. How as a writer, everything that happens to you is material
  2. How Sowmya channelizes her anger and other emotions into her words
  3. The importance of not accepting the status quo and challenging long-held norms – but doing so in an evocative, engaging way

If you find this content valuable, please rate and review this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to them. It’ll help others like you discover these insights!

This podcast was hosted by me, Ravishankar Iyer. Audio editing by Kartik Rajan. Transcript editing by Sanket Aalegaonkar and Prahlad Viswanathan.

Until next time, may the force of good stories be with you

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