Urvashi Butalia is the co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist press, and the author of ‘Mona’s Story’, featured in Granta 115: The F Word – now in the process of becoming a book-length narrative, tentatively titled Mona: A Life of Sorts. She shares five things she’s reading, watching and thinking about right now.


1. Yoga
We have a new teacher and I feel stretched and pulled beyond belief. It’s a great way to begin the day, but the new teacher also dispenses liberal doses of religion and comments (not nice) on women: one asana, one lesson from religion. My body accepts the one and my mind rejects the other. One of the good things about yoga, though, is that it teaches you how to switch off, which is what I’ve been doing, and focusing instead on the abdominal muscles which are the most resistant of all to all that stretching and pulling. A skateboard stomach still remains a distant dream.

2. India’s Daughter
The documentary film that’s caused so much upset. Our right-wing government has banned it – which, apart from the fact that it is so totally wrong, is also madness as the film is freely available everywhere and everyone has watched it. I’m strongly against the ban, but I do wonder: the world is full of incidents of sexual violence. And yet, nowhere has a single incident become the prism through which to judge a country. There was a time when there were racial attacks on Indians in Australia, there are still racial attacks on blacks in North America – but world media doesn’t rush in to film and broadcast those endlessly, or to read whole countries with complex histories through them. And there’s no arguing that as countries go, India is pretty complex, so even less readable through a single incident.  I’m frustrated at what this film is doing – all those Hollywood stars lining up to endorse it, the director making terrible statements like ‘this is my gift of gratitude to India’ (a bit of the white saviour complex there I think), and launching campaigns to rid India of sexual violence. The last time people tried to civilise us (remember 200 years of British rule), it was a disaster. Perhaps 21st-century saviours should learn from that and exercise some restraint? We’re grown up now, we can do things ourselves. British statistics on sexual violence are much higher than India’s, as are American. Time for some films to be made there, don’t you think?

3. The weather
In the old days in India, the seasons were clear: there was summer, and there was winter. No such thing as spring or autumn. Winter took about three days to transform into summer, and then the heat blazed away for a few months, till it became a bit pleasant, and then cold. The only worry was the monsoon: would the rains come on time, would the crop (mostly dependent on rainfall) survive. Indeed, so crucial was the monsoon that elections have been known to be won and lost on the basis of a good or absent monsoon. But now, there’s no accounting for how the weather will behave, it’s gone crazy. We’ve had nearly winter, and some strange rain and even hailstorms, almost into the middle of March, and now, overnight, summer and the heat. The crop’s destroyed in north India – wheat, mustard and many other things. Farmers are devastated, they’re unable to pay back their loans because they have nothing to sell – and the suicides have already begun. If ever there was evidence of the consequences of climate change, it’s right here, in our lives.

4. Narrative non-fiction
What is this strange animal that’s defined by a negative? I’m taking a workshop on this here in Delhi, but am still unable to figure out how to define this genre – why can’t a noticeboard in a college that has information about exams qualify as narrative non-fiction? one of my students asked me. After all, it’s non-fiction and it tells a sort of story. Answers, anyone?

5. Flowers
It’s the season. The city’s bursting with them – dahlias and lilies and snapdragons and very soon there’ll be the gulmohars, gloriously red and carpeting the ground in front of my home, and then, like sunshine, the golden yellow laburnums. And there’ll be mangoes, delicious, juicy, sweet. Delhi’s summer I can do without, but mangoes and flowers – that’s a different story.


Photo  © Pranav, Monsoon in Sight, 2009

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