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‘I Like To Highlight The Feminism That Is An Integral Part Of Indian Mythology’

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The river Ganga is considered one of the most sacred rivers in India. A lifeline to millions of Indians who live along its banks, it has been for the longest time worshiped as a Goddess by people. Through her recent book Ganga: The Constant Goddess, Anuja Chandramouli not only brings alive Ganga, the mighty Goddess, but also reimagines her other facets – Ganga, the devoted daughter, the caring mother, the passionate lover.

Talking about why she particularly chose the river as a subject, she told Youth Ki Awaaz, “I have always seen Ganga as a powerful, unstoppable force of nature who can never be held against her will. My intention with the book was to reinterpret the ancient legends around her in order to shine a light on her remarkable persona which has been a huge source of inspiration to me.”

‘Ganga: The Constant Goddess’ is Chandramouli’s ninth book. Her highly acclaimed debut novel, Arjuna: Saga of a Pandava Warrior-Prince, was named as one of the top 5 books in the Indian Writing category for the year 2013 in a poll conducted by Amazon.

In an interview with Youth Ki Awaaz, she spoke about the rising popularity of mythological fiction amongst young adults in India, the role feminism plays in her writing, and why even the censors can’t keep her from staying true to her writing.

Shikha Sharma (SS) for YKA: What brought about the idea for Ganga: The Constant Goddess and why did you want to write it? And how did you research for this book?

Anuja Chandramouli (AC): I love how much the river Ganga is loved in India. She has always been special and time has done nothing to dim our feelings for her. It amazes me to note that even those who aren’t particularly religious or those who belong to another faith, care deeply for her. Ganga popped up briefly in some of my earlier books like Yama’s Lieutenant and Kartikeya. Her portions were always delightful to write and I promised myself that someday I would devote an entire book to her. I am really glad I could finally make it happen.

Another reason for writing about her is that in popular consciousness, Ganga’s story and her descent from the heavens during the course of which she is forcibly restrained in Shiva’s matted locks is too close to ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ concept – which I find entirely abhorrent. I have always seen her as a powerful, unstoppable force of nature who can never be held against her will. Hence, the intention was to reinterpret the ancient legends surrounding her in order to shine a light on her remarkable persona which has been a huge source of inspiration to me.

The research process was a wonderful journey which helped me draw closer to Ganga. There is so much more to her than we know and we cannot possibly hope to unravel all layers but intensive research does provide valuable insights into the legendary river Goddess. I loved discovering so many little known stories about Ganga that are wildly entertaining yet wondrously profound. Exploring the very depths of Ganga has been a beautiful and fulfilling experience.

SS: Writing on Indian mythology can be a tricky thing in India considering the sensitivity of the country to anything that maybe mildly controversial. Have you experienced any untoward incident given that you write principally about Hindu Gods?

AC: I agree. And sometimes, it feels like you are trying to tiptoe your way across a minefield,especially considering the sensitive nature of mythology! However, Indian mythology holds a very special place in my heart. It has taught me so much and given me a lot to be grateful for. I love and respect the material more than I can say and this seeps into my writing as well. A lot of it rubs off on my readers and they in turn have given me nothing but love (for the most part).

In that sense, I have been fortunate. Of course, there are those who have strongly disagreed with some things conveyed in my books and they send me lengthy, heated emails questioning the liberties I have taken or we get into arguments at lit fests. Usually, I am more than happy to address their concerns. This has also led to some pretty interesting discussions. Ultimately, we can agree to disagree because mythology lovers clearly care about these things as much as I do. However, if the tone used is disrespectful and I am subject to personal attacks and vicious language, I hit delete, block, or walk away and get back to my life, content with leaving the hate and negativity behind.

SS: Your book ‘Padmavati: The Burning Queen’ released around the same time that the Karni Sena threatened to cut Deepika Padukone’s nose off should the film Padmavati (now called Padmavat) be released. Were you at any point afraid that your book too apprehensive that her book might meet the same fate? What was it about this one queen that made her want to tell her story?

AC: When I am working on the story, I am most particular about focusing on the essentials and doing justice to the characters I have chosen. As an author, I’d rather not get distracted or get overly concerned with extraneous variables like passions of the mob over which I have no control anyway. Hence, I felt somewhat detached from the raging controversy. Plus, I have little patience with those who fan the flames of outrage to generate publicity and those who would seek to impugn or censor a work of art while threatening the artist with violence.

I read Padmavati’s story in an Amar Chitra comic as a child and I remember how awestruck I was by her courage. In addition to that, I am an unabashed history buff and I am always happy to seize any opportunity to travel back in time and get up close and personal with legendary characters from Indian history.

Any historian worth his/her salt would insist that Padmavati did not actually exist and is the figment of a poet’s imagination but I think that’s a moot point. Irrespective of what may or may not have been, Padmavati is very real in the heads of all who have heard her story, loved her and shed a tear over her fate. The purpose of my book was to recreate a slice of history, transport the reader to that era and paint a portrait of the human, womanly side of one who is revered as a Goddess. In doing so, I was careful not to glorify the tyrannical practice of Jauhar, which exemplifies patriarchal notions of honor or vilify Alauddin Khilji who was a flawed Sultan and human being, but nevertheless had some admirable qualities. The response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive and I am happy to report that nobody threatened to chop off my nose. Even the trolls contented themselves with merely suggesting that I drop dead or quit writing.

SS: What creative purpose do contemporary language and symbols of modernity serve in the ancient settings of your books?

AC: As a storyteller, it is important to engage your audience so that they feel more connected to the story and are able to relate to it and the incorporation of contemporary elements serve this purpose. However, I am careful to strike a balance and stay faithful to the essence of these stories as otherwise there might be jarring, anachronistic notes which would be entirely counterproductive. Besides, mythology is timeless, and so the infusion of modern aspects in my books feels mostly organic I tend to approach mythology with fresh eyes and unusual angles so that the writing and reading process is exciting for me as well as my readers.

SS: Your books have become a hit among young Indians – a group that is presumed will not read mythology. First of all, do you think that’s true? And second, what do you think is the reason for the immense popularity of your books?

AC: How can you not love mythology to bits and pieces? The awesomeness of our Indian mythology simply cannot be stressed enough. As I always say, it is educational, entertaining and extremely relevant to our understanding of ancient truths as well as contemporary issues. I am always surprised when people express surprise that youngsters are so into mythology. After all, it is the equivalent of comfort or home food, which we always return to even after hanging out at the hippest eateries in town!

And I genuinely think authors, readers and just about all people may come and go but mythology itself is forever. It was here, long before we showed up and it will remain long after we are gone. If I can manage to contribute in some small way towards perpetuating the longevity of mythology, then I would have done what I set out to.

As for my readers, I value every single one of them. Writing is a lonely job and it is always lovely when readers reach out to let you know that your words have touched them. I love getting feedback from readers and they tell me that they love the feminist overtones, the humor as well as the emotional beats in my books. There was this particularly touching incident when a young reader said that she had been reading Shakti: The Divine Feminine during the Kerala floods and it was such a comfort to her. Others have chipped in with invaluable suggestion plus offered their own takes on myths which is really cool. As an author, you live for these moments! So if you ever catch me doing the happy dance, there is no need to fear for my sanity, it usually means a reader or reviewer has just said something really sweet about my books!

SS: Do you think that there is case to be made for bringing in feminism into Indian mythology? And if yes, how do you strive to do when you are sketching characters for your books?

AC: Let me put it this way. I like to highlight the feminism that is very much an integral part of Indian mythology which is replete with powerful, empowered women and badass Goddesses. However over the ages, thanks to the diseased lens of bias and sexism, our perspective changed with regard to these feminine figures and even their stories were distorted and used to shove chauvinistic crap down unwilling throats. Whenever I come across aspects of stories that are unconscionable, I reshape them using creative liberties and my own discretion, till they reemerge as a truth that I can comfortably live with. As a mother of two little girls, I feel it is the very least I can do.
Many readers have got in touch to say that they love how liberated my Goddesses and female characters are and say that it has helped them in their own journey towards empowerment. Even my male characters like Kartikeya, Kamadeva and Yama are proud champions of feminism.

SS: Freedom of speech and expression should be absolute. As an artist and writer, what do you say to this?

AC: I think the right to freedom of speech and expression is sacrosanct and must not be restricted in any way. It is very sad when artists are bullied or censored into spouting politically correct claptrap which anyway keeps changing all the time. That said, I also think it is a precious right which we should not take for granted or misuse in any way. It is all well and good to feel strongly about something and express your thoughts, however, we will all do well to remember that it never hurts to show a little sensitivity or actually pay attention to other people’s feelings as well. In other words, even when you are doing your own thing, which of course is your right, it is always nice to be nice. Besides, it is the best way to preserve our right to freedom of expression and stop haters from doing their utmost to censor our thoughts, words and deeds.

SS: What, according to you, is the biggest perk and biggest challenge of being a writer?

AC: For me, the biggest perk is that I get to do something I love and writing – when done for its own sake – is always an intensely satisfying experience, even though at times it can drive you bonkers. The biggest challenge is to keep insecurity at bay because on every other day, you wind up convinced that your writing blows and you should have taken up a less challenging job and joined the bomb squad instead.

(The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity)
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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