The Story Rules Podcast E12: Mahima Vashisht, Storyteller – ‘Womaning in India’ (Transcript)

Mahima vashisht
5. General

The Story Rules Podcast E12: Mahima Vashisht, Storyteller – ‘Womaning in India’ (Transcript)

This transcript has been created using a combination of AI transcription tools and (some painstaking) human effort. Please excuse any typos, grammatical mistakes, inaccurate time stamps, or other errors. Specifically, the time stamps would not account for the intro portion of the podcast.

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Intro hook:

“And their stories would suddenly be much more powerful than the story I triggered their thought with. So that’s how I started speaking to women and collecting these stories. And the whole idea behind it, which seems to be working so far, is that you can deny opinions, you can question studies, but you cannot deny real experiences of real people.”

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.

In this podcast I’ve come across guests who have taught me a lot about the craft of storytelling.

But it’s rare to come across a guest who – apart from storytelling – has also taught me how to be a better person, how to live a better life.

Mahima Vashisht is one such guest.

I was introduced to Mahima’s writing through Anustup Nayak on Twitter. And I was quite blown away by her work.

Mahima has a weekly newsletter called Womaning in India, where she shares stories about everyday issues faced by women. Issues like discrimination at the workplace, mental load at home, unequal sharing of domestic chores, under-representation at leadership levels across fields…and so on. And while these stories are backed by research and stats, Mahima’s main tool is her collection of stories.

Real stories shared by real people. Stories that are told with honesty, engagement, empathy, relatability… and generous amounts of humour. One of Mahima’s superpowers is her ability to take crappy 1990s Bollywood movie references and extract comedy gold from them! 

Two factors make Mahima a special storyteller for me: 

  1. Her choice of topic: Mahima writes about gender issues – a topic that impacts all of us, but has limited options in terms of good storytelling. For the world to become a better place, a more equitable place, It is critical that these stories are shared widely, especially with men.
  2. Her approach in sharing them: There’s a lot to learn from Mahima’s Storytelling process. She takes incidents shared by her network of friends and adds her narrative abilities, her own brand of humour and engagement tools to convert these into highly readable stories.

In addition to her take on the craft of storytelling, Mahima also offers some perspective on the gender rights movement and why, despite all the gloom, there’s reason to be optimistic for the future.

It’s a must listen conversation – especially for men!

Let’s dive in.

Ravi   0:12
All right, welcome to the Story Rules podcast, Mahima!

Mahima    0:16
Hi, Ravi! Thank you for having me here.

Ravi 0:18
Mahima, I was mentioning to you that I came across your work through Anustup Nayak’s recommendation on Twitter, and I was quite blown away. Because what you do seems simple on the face of it, but I know how difficult it is to do what you’re doing, to make it appear so simple. I want to start with the origin story that you write on your Substack, where you talked about—I’m going to quote from the page here— that “half the world’s population – men, have virtually no idea what the everyday life of the other half is like. Even the most ‘woke’ of men out there would be shocked if they had to walk a mile in a woman’s shoes.” And this resonated (with me), because an analogy came to mind; it’s this apocryphal story where two young fish are swimming in water, and they pass by an older fish. The older fish is just swimming and it asks the younger fish, “Morning, boys! How’s the water?” And they just nod politely. And then they swim ahead, but then one of them looks at the other and says, “What’s water?” because they didn’t know that there was a name for it. A lot of times, we are living in a state which we take for granted. And we need somebody to stop and say, “Hey guys, this is water.” Or that “This is not right,” or something. So when did this realization first come to you? And I’d also love to know when you realized that “Hey, I need to now talk about this.”

Mahima 1:58
Right, it’s been almost a lifelong learning. If you if I think about it, when we were kids, it was the 90s, and Bollywood was throwing all of these toxic messages at us. And we were not even aware, like those fish who don’t know they’re in water, we had no idea that what we are consuming is misogyny essentially. And I think pretty much all of us are – especially speaking for myself – I was very much a part of the problem, because we had all internalized all of these things as normal, that this is how the world is, without questioning it. However, I also remember even as a kid, I always had a very strong sense of justice and fairness, that if two people are otherwise similar, and they’re being treated differently, why are they being treated differently? I would just naturally question that always. And as I grew older, it became more and more apparent – and it helped that I have a younger brother. We are both, like I said, essentially similar in most aspects, the only minor difference is our gender. So, in our own trajectory at home, at places of education, school, college workplaces, there was a very apparent difference in our trajectory, and it was clear that the cause was our gender. For example, I went to an engineering college, he went to an engineering college; he would tell us stories of how they would go to the college canteen at midnight, and hung out with friends. Whereas I went to an engineering college in Haryana, where at 4:30pm the lectures would end, and by 5:30, we were all locked up in the girls’ hostel, because of the hostel timings. I went there for four years and I never once experienced this thing called ‘hanging out with friends at midnight in the college canteen’. And I knew that the male peers in my batch did.
So, there were these clear distinctions that became more and more apparent as we grew up. I think as kids, the world still treats you relatively equally, although it starts, arguably, from day one of your life but it’s not as apparent and as in-your-face as it is in your adolescence, and then in your adulthood. And then of course, after you get married, it just becomes a sea of difference. It becomes like, (men are) from Mars and (women are from) Venus; we are figuratively on different planets after that. That’s how this acknowledgement, or this realization of this difference came to me.
(As for) how I came about to the idea that I should write about it…writing had always been a hobby, interest, or passion for me, and I knew that I was reasonably good at it. Although of course, imposter syndrome does not allow you to ever say that out loud. So, my take was that, “okay, I see this injustice or unfairness or difference in the quality of life. The rules are different for men and women, and I’m seeing it more and more as I’m growing up. All my experiences are conforming with this idea that things are different for us. The rules are different for us, lives are different for us. The ceiling is not just at the workplace, the glass ceiling – it’s in our entire life.” And I thought that this is something that I need to write more about. Frankly, I used to talk a lot about it and the people around me would get sick of it. They would say that “You seem to have only one agenda on your mind, everything you’re seeing is from that lens” and, it’s almost like when you have a hammer, everything is a nail. But that really was true, at least in my case, and it still is to this day. Once you start seeing things from this gender perspective, you see it in literally everything. Like a minute before we started this call, I had to ask you to pause because my cleaning lady was at the door and had called me. Now, my husband is also home right now. Why she calling me when she’s not calling him? She has both our numbers. So, there is (this observable difference) in every minute of our life, and I can give you examples from as close as 60 seconds before we started this call. When I saw it was so omnipresent in every facet of our life, I thought I should write about it.
Now, how do I write about it? That’s where the storytelling aspect comes in. When we were talking, again, before we started recording, you told me about how you have been working on converting data and information and insights into stories. That was the insight that I also had. There are all these brilliant research studies done about gender, they’re well researched, they’re published, they are spoken about for a while and then they’re forgotten. Well, it’s a disservice to say that they are forgotten, but for laypeople like me, these are not things that stay with us a lot. Especially when you have privilege, because that’s how privilege works; you don’t know you’re in water because you’re so accustomed to water being the thing around you. Even I have many privileges. And the main difference between you and me right now is male privilege and no male privilege, right? That’s where that sentence came from, that even the most ‘woke’ of men, even the men who are genuine allies, often will be blind to these differences, because it’s literally the air we breathe. And that’s where I decided that I should convert all of this data and these insights which people don’t register into stories, because stories are real. For people, at least as human beings, we connect far more to stories than to data, and definitely more so than opinions. I could write a blog post about how the mental load of running the house is all on women and it’s a problem, here are 10 researches done about it, and this is my opinion on it. And then there would be another person who would write another opinion piece, arguing for the opposite side. So, whose opinion is correct? That really changes no one’s mind. That’s where I thought that opinions won’t work. The data is already there. I’m not the person to add more to these high-level, well-done research (studies) by senior professors, organizations, or institutes. Where I can come in, is to convert all of this data and opinions into stories. There are research (studies) done on how the mental load is being taken disproportionately by women, I went out and I spoke to 10, 20 women, and asked them, “Is this true in your life?” In many cases, even the women were not aware of it because again, they are swimming in the water. We are not aware of the water. My water is darker and more polluted than your water, but neither of us are aware of it. In many cases, I had to give them examples from my own life, or other stories I’d heard, and then they would say, “Oh, yeah, this has happened in my life.”

Ravi 9:29
You trigger their stories, brilliant.

Mahima 9:31
Yeah, I would give them an example of what I mean by mental load, and then the penny would drop and then suddenly they would come up with 10 times more stories. And their stories would suddenly be much more powerful than the story I triggered their thought with. So that’s how I started speaking to women and collecting these stories. And the whole idea behind it, which seems to be working so far, is that you can deny opinions, you can question studies, but you cannot deny real experiences of real people. So, when I say that Neha lives in ‘this’ city, and she works as ‘this’ in ‘this’ corporate sector, and her husband Akash works somewhere else as so-and-so and ‘this’ is their dynamic, and when they come home Akash goes and turns on the TV while she goes and makes tea for both of them. That’s real, right? That’s undeniable, and that’s also very relatable because most people have experienced that themselves. I thought that would be a good trigger to make these conversations happen. And like I said, it seems to be working so far.

Ravi 10:38
Fascinating stuff! And I will come to the stories part (in a bit). You mentioned an interesting point, that you’ve had a strong sense of justice since you were young. Was there somebody in the family or a role model who instilled that? Was it something that you read? How did that come about when you were young?

Mahima 11:00
That’s a good question. I’m not very sure, but I think it was a mixture of many things. One is that, just as a middle-class kid, you learn to value things more. My parents have not had it easy in life. They’ve had to work very hard for where they reached in life. And they worked even harder to get us to reach an even higher level; every parent wants their kid to do better than them. They’re both very deeply conscientious people. They’re very honest. And those were values that we learned, even if you’re not told, “Hey, you should be honest.” It’s more that kids pick up from what you do, rather than what you say. So as kids, I think we pick those values up from them. And when you pick up honesty as a value, you pick it up so deeply because kids are hardcore, right? Kids are not hypocrites. When kids pick up a value, they stick with it and they feel it to the core. They see everything with that lens without fear or favour. They don’t have biases to colour their viewpoint. If I have picked up honesty as a deep core value, then I want honesty in everything.  So, when I see dishonesty or hypocrisy, (it goes against that core value), like “Oh, okay. You should not go out after dark. This is a rule. Okay, understood. But hey, how is this rule not being applied to this guy, but it’s being applied to this girl?” As a kid, you are very brutal in this honesty, and I think that’s where it came from, probably.

Ravi 12:38
That’s a great point. Yeah, I think as adults, we start seeing the world in shades of grey, right? We learn nuance. We learn “Nahi, yaha pe theek hai, yaha pe nahi.” (We learn “yeah, it works here but maybe not here…”); we try and play with the boundaries of honesty. But as you rightly say, for a kid, it’s black and white. It’s either this or that. That’s a very interesting point.
You talked about stories and you write in your blog that “I believe that stories are power.” And that’s a very interesting way of putting it. For me, stories can mean clarity, stories can mean engagement, and (they are) persuasive, and that’s, I guess where you’re coming from – the persuasive power. Was there an incident or a moment in your life when you realized the power of stories as a medium?

Mahima 13:31
There are many, actually. Again, this has been a lifelong learning. But yes, I’ve been called by more than one person, ‘The Argumentative Indian’, and I’ve been told to go read that book. I tried and I couldn’t, to be honest. It’s very heavy! But yeah, arguing has been a very core part of my personality from the very beginning, questioning things or doing things (differently), and it’s not always a great quality for a girl to have in our society, of course. But then again, as you question things, you also learn to refine the way you argue, because you see that when I said things this way it worked, but when I said things that way, it didn’t work. Or, so-and-so presented my point using these words, and they worked better, they landed better. Subconsciously, I think I would notice these subtle differences. And through these differences, it became more and more apparent that when you give people an example of something, it lands much better than just the theory of it would have. That’s why you will see that I have almost never used words like ‘patriarchy’, ‘misogyny’, or any of the ‘-ism’s ever. I’ve been writing almost for a year now, (and I never used them), because these words are loaded. I know what they mean to me, but I don’t know what they mean to you. Because they’re big words and everyone has sort of come to their own conclusions of what these words mean. ‘Feminism’, for example. For someone it might simply mean equality; for someone it might mean justice; for someone it might mean hating men. If I say I’m a feminist, it’s taken very differently by different people. But if I say that girls in colleges should not be trapped in girls’ hostels, that they should be allowed to have the same access to the same facilities as boys, then that’s a very defined opinion. And people can understand that equally. That transfers better, right? Because it’s an example; it’s a story of what happened to me. There’s a story behind it. And I remember another thing: I was watching this documentary on Netflix about Bill Gates, and he spoke about how he understands statistics, but Melinda understands stories. He said, for example, if you say that X million number of kids die every year of malaria in the world, and it’s a highly preventable disease, he said that he understands that problem. But when they travelled to Africa, Melinda met a mother who had lost her child, and that really was the thing that moved her incredibly, and it was almost a defining moment in the setting up of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is doing such incredible work around the world. So those are the kinds of small incidents or things that I have heard and watched which made this penny drop over time. It didn’t drop (suddenly) one day but over time, it made the penny drop: that stories are far more powerful than data. Which is unfortunate, because a million kids dying is far worse than one kid dying, but when you meet the mother of that one kid, as human beings, it leaves a much more lasting impression on us than the statistic.

Ravi 17:11
What I appreciate about your writing, Mahima, is that you don’t just give the stories. The stories are there, of course, that but you also back them up with the studies and the stats. I think that balance is great. Let’s come to that process now, of how you actually (do what you do). Doing something on a weekly basis, the amount of stuff that you do, it’s not easy. So, I want to first talk about the theme or the choice of topic (that you use). I understand that you might not really struggle for choice of topics in this area, but I still wanted to know your process about how you choose a topic. Do you have a list of future topics to write about? (If you could talk a little bit about that process…)

Mahima 17:50
Yeah, so there are a couple of ways that that happens. At least in the beginning, or even before I began, I didn’t have a physical list but I mentally knew 10, 20, 30 things that could be talked about in this area, because like I said, it happens in every second of my life. As a woman, in every second of your life, if you live with your eyes and ears opened, you will see this happening around you. So I already began with this list in mind. Also, as I speak to women, and as men and women read my newsletters and then write back to me, new topics keep emerging. Often, I’ll be listening to one story and then I’ll realize “Hey, you know what, this is the question I asked, but in her answer, she’s telling me these three other things, which maybe even she’s not registering but as she’s telling her story, three more aspects of gender bias or discrimination are coming across to me.” So, I would make a note of them. Now, I’ve become a little more systematized with time. But, when I began, people used to question me, saying “Hey, I love what you’re writing, but aren’t you afraid you’re going to run out of things to write soon? What do you do after one month? What do you do after two months?” But I don’t see an end in sight. As I go on, the list of topics only increases, it’s not decreasing!

Ravi 19:13
Hm, what’s your backlog? How many topics do you have in your list?

Mahima 19:16
For the next four weeks, I’ve got exactly what to do for each week in mind. And then after that there’s another 10, 20, 30 (topics). Like I said, it keeps growing.

Ravi 19:28
I think the rate of addition will definitely be more than one a week, which means that you’re set.

Mahima 19:32
Exactly. So if I expend one issue in a week, I have gained four more from there. So, the end is not in sight right now. It’s only about my work.

Ravi 19:43S
Then, do you try and have any element of topicality to it? Like “For this week, this topic will be fine.” How do you then choose what you will do for the week?

Mahima 19:55
It’s a mix. Sometimes it’s even about my own personal experiences. Such as this week, I’m really feeling very strongly about this thing.

Ravi 20:01
Like your moving thing. When you were moving houses…

Mahima 20:04
Exactly. So one month ago, I moved houses and when I did so, I came in contact with a broker, a carpenter, an electrician, a plumber, a mover, a packer, and with all of them I was the one running point on things, because my husband had to go to work. He works in the government (sector) and so I’m the one at home. I’m the one running point on things, and every man will tell me, “Madam, sahib kaha hai?” Sahab ka number do.” (Madam, where is your husband? Give us his number.)
And it happens even now. We’re still settling in our new house, and every other day there will be a thing that needs repairing, and a man will come into the house and say “Sahab ghar pe nahi hai?” (Is your husband not home?)

Ravi 20:39
And then the maid will ask “Madam kaha pe hai?” (Where is madam?)

Mahima 20:41
Exactly. So sometimes it’s like that. If something is personally affecting me in a particular week, then that feeling also comes across in my writing. “Okay, I’m really feeling strongly about this. I’ll be able to articulate this really well because it’s so real to me right now in this moment.” Sometimes I’ll go by that, sometimes I’ll go by topicality. For instance, I wrote about the Tarun Tejpal Judgement. So that was a topical thing in that week, and that thing had come out and it had personally affected me a lot when I read it; What had happened really disgusted me. I spent a whole week reading that 500 page judgment and wrote about that. So sometimes it’s topicality, sometimes it’s my own choice, and sometimes it’s just going through the backlog of the list. But I don’t usually have to refer to that list since there’s usually something already happening around us that needs to be addressed.

Ravi 21:39
Then once you have chosen, comes the fun, but tough part of actually getting these stories. So I’d love to know, do you have something like a network or community of friends, or colleagues? How do you start sourcing these stories?

Mahima 21:58
Right, at this point, I have the privilege of knowing so many women who I’ve already interviewed, and it’s not like one woman has only one story. If I, as one woman, can relate to maybe 40 out of the 50 things I’ve written about so far, then pretty much every woman will have that many stories too. And I have also now with time, found the women who are articulate in expressing the story, so that’s a ready base for me. (There’ll be) a couple of friends and colleagues, women who I’ve organically met through Womaning, who I can go through for most of the average topics, like moving. Like people who will say “Sahab kidhar hai” (Where is your husband?) that happens to every woman. And then there are the more unique topics for which I have to go to particular women. For example, I wrote about disability and women who are blind, women who are deaf, women who have other disabilities. For that, I had to really dig deep into my network and try to find someone who knows someone who knows someone who works in this sector. And then I arrived at three different kinds of disability, which that piece included. There were three different people and organizations to whom I had to reach out, so that took a lot of time.
Sometimes it’s through that network, and social media, of course, makes things easier. Now I have become brazen enough that I just put out a tweet and it really catches on. I am always surprised since sometimes I ask for really difficult issues, and women reach out to me and open their hearts and just tell me these very, very difficult stories. And it’s always amazing to me the amount of trust that people are putting in me, in telling these stories to me.

Ravi 23:48
One thing that surprises me, Mahima, is that what you’re doing is not rocket science, right? And yet, I don’t think it’s been done before.

Mahima 24:00
I’m as surprised as you!

Ravi 24:01
It’s just a simple thing, asking people “what happened to you?” on this topic; And, of course, there’s a floodgate of stories but what (gobsmacked me) is that this is great, but why didn’t somebody do this before? This has been happening for millennia. It’s fascinating.
This is great. So you start collecting your stories, then do you have a – I know it can be difficult and differ from week to week – but do you have a deadline that (makes you go) “okay, by this time I must have the stories, and then I can start actually writing and refining”?

Mahima 24:35
I need to be much more disciplined in deciding on deadlines. I am your typical, average engineer who writes furiously one hour before the deadline. There have been times when I’ve posted it at 11:59pm on Friday, so sometimes I am not as disciplined as I should be. But ideally, yes, I should have stories by the beginning of the week. If I publish on Friday, then by Monday, Tuesday, I should have the rough stories in hand. Especially when it’s difficult stories; when it’s average stuff like electrician, carpenters, then I don’t really do it so much, and women are also okay with it. But if they’re telling me very personal, difficult stories (then I do.) Or even in cases where I’ve changed their names – which I do very often to protect their privacy – Even in those cases, I circle back to them saying, “Hey, this is the final thing that I’ve written. Are you okay with this?” So even if your name is not the same, and I’ve changed some identifying details, instead of saying you live in Bangalore, I may say you live in Pune, things like that are changed so that no one can identify you. Even then, it’s still your story and it should ring true to you. So, to show that respect for the trust that they put in me, I do that. Which adds another day to my timeline, because they’re busy; most people, especially mothers, are very busy. So they might take a day or two to get back to me. I have to give them that space to revert and give me their approval. Then, I’ll put all of the stories together in a logical sequence; put a header and footer to the researches to back it up at the end; any call for action that I can put in, or if in the process I’ve found some organizations that are doing good work in that space, then I’ll do a little background check on those and then add those as well. All of that takes a day to do; to put the final piece together. In an ideal world, I should be done with all of that by Thursday night and schedule it for Friday, and then sit and enjoy, which I don’t do most of the time. I am running against time on Friday, but I should work better on that.

Ravi 26:48
You also mentioned that you add some research or data to back that up. Do you have any specific approach or specific sources that you look for? Or do you basically just Google them and then figure out what could be something that backs this up?

Mahima 27:03
Like I said, these issues are so widely felt, that a simple Google search will give you the answers you need. But the only thing is that I try to avoid news articles and opinion pieces. I try to go with papers which are peer reviewed, so that one can’t say “oh, this is so-and-so’s bias.” Or “the Times of India has written this because they wanted ad revenue from this company.” So it’s more about whether this was a proper study done with a proper control group, and all of the scientific processes were followed, and whether it was peer reviewed and if reputed journals have published it. I try to find such undeniable studies.

Ravi 27:44
While doing this, do you also try and actively look for contradictory evidence, contradictory studies or something like that?

Mahima 27:51
Oh, they come up all the time. But I’ll usually just find opinion pieces as contradictory (articles). I’ve never found any actual peer reviewed studies that contradicts this (other study that I am looking up). (For example,) there is no peer reviewed study that I have ever read, which says that men are the ones lifting the mental load. So that’s not been a concern yet.

Ravi 28:16
So, what you’re saying is that as a part of the process you will look for it, and if something comes up, of course you will share (it). That’s great.
Finally, regarding the stories that you get…you mentioned some people are a little more articulate, and of course, there’s a little bit of skill (involved) in even recounting incidents. So you do rewrite them or you do refine them when you share (those stories)?

Mahima 28:36
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Some women prefer to write and send me stuff, but otherwise, I will tell them to just speak as they want and as it comes to them. And then, a little bit of rambling happens; some ‘um’s and ‘ah’s will happen; digressions will happen; So I obviously have to sit and edit it down to a crisp piece which only talks about the issue at hand and doesn’t go into the side bars. I do that kind of editing, but I don’t change the facts of what happened. I can, again, change the names, the city, and stuff like that. But I won’t change the actual facts of what happened because it has to ultimately be true to her story. So I will (make these edits), and then I’ll send it back to her for an okay.

Ravi 29:19
I really like when you do that because then the whole piece is so engaging. At no point does the thing make one feel that “Oh, this is dragging on”. It’s very crisp and clear throughout. I think that that really helps.
I think with that, I want to segue into your writing. I think a lot of what you’re doing, Mahima, of course there’s the intent and the heart and the passion you’re putting into it, but it’s also the skill (that interests me). So let’s talk about that skill. One element of your skill which I find really cool is the ability to narrate incidents in detail; and in the right amount of detail, while not going into too much. I’m going to quote from one of your articles, the mental load one, because it is so good. I really want the listeners to know that this is the level of detail that needs to go into a story, and then we’ll talk about how you do this. So this is from the post called ‘A Tale of Two Coffees’. I’m going to skip the first part; I’m going to go straight into this: 

“Once upon a time, I got up to make myself a cup of coffee. But first, I noticed my laptop was discharging. So I went to the other room to fetch the charger. From the window of this room, I saw that the sky was overcast, so I went to the balcony to move the laundry inside before it started raining. On the balcony, our old dish antenna was still hanging in place, even though we had discontinued our DTH connection many months back. It was turning into a nice museum of pigeon tropics. So I made a mental note to get it uninstalled over the weekend. And that reminded me – I needed to get a deposit back from the DTH service provider. I had written to them about it, but never heard back on what was happening there. Hang on – the coffee!
I made my way back to the refrigerator to get the milk (resolutely ignoring the all out plugged into the bedroom wall with the nearly empty refill, even though it reminded me that we are almost out of refills too). I opened the refrigerator and noticed that we had too many packs of milk. So I closed the refrigerator and opened the grocery app on my phone to delete the milk order for the next two days.”
I was laughing by this time because I do this! And we all do this; But what I really loved about this sequence, Mahima – it continues, this is not the end – is that this is so real, and I love this detail. I was watching you do this. I was visualizing you do all of this. This is harder than it looks. It looks very easy to do this, as a reader, but as a writer, for whatever reason, I don’t see people being able to do this really well. Again, as a skill, I want to try and dig back into your past. Were you always good at this? Was it a reading style that you picked up? Or a writing strategy you picked up from someone, or did you have to consciously build it? How did this happen?

Mahima 32:09
So, this actually comes back to honesty. Because I’ve figured that I used to write as a kid, in school and college magazines, and then in college I became a little more of a “fancy writer”. I would try really hard to find cool references, or you know, try to build some Pink Floyd lyrics into my writing, and all that. That’s what the cool kids around us were doing. You try to ape that a little. For me, my mother tongue is Hindi, so I grew up thinking in Hindi. Although I always studied in English medium schools and I was fairly good at English, but these turns of phrases and clever writing would not come to me very organically. So when I would read it, I would be so impressed and bowled over. And in those early years, I would try to ape it and try to write like the cool people wrote. But what I realized over the years is that that was not honest, because that’s not how I think, that’s not how I talk. And I’m trying to build an additional layer of ‘fake-ness’ with the so-called coolness, which is actually fake, which I was building around my writing. So over the years, I’ve tried to unlearn that, in the last decade or so, which is that I tried to write how I talk, and how I would tell this to a friend is how I’m trying to write it. That’s why the piece speaks to people, I think. Like you said, you could see me doing all this because I am writing to you as I would tell this to a friend in a conversation. Because if I try to make it cool and use turns of phrases, and puns, and alliterations, and bring in some rock music lyrics of a song that I think makes me appear as cool, it’s going to become so hard for the reader to decode, that they’re going to give up on it. Like you said, many writers are not doing it. I think that that is the trouble that I find as a reader. I find that really great writing, like The New Yorker, or New York Times, (this sort of) writing which is called amazing and given awards the world over, I often find that (writing) hard to access, because that’s not how I think or I talk. And I find that when someone writes in the way that I think and talk, it makes it much easier. The reading becomes as easy as listening. It’s not like you have to read and then translate some long winded sentence in your mind, which (you don’t realize) kaha se shuru hua, kaha pe khatam hua (where did it begin and where is it going), it goes on for one or two paragraphs. I have never found that (kind of) reading easy. Therefore, I just decided to write in the way I like to read, which is simple short sentences and real things which are not shrouded behind a layer of attempted coolness, on my part. This is not to say that those writers who write in all these well respected journals are not good; they’re amazing and I don’t think I will ever be able to achieve those heights of art, but they are coming from a different world. 

Ravi 35:38
They’re probably being honest to their world.

Mahima 35:40
Yeah. They’re people for whom English is the first language, and the kind of education that someone who’s studied in Oxford, and Cambridge, and Harvard has had is very different from what the average Indian would understand. So I’m writing for the average Indian – that is my aim. I want the average Indian who knows average English to understand it. In fact, at some point I also want to write in vernacular languages, like Hindi, to begin with. So that’s my point; the whole idea behind starting this newsletter was to make these ideas reach as many people as possible and if I make my writing so convoluted that the average Indian cannot understand or appreciate it, or gets bored, then then that’s defeating my purpose.

Ravi 36:27
I love that. You’ve also attended The Art of Writing Clearly, by Amit Varma, right? That helped, I guess. In fact, by the way, I am attending it now and one of the triggers for me was your tweet. So did that impact you significantly?

Mahima 36:46
The community that Amit has grown around that course is just mind blowing; the kind of people that are going through that course, who are emerging from it, the breadth of writing that they do – Oh God, the sheer breadth and depth of reading that they do! I’ve given up on keeping up with the bookmarks of what comes out of that group. That community is still very much thriving and there are some really learned people over there. For me, the biggest takeaway happened after the course, which was – of course, the course is incredible. It’s amazing. Amit really makes you think, and clear writing is exactly what I’m also talking about, right? So it’s always been an unarticulated part of my own writing, and it helped me articulate that better, or be more conscious of the kind of words I’m using, or the kind of sentences I’m writing. But I think the biggest takeaway for me came after the course; because after the course, I requested Amit for a one-on-one chat about this book idea that I had. And that book idea was Womaning in India, which had been in my mind for two or three years, and not one word had been written about it. So when I spoke to him, I told him that I’m just struggling with the discipline of sitting down to write because, like I said, I’m this typical engineer MBA who needs a deadline to work. So he said, “Why don’t you start a newsletter? These days newsletters are big, and if you write every week then it gives you a weekly deadline. And at the end of the year, if you’ve written once every week, you will have 50 pieces. In two years, you’ll have 100 pieces; that’s a big body of work.” And so that was, I think, the biggest takeaway for me from the course: which was this piece of small piece of advice that Amit gave, that completely changed the way I was approaching this concept. I was thinking of it as a book, and then I would have written it when I would have written it in the fullness of time, which usually never happens. So, this gave me a very good writing discipline, which has really changed my life as a writer.

Ravi 38:54
That’s incredible! Wow, I didn’t know that.

Mahima 38:56
There’s a joke going around, that someone goes to a party and asks a guy, “Hey, what do you do?”, and the guy says “I’m a writer.” So they say, “Okay, what have you written?” to which he replies, “That’s not how it works.”
(Being a) writer is the world’s most common profession, (wherein out of) everyone who says they are writers, maybe 1% of them are actually writing. And that was where I was also stuck, in that 99%, thinking that I should write, that I want to write; I am reasonably decent at writing, but I was never actually writing. So this has helped me a lot, this small advice, which I’ve given away for free and I’m sure Amit would also give it away for free. It’s the discipline.

Ravi 39:38
You talk about honesty in writing, Mahima. And, one (aspect) is of course, not adding any flourishes that don’t add value; just saying things as you would talk to a friend. The other part about honesty is authenticity and being open to share what’s happening, and you go really far out there in terms of sharing because a lot of things that happen – of course, there are people who are sharing – but you yourself are sharing stuff, which is tough. So, is there some sort of a mental line (that you draw) that “okay, this (much) and no further” Or do you think, “If this has happened to me, then I want to share it in its entire raw form”?

Mahima 40:29
I do like to push the boundaries of my own comfort zone. We all like our privacy, and there’s a lot of shame around a lot of things. So if, for example, someone makes a derogatory comment about my body, it will hurt me a lot; it hurts most people, both men and women. And it hurts you, it bothers you, and often it might stay with you for years, but you will never repeat it to anyone out of the shame, (or the sense of) “Why should I spread this idea further?” or “This nasty thing, which was a funny thing, or it was a joke and it was actually funny because it’s true, but it’s hurtful at the same time. Why should I repeat it to other people and spread this joke further? What if it catches on? What will people say about me? What will they think about me?”
That is the comfort space that I’m talking about. It’s the shame of keeping these things to yourself. That’s what I like to push myself on, that these are not things that I need to be ashamed of. If things have happened to me, that were done by others, (regardless of whether) they’re done deliberately, consciously or subconsciously, it is because of my gender that some of these things have happened to me. I should not feel shame in writing about them. In fact, when I read about another woman going through (the same situation), I don’t judge her; I feel empowered. If I read a famous woman talking about, say, her Me Too cases that came out, or any other difficult experience that a woman has gone through, it becomes an example, and it becomes a ray of hope for other women to follow. And that’s how it works with men, women, everyone. Deepika Padukone talks about depression, and that’s empowering for people going through it shrouded in this blanket of shame, right? That’s what I am trying to do, which is that if I bare my honest truth, then maybe it will help someone who’s (ashamed of their experience). When I was 17 years old, I would never have admitted some of these things, even though they have stayed with me for all these years. Now I am 35 years old, and I think I have arrived at a level of maturity and comfort with being myself where I know what is my fault and what is not my fault. And in fact, sharing these stories has helped me. I don’t know how many other people it has helped, but it does help me to process these things better. A lot of women who tell me their difficult stories will often tell me at the end of that call itself that “I don’t know what you’re going to write out of this and whether it will catch on or not, but just the act of talking to you has helped me a lot.” That’s how badly therapy is needed in our country; that talking to a newsletter writer is giving people that comfort because they’ve never spoken about these things to anyone. They’ve never articulated these things to anyone. And the same is true for me also.
The line that I would not cross, that I do keep in mind is (for the) people around me (or the) people close to me, how would they feel? If a story involves someone who I care about, either they are a part of the story or they were intentionally or unintentionally a part of what happened to me, I don’t want to drag their name into it because that’s not my place. That’s their story to tell, not mine. So that’s the only line I don’t cross. But otherwise, (as for) whatever is uncomfortable for me…I have read enough quotable quotes about artists that ‘art lies outside your comfort space’ and all of that, (which has led me to) think the more you push yourself in your areas of discomfort in sharing things that you’re not comfortable with, the better your art becomes and the more it speaks to people. And that’s also what I’ve experienced when I’ve written about difficult things. People have written back to me that “yeah, this helped me so much and I also went through something similar or even worse, and I’ve never told anyone, but when I read your piece, I had tears in my eyes and felt like I was not alone.” Which itself is such a huge accomplishment, to make someone feel like they’re not alone. So it’s worth it, the discomfort.

Ravi 44:53
Incredible stuff.
I want to change gears a bit into something that I really love about your writing, which is the use of memes. I am so, so happy that you saw so, so many bad movies when you were growing up. (I really just love it,) but my favourite has to be, I think, “Aao sakhi, notes banaye.”  (Come partner, let’s make notes.) I mean, who remembers that movie? Who remembers the scenes in that movie? And then goes and looks for those memes and then … okay, I need to know the origin of this meme making skill.

Mahima 45:40
Like any other middle-class, Hindi speaking Indian kid of the 90s, I grew up watching all of this Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, Dil Toh Paagal Hai, all of it. And I loved all of it. And obviously at that point, I had no idea how problematic it was, so I was a big fan. To this day, I know all the song lyrics and everything. So I am a massive, crazy Bollywood fan, even though now I realize the problems in these movies and their stories and the characters. These are your formative experiences, right? It’s hard to not feel nostalgic about them. There is a nostalgia associated with it; there is a love of Bollywood. I know all the songs, I can dance to any part of any song, and know exactly which movie, which actor, or what is happening in the story at this point, blah, blah, blah; What I’ve tried to do here is – see, the stuff I’m writing about is very heavy stuff most often – And so I think humour is a good relief from all that heaviness, because I think it’s easier for me to just write a tragic piece about these things, that “These are tragedies!” or “(These are) injustices and I’m angry!” which I am, but I put in the extra effort to shroud this anger in sarcasm, wit, satire, because it makes it funny and it’s easier for a reader to read because of the funny stuff. I, personally, would rather watch a comedy movie than watch a high octane drama with lots of tears and emotional, heavy moments. Life is emotionally heavy enough as it is, you don’t need more reminders of it and you don’t need to go and volunteer to put yourself through emotional, heavy stuff. I am a massive comedy fan, I watch a lot of stand-up. So I try to bring in humour in my writing to ease the blow of the heavy stuff I’m writing about. And also it’s mischievous and it’s a fun thing to do, to use these toxic movies against themselves, right? All these movies have peddled these notions of how the hero will save the day, the heroine is a damsel in distress,“Bechaari, iski izzat bachao.” ( “Oh, poor girl, someone save her dignity!”)
That’s what women are worth in movies. So, I’m kind of using, now, those movies against themselves. Hum Saat Saath Hai , the one you’re talking about, is all about the story of those men and the women are like artefacts, like pretty things in the background who will dance and sing, and make it look aesthetic. And there’s a line in that movie, which I so hate, which is “Jis ghar ki betiyan aur auratein khaana banati hai, wahi ghar ghar hai.” (“The house in which the daughters women cook is the only one that can be called a home”)
Very nice! What great family values we peddled to our kids in the 90s! These dialogues, these things have stayed with me, and now I realize what they were subtly doing to our collective subconscious. So I like to use them against themselves. Basically, it’s a mischievous thing that I’m doing for my own pleasure. Some people get it and that’s fun.

Ravi 48:59
It is. Plus, I also like your own humour that you add; Of course, you use some of this in your own humorous take. I think you dabbled with stand up and somewhere I read, I think, that in some dark corner of the internet, you might find (evidence of that). I wanted to, but I couldn’t find that dark corner of the internet! I’d love to see that outside. But, I’d love to quote one line from your, this was again on the mental load one;  So it says that “99.99% of households run because a woman of the house shoulders this mental load, and male readers – if you’re thinking that you’re the 0.01% here, please check with the wife first. I don’t want her to have to add painkillers to the grocery list because you pat yourself on the back too hard.” I was laughing when I read this. So, I like that what you’re saying has this anger, and the distress, and this angst, which is there. But you’re coating that with so much humour that it goes down easily.
On humour, the other thing that I’d like you to talk about, which you’d mentioned in another piece, which is just amazing, is that there is this industry and – I forget the term that you used to call it – of these WhatsApp jokes, which are all about husband-wife (dynamics) and the woman having the upper hand; the one that I recently saw that I remember, (was the one about) some random fancy dress competition in this building. There is this, probably a four year old boy or four year old kid, who’s dressed up like an accident victim. You know, hand bound in cast and on the head there’s a patti (bandage) that’s red, and he’s got a placard that says “I argued with my wife”. And this is classic, I’ve seen a lot of this and it’s normal. This is water. This is the height of water I feel, because it doesn’t jar or anything; and when I read about what you wrote, that yes, of course, some of you may say “hey, but it’s fun. It’s humour,” but the distinction that you made helped me clarify it in my head, that in humour, you can either punch down or you can punch up. And too often, in this kind of humour, it is punching down. So, do you want to quickly elaborate upon that?

Mahima 51:30
Oh, yeah, this is, like I said, I watch a lot of stand up. I’m a big fan of comedy as a genre. And I find this to be hugely problematic that we think that these things are funny. I think our national sense of humour really needs an uplift with time, because the kind of jokes that we grew up on and that are still peddled to the majority of Indians – a big show that does a great disservice to the sense of humour of this country is the Kapil Sharma show; and I’ve seen vernacular versions of it also, which have come up now. Like cross dressing men, or similar kinds of slapstick, loud (comedy). And so these things are funny at the face of it, but what we don’t realize is that when we are laughing at these jokes, we are laughing at real people who are living with these realities, and we forget who we are laughing at because it’s very easy actually to laugh at (actors). Say, a person is shown to be walking with a limp, or talking with a stutter. It’s such easy, low-hanging comedy that I don’t want to call it comedy. And again, our cinema has played a big role in this, where most comedic characters would be made fun of for a disability, or for dark coloured skin, or for being overweight, or just being a woman, like in the kind of joke that you described.
So there’s this concept that I came across somewhere in all the stand up comedy that I watch and read about, which is punching up and punching down. So essentially, what it means – what is the butt of the joke? That is the question. For example, the one you talked about, “I argued with my wife”, what is the butt of the joke?  The butt of the joke is the woman, and it is saying that the woman did a violent act against the husband; the poor thing, he dared to argue. What is the reality? The reality is that domestic violence happens, and is incredibly common in Indian households. And in 99% of cases it’s happening against the women. It’s a reality that many women are living in silence with it. The ones who reported those numbers itself are humongous. They’re highly disturbing. They are unable to walk out of these marriages. They’re trapped in these marriages, because society will frown upon a divorced woman and make her life miserable. So what this joke is doing, is it’s punching down at that woman who’s already downtrodden, right? She’s already disadvantaged in her life, and it’s further making her the butt of a joke and it’s adding to her oppression. So is your joke adding to societal oppression or is it helping alleviate it? If the butt of a joke is, say, a super rich man, or a joke about how a family of four lives in a 25 storey building, if that is the butt of your joke, then you’re punching up. That man is already way above all of us in the social, political, financial hierarchy. When he is the butt of your joke, it’s okay, because that joke is making fun of someone who is probably adding to the oppression of others. If the butt of your joke is Hitler, it’s okay. If the butt of your joke is the Jews, who underwent the Holocaust, it’s not. So you have to bear in mind that jokes are not just funny and unfunny. Who is the butt of your joke? Who’s the punchline of your joke? Is your joke adding to oppression or helping give comfort to oppressed people? That’s important, because to me, the function of humour is to add happiness to our world, not to take it further away from people who already have less of it. So that’s my idea of what makes a good joke. People say that, “Oh, you have lost your sense of humour; Kya, itna funny joke pe tum hasti nahi ho (What is this, you don’t laugh at such a funny joke?); Why are you questioning it? It’s just a harmless joke.” These are not harmless jokes. Just as Bollywood songs of that era are not harmless songs, they’ve all added to this collective psyche that we are continuing to live with. And a four year old boy who goes to school dressed in fancy dresses, that is going to internalize this (misogyny) as a value and is going to affect all his relationships in the future. And of the people who laughed at that joke or gave him a trophy. So all of these jokes, songs, movies, stories, write-ups, everything is a part of our culture, and culture shapes our social consciousness. So when we make a piece of art – and this is a personal opinion, which many artists don’t share – but for me, when you make a piece of art, it is your responsibility to think about the impact it will have on the social consciousness. Because it’s all nice and good to look at a piece of art and just admire it for its standalone merits in a vacuum. But the reality is that the world is not a vacuum. And art is a powerful thing that has an impact on the world and on real people’s real lives. So I don’t think that art in and of itself is more important than people and their real lives. And the same goes for humour.

Ravi 57:02
Powerful stuff. But you know, examples like this goes to show, Mahima, the enormity of the challenge, right? Because this movement, whether we call it the gender movement or the gender rights movement, is relatively new compared to many other movements. But, the problem has been around since almost the dawn of mankind – humankind. Just shows the conditioning, right? The word ‘mankind’ comes first. Having said that, do you study the movement overall and do you have any point of view about where we are in the stage of the movement, and where do we have to go? What role will storytelling play?
Sorry, before I get you to comment on that, one last point of view that struck me was Yuval Harari, the historian. He made an interesting point; he’s talking about the Feminist Revolution, as he called it. And he says, ‘probably the greatest political and social revolution of the last century is the Feminist Revolution, and the amazing thing about it was that very few people were killed.’
You’re basically saying if you compare it with the French Revolution, or Russian Revolution, or the Indian freedom struggle, or even the civil rights movement in the US; all of these have been movements which have had different leaders, different storytellers; they have been challenging, but, in a lot of these the idea has been to accept broad levels of equality, although I think there’s still a ways to go in many of these. But this is one area, I would not say it’s the last bastion, I would say of inequality; I would say, probably what is going to come up next is animal rights. I think that we still have a long way to go. But at the human level itself, this is a deep, deep inequality which has been there for millennia, and baby steps are being taken. But what’s your sense of the big picture? Where does this all fit in?

Mahima 59:22
So first of all, I don’t at all think that this is the last bastion. It is a very important one and in my mind, one of the most important ones because it literally affects 50% of the world’s population. I don’t think any movement in the past, or the ones that are left to be accomplished in the future will ever affect this percentage of population. And I shouldn’t even say 50%, it’s probably 100% because it’s not like men are not affected by toxic masculinity, the standards that we put on them as the burdens of “Oh, you’re the breadwinner” or “boys don’t cry”, and all of those toxic things that men are forced to walk around with; those burdens that we put on them which they need not carry, because in an equal and just world, both partners in a relationship (handle) or every gender is equally capable of carrying these responsibilities, and whoever feels most suited to carrying them can carry them in a household, if we didn’t have these notions in our mind. So, it does affect the largest population, but it is definitely not the last bastion before animal rights because there are plenty of other human beings; within our own country there’s caste-ism, there’s racism, there’s LGBTQIA oppression. So it’s not like there are no more battles to fight after this for even human beings.
That said, where are we in the larger picture? I do think that things got a lot worse from where they began at the dawn of humankind, like you said. At the dawn of humankind there weren’t as many societies, we were in small tribes. Tribes, to this day, have a lot more gender equality than our so called civilized world. So, as long as human beings were in tribes, it was a little better, but as and when the agricultural revolution came about, the industrial revolution came, and the unseen burden of household caregiving, all of that increased on women(‘s shoulders). And then we came in with the most recent revolution, of women going out to work and joining the workforce. We thought that would empower women, but because we did not alleviate the pressure on the household front, we just said, “Okay, now you want to go to work. Also cook up chapattis, also care for the children, also care for the grandma and also go to work.” So now, the oppression has become even worse, not easier. And that’s why we’ve seen that during the pandemic, women are the ones who have just dropped out of the workforce in much, much larger numbers than men because the caregiving burden is so high, and with no help during the pandemic and everyone staying at home, women just have to make a choice. Many women had to drop out of the workforce and go back to that caregiving role full time. So things have gotten worse in that sense, and the more developed we have gotten, at least in India, the worse it is getting.
That said, I am still hopeful about the future, because it gives me hope when I see youngsters these days. There are two teenage girls who have written to me so far, saying that they read Womaning every Friday. One teenage girl’s dad wrote to me that every Friday she’s sitting at her screen refreshing her page, going “Has she put it up? Has Mahima aunty put it up yet?” And I mean, I was a little disturbed when I heard this because I told him that “Listen, I’m writing about some really adult stuff. I don’t know if it is okay for a 12, 13 year old to read this. So I hope you are kind of censoring what she reads to the extent that you think is appropriate.” And fortunately, this father – they have an exemplary, open household where they talk about everything with the kids. He says that every Friday, she reads it, and every Saturday, she forces us to sit and talk about what you’ve written on Friday. So if I’ve written about mental load, she’ll make her parents sit and force them to analyze who shoulders the mental load in their house, and how can they distribute it more equally? That kind of stuff. This is just a small example of two teenagers, but the more youngsters I talk to, the more I find them being vocal and aware about these issues; and it’s far more common to find feminists in younger men than in men of older generations. Women are much more vocal in asking for what is fair and just; for equal rights for themselves. And they are much more aware about the other issues I spoke about, like caste-ism, racism, queer oppression, all of it. So I think, the youth – at least in our little bubble of this urban life and urban educated groups – it gives me hope to see the youth in this area. And I think the internet is going to take it to the areas left out of it. Rural India is just terribly dark right now, in terms of women’s rights. But I think the internet will speed up the spread of these ideas. You know how the old cliché is that no one can stop an idea whose time has come; I think the time of this idea has finally come, and the internet is going to speed up its spread. Of course, the internet is a two way sword and it also speeds up the spread of toxic ideas. But I think the toxic ideas have had a good share of their time already. So I’m not really worried about the spread of those ideas, and I’m more hopeful about the spread of these positive ideas of equality, fairness.

Ravi 1:05:15
Are you seeing an overall change even in…you mentioned the Kapil Sharma Show, which is a terrible example, but a change in the overall entertainment industry culture, whether it is Bollywood or TV or Netflix? 

Mahima 1:05:48
Oh yeah, definitely. I think that the pandemic has kind of made it even more obvious. Now, to a large extent, we’re moving to OTT platforms compared to classic cable television. I do see (changes), of course, it’s also true that your Saas Bahu shows have now become Saas Bahu and Sapera, and all sorts of superstitious ideas are also being peddled along with the problematic gender ideas. But, there’s also the OTT platforms that have that have now become so popular in India. I personally have not seen cable TV for years now. And Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar, most of these platforms have a lot of shows with a lot more representation. That itself is transformative, and I find that representation is the simplest, easiest answer to solving these problems. Because basically people are nice and good and kind, I think they’re just ignorant sometimes. Most people are not actively trying to hurt others or trying to peddle ideas that are going to harm others, or that are unkind. It’s just that we don’t see enough of those people around. And so we don’t think about them as much. We do see women around, but those women are also suffering in silence, and the stories of those women don’t come up. So when I see these recent TV shows which are popular and I see that see a character from the Northeast is played by an actual person from the Northeast, and not by Priyanka Chopra, or a disabled role is played by an actually disabled person. I think the script writers themselves have to become that much more sensitive. Then with a disabled person acting out the role of a disabled character makes it harder to make them the butt of jokes, because it was easier when an able bodied person was playing that role, because they themselves did not understand these problems. So I see a lot more inclusion in our entertainment now, and the OTT platforms have kind of reduced, if not eliminated, the entry barriers in the entertainment industry. Earlier, it was only if you’re the son of so-and-so that you can produce a film, and then you will choose the son of so-and-so to write the film and so-and-so will direct the film. So then obviously, it’s only that small pond of people whose own problematic ideas will keep getting regurgitated in that small pond. So it helps that OTT has also brought down the entry barriers to the entertainment industry, and a lot more people who are just average people like you and me can aspire to write a movie or to direct a movie. And technology has made it so easy that anyone with a phone can actually shoot a movie. I mean, the quality will differ but you can still tell a story, if you really want to. So these stories are being told on the internet and they are freely available for people to watch. I think all of that is changing things, for sure. Hopefully for the better; because again, technology is a two edged sword and the people with the problematic ideas also have all of these tools at their disposal. But they always were the ones in power anyway, and so it still gives me hope that those who are not in power now have access to this power of communication, technology, and Entertainment.

Ravi 1:09:18
One great thing is just the younger population who are now coming in, who will grow are growing hopefully with these better ideas. Plus, there’s just more awareness and more exposure to people from different backgrounds helps them to see that “Hey, this is not what my mom or my dad told me this person would be like.” and just that opening up (of ideas), I think, is great.
So, these are some, in economics we call them ‘tailwinds’, which are helping to take this forward. What would you call as the headwinds which are actually pushing against it and making it more difficult for this progress to happen?

Mahima 1:10:02
Well, the headwinds have always been there. 

Ravi 1:10:11
The stuff that has always been there is there, but is there anything new which is being added to that, in today’s age?

Mahima 1:10:18
Yeah, like I said, all of these tools that I spoke about, which give me hope, are tools which are accessible to everyone. So you have these podcasts; like you, you’re running this wonderful podcast about people trying to tell good stories, but there’s also people who might have even a 10 times or 100 times bigger audience than yours, who are telling toxic stories, who are regurgitating and reinforcing those problematic ideas. Technology is a double edged sword, you just need to go on Twitter and look at any famous woman’s tweets, and whether you agree or disagree with her, the responses that you will see to whatever opinion she has expressed will give you an idea of what the headwind is.

Ravi 1:11:06
WhatsApp has probably helped the dissemination of these worse ideas, more than what it was pre WhatsApp.

Mahima 1:11:14
Absolutely. A lot of people had these problematic ideas, but they were at least keeping it to themselves. Now they are shouting it from microphones. Obviously that is a challenge.

Ravi 1:11:25
In this moment, Me Too has been a critical moment. But from a storytelling point of view, do you see any moments or any moments that might come, (which are) like the “I Have a Dream” speech in the in the civil rights movement of the US; where even now people look back and say, “Oh, that was a brilliant moment.” So do any such moments come to your mind? Or, do you think that there’s a place for such a moment in this movement?

Mahima 1:11:57
Yeah, absolutely. You can look at young girls, like Malala, like Greta Thunberg. Who would have listened to an autistic teenager in the pre-Internet era, ever? Would this person ever have had the platform or the ability to come and speak at the UN General Assembly? No. All of this is, again, because of the internet and because of technology that this little girl sat outside of school and said, “I’m not going to go to school until you repair the crappy world that you adults are setting up for us, and are making us literally destined for disasters. So what is the point of sending me to school if the world is burning around me?”
So she did this little thing. This one little girl in Sweden sat outside of school and had a little sit-out and it became such a massive movement that today the entire world knows her name. I don’t think a 13 year old, 14 year old autistic girl in Sweden would have had this kind of access ever before, at any other point in history. Same goes for the case with Malala.
I think these are the sort of icons who are poor, who don’t enjoy privileges, right? They are not men, they are not powerful. They are not rich. They are not grown up. Malala, for example, is a young Muslim girl in a country like Pakistan where young Muslim girls are not known to be outspoken and being heard. So even icons coming from such backgrounds  who, at any other point in history, would never have had the advantage of the holding an audience of even 100 people, let alone the entire world, have now become such iconic people in the world. All of this gives you hope that the democracy that is coming with these technologies is good news more than bad.

Ravi 1:14:02
I must ask this contradictory point of view to your take on that. I want to talk about wokeness, I read up a little bit about it and read that it emerged in African-American Heritage and it stood for saying, “Hey, we must have our eyes open, we must be awakened” and from that it came, and then it was appropriated by many other movements. And now, unfortunately, there are a lot of parties in the US, like the conservative right wing and many people who are using it as a as a way of saying, “Hey, there’s too much wokeness around.” To the extent that I came across this quote by Barack Obama, who cannot be criticized for being right wing or conservative, he said this – because at some level, I guess he, himself, saw that maybe some people were taking this idea too far – he said that this idea of purity that you’re never compromised, and you’re always politically woke, you should get over that. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. And then he said a bunch of other things.
So, I just want to understand your point of view; Is there balance that needs to be adopted here, or if the world has always been in this perpetual state of imbalance and a little bit of slight excesses are par for the course.

Mahima 1:15:38
Yeah, I agree with both the opinions, actually. You’re right that the world has been imbalanced in favour of these problems for so long, that a little bit of imbalance on the other side is not going to kill anybody, although the former has killed plenty of people. So, like you were saying a while ago, that Yuval Harari said that the Feminist Revolution has killed the least number of people, but at the opposite end of it, the patriarchy has killed far more people. That’s why, the little bit of excess on the other side –I see it, of course, and I think it’s okay; it’s par for the course. Revolutions are also messy, and problems and mistakes happen, and it’s only a problem if we don’t learn from those mistakes. I agree that these are mistakes when you think about people as being perfect, or someone being always politically correct and always using the right terminology, it’s too much of a bar for anyone to ever live up to. For an individual, it’s too hard to achieve all of these standards at all times. But, for society to aspire to these standards is very healthy, it’s the way to go. That’s why these standards are important.
For example, every time in this podcast that I’ve said ‘man’ or ‘woman’, I should have said ‘cisgender heterosexual man’, ‘cisgender heterosexual woman’. Now, I didn’t say that because it’s a mouthful. And also because we are not used to thinking about the gay community as much, which is a problem. I have been flawed in the way I’ve spoken, even in this podcast. But at the same time, as an individual, maybe I’m not able to meet those standards always. Yet, I believe that these standards are important for the world to be held to. Now, for us as a society to be helpful, we need to wake up and see that these people are there; they are a part of us. They deserve the same respect that a cisgender heterosexual person, for example, gets. So as a society, we need to be held to these standards. As an individual, we might not always meet these standards, and I think we have to have a healthy degree of forgiveness for that.

Ravi 1:18:14
I really like the distinction that you made, Mahima. It clarifies it in my head, it’s very useful.
What is the advice? I know that I’m asking you to give some gyaan (knowledge) now, but some tangible stuff that you would give to the young Mahimas and Mihirs out there, who maybe want to also write and share these stories? What kind of books would you recommend that they read? What kind of content to consume, how do they go about it and how do they express themselves?

Mahima 1:18:46
That’s a very heavy question. I am not myself as much of a voracious reader as I would like to be. Life comes in the way, of course. But if, as a youngster, you’re trying to learn to be more intersectional about any aspect: whether you’re trying to be more aware of gender, or about caste, or about race, ethnicity, religion, anything, I think it’s useful to read and consume content that’s coming from the side which is not often heard. For example, in my case, a few years ago, I started and now I almost exclusively read fiction by women authors. I realized just a few years back, as recent as that, that this has been a blind spot for me. Almost all the fiction that I grew up reading has been written by men. The moment I switched to women authors, I saw a whole different perspective that they bring to their books. And again, as with every other industry, the publishing industry is also dominated by men. So, male authors are usually hugely more successful than female authors. And that’s why often you’ve seen big female authors in the past write under male pseudonyms, because they knew that if I write as Mahima Vashisht, nobody will read but if I write as Mihir Vashisht, everyone will read. So it’s really been that stark. But when I read more women authors, it’s not just that I’m enjoying a fiction story, but deeper stuff comes to comes to the forefront.
I remember this talk that Reese Witherspoon, the Hollywood actress, gave at a at an award ceremony. And she said that in most of our films, you’ll see that there’s a crisis situation. There’s a hero, there’s a heroine, and the heroine will turn to the hero and say, “What should we do?!” And she says, “When, in your life, have you ever met a woman who looks at a man and says, ‘What should we do?’ Who doesn’t have any clue what to do??” I mean, if you look around, and think about your own family, if there was a period of crisis, it’s more likely that your mom knew what to do rather than your dad. She might have been the one to take charge in the crisis, like when you fell ill, when there was an accident, when there was even a small minor repair needed at home. Often it’s the mother who’s taking charge of things. So these women who are painted in stories written by men, and directed and acted and led by men are unrealistic women, they are not women who exist. If you really want to understand how gender works, read more women authors. If you really want to understand more about the queer world, read more queer authors. So on and so forth. Stretch that to every other aspect as well. Basically, if you want to talk more or learn more about a particular disadvantaged section of society, you should look more closely at the art made by the people from that section. And definitely try to send more profits there, because money speaks. So if you are reading a book by a woman author, particularly – anyway, you should not pirate books – but particularly if you’re reading a book by a woman author, don’t pirate it. Things like that also matter.
So that’s my very, very broad stroke advice. Like I said, I don’t have particular pointed examples and authors to recommend as such, but it depends on what you’re looking for. But it’s always useful (to consume stories written by the side you want to understand), like I said, representation is the simplest answer to these problems. You have to hear those voices if you want to understand their perspective. Don’t read a book about feminism written by a man. I’m sorry, it’s not going to give you as much insight, because that man is also a fish in his own water, right? He doesn’t know what water is, so what is the point?

Ravi 1:22:47
I think this world is now slowly coming to terms with understanding the water around us, Mahima, and I’m so glad that it’s people like you who are taking us on the journey of awareness. It’s not just about doing it, but the style and class with which you do it, that really has the legs in it to reach all of India. I just hope and pray that this journey of yours grows more and more, that there are newsletters, there are podcasts, there are books, videos, maybe a movie, who knows?
Where can people catch you, Mahima, if they want to know more about your work?

Mahima 1:23:31
Thank you so much for all those happy thoughts and wishes, Ravi. I write at, that’s where you can subscribe to my weekly newsletter. I am there on all social media platforms, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook as @womaninginindia, and you can also write mail to me at

Ravi 1:23:53
Excellent. Thank you so much, Mahima. This has been, I think, one of the most eye-opening conversations for me. I was clearly one of those fish swimming in the water, not realizing a lot of things. Many of my questions themselves reflected my lack of understanding. So, this has been really eye-opening. Thank you so much for coming.

Mahima 1:24:14
Thank you so much for having me, Ravi. It’s been a very, very engaging conversation for me too, lots of fun. Thanks a lot for having me.

And that was Mahima Vashisht, an extraordinary storyteller covering gender issues with so much passion, skill and humour.

A few things which stayed with me:

  • The importance of raw honesty and authenticity in sharing your stories
  • The realisation that stories work better than facts and opinions when you are trying to convince someone to unseat deeply held beliefs
  • The use of humour – Because sometimes you need the see the funny side of things to cope with how dire reality can be.

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 Amisha Jha and all-round support by Sanket Aalegaonkar.

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

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