Literature is sensitive to developments in society. The Nirbhaya outrage brought the issue of injustices done to women into the open. The debate has thrown up a book that deals with most of the injustices women suffer. Defiant Dreams: Tales of Everyday Divas, published by Readomania has received good reviews since its publication in December 2015. TheIndian Short Story in English (ISSE) spoke to the two editors of the book, Rhiti Bose and Lopa Banerjee.
ISSE: The first thing that strikes us is that the publication of Defiant Dreams is timely since the abuses and injustices done to women are being openly discussed in India.
(Rhiti Bose/ Lopa Banerjee) RB/LB: We are truly happy that ‘Defiant Dreams’ has happened to us. More than a book, it is a dream, it is our collective vision of articulating the extraordinary journeys of everyday women. Though we are not keen on pitching the book as feminist literature, we are content that the collection brings to the forefront the journeys of ordinary women which we always wanted to share with the world.
ISSE: Could you please tell us how the idea to put together such a collection arose?
RB: As you know, I am the founder and chief editor of an e-zine called Incredible Women of India, where we curate real life, inspirational stories of Indian women. The idea of the book evolved from the e-zine itself. I wanted IWI to take a bigger leap and curate inspirational stories in a book form. That is when I approached Lopa, pitched my idea to her and asked her to be the creative editor. In a moment of madness, I am sure, she said YES!!!! And thus began the journey. Looking for a publisher who would believe in our vision was the next step
Together we launched an online contest named STREE, where we asked our readers to send us inspirational stories about women. We received a stupendous response. From the absolutely brilliant entries we received, we handpicked 24 to go into the book.
We sent book proposals to many, but it was Readomania who said yes to our dream. Dipankar Mukherjee, the founder of Readomania, our publisher, has shown immense faith in this project. His faith was our strength. We are thankful to Readomania’s Indrani Ganguly, who mentored us through the editing process, for making our journey smooth.
It has been a long demanding route, but a really gratifying one.
LB: As for myself, I got to know about Rhiti and Incredible Women of India in late 2013 when she approached me to share a real-life nonfictional account. The Nirbhaya incident had just hit the headlines and brought my own sense of helplessness and wrath to the surface. My reaction formed the basis of the personal essay that was published in IWI. A couple of weeks later, I was again approached by Rhiti, this time to give an interview for the blog/e-zine. I was a struggling writer studying Creation Nonfiction in a State University in Nebraska, working on the manuscript of a memoir about my collective journey as a woman, a daughter and a mother. The idea of the e-zine and the stories and interviews of women achievers from all walks of life struck a chord deep within me. It was the first time that I publicly articulated my own struggles and challenges, as well as my pleasures and my vision of the world of literature and the arts. I, also found resonance with all the other stories as they celebrated the meaning of womanhood in their own unique ways.
The request to collaborate with Rhiti on ‘Defiant Dreams’ gave me the same adrenaline rush as discovering IWI had. As editors, we undertook the immensely challenging, yet fulfilling task of editing the chronicles of the dreams, passion, and struggles of women and the life choices they make. When we first pitched the proposal of the book to Readomania, we knew the journey would be a roller-coaster ride. In the process of selecting the stories for the collection, we actually discovered that the voices of women in the stories were the voices of our collective consciousness. This realization enriched us in amazing, unthinkable ways.
ISSE: Could you share some of the challenges you met and overcame as you worked on the project?
RB: The book is authored by 24 brilliant writers. The book went through three stages of editing, namely developmental editing, copy editing and proof reading, so you can imagine the chaos and madness that followed trying to co-ordinate with 24 different individuals. Another hurdle to coordinating as editors was the time difference: Lopa is based in US and I in India. But thankfully, everything fell into place.
LB: As for the challenges, the first one came in the form of the overarching themes of rape and exploitation, social and gender-based injustices women suffer. Most of the submissions we received focused on those issues. We had a really tough time deciding which of the stories belonging to the same broad subject matter to include in the book. We had to really zero in on those stories which were diverse in their treatment of the themes. That, I can tell you, was a daunting task. We had to reject a few very good narratives to keep the variety of the book. Our objective was to produce a collection of stories enriched with a refreshing feel and perspective, celebrating the undaunted spirit of womanhood. There were a few creative differences along the way but they smoothed out pretty quickly.
Another major challenge was developmental editing and copy editing of the stories in collaboration with the authors. Our objective was to keep the emotions and essence of the stories intact and also maintain the unique voice of the authors; our task was to fine-tune them to make them more readable, thus engrossing to the readers. Since both Rhiti and I were first time editors, we relied on Dipankar Mukherjee of Readomania to steer us in the right direction with his innovative ideas. We must also mention that Readomania’s resident editor, Indrani Ganguly, put in long hours of hard work and mentored us in editing the stories. She also checked the final proofs.
ISSE: The blurb of the book extols the courage of the protagonists in overcoming overwhelming odds. As a reader, I would interested in knowing the themes of the stories.
RB: We have tried to cover multiple issues and themes. Amlanation by Anirban Nanda deals with the issue of Acid Attacks on women. The Bride by Esha Chakraborty focuses on the practice of dowry and how it is masked a lot of times under the garb of gifts. We have Memories in March by Sutapa Basu, which talks about domestic violence and abuse of a pregnant young woman. A particular favourite of mine is Please leave your sex outside by Aashisha Chakraborty, which deals with the Gender Equality issue in a very intelligent way. Tanushree Ghosh Dhall writes about the importance of perseverance and sacrifice in Anjali Chakraborty.
LB: To pick up from where Rhiti left off, in Bidisha, Paulami Dattagupta portrays the effects of insurgency in the north-east on an ordinary young woman and how she fights her own demons of insecurity and mistrust of men serving the military/armed forces. Avanti Sopory’s Here I Come Benaras portrays the life of a widow caught in a racket of prostitution in the holy city and how she remains heroic in spirit in spite of her daily ignominy. There is positivity and light in the treatment of the stories like Built From the Ashes by Radhika Maira Tabrez, The Journey of Two Women by Deepti Menon, Second Innings of Ma’ by Namrata Chauhan. In the last-named story, two women, unrelated by blood, become kindred spirits and lead one another to the path of self-recovery. There are poignant, searing portrayals of rape and cruelty on women in Safe Passage by Sanghamitra Bose. There are also stories of startling epiphanies that change a woman’s life as in A Second Chance by Arpita Banerjee.
ISSE: That is quite a wide range of situations you have covered. I’m sure the style, presentation and the narrative must be as engaging as the themes:
RB: Every writer has their own signature style, and when you read the book you will see every single story is different from the other in terms of theme, presentation, language and of course, narrative.
LB: Certainly, they are. In fact, as editors and compilers of this collection, we strived to maintain diversity and uniqueness in the stories.
ISSE: If you can sum up the stories in a sentence or two, the reader will get an idea of the reading pleasure that awaits him/her. The trauma of her parents’ death makes the nineteen year old protagonist a drug addict; setting up an orphanage helps her to fight the addiction and regain her self-respect (“Drug Addict”).
RB: I have already talked about a few, apart from them there is The 40’s by Ramaa Sonti which is a light hearted take on a woman in her forties trying to seek appreciation and love. Tara by Geeta Negi shows the transformation of a child bride to a woman of power, through her own grit, Yamuna Ma’s Hand by Mahesh Sowani tells the tale of a homeless woman and her ordeal and how she finds a new life through music. Pregnant Dreams by Sridevi Dutta is a beautiful tale of a woman dreaming of a better life.
Moreover, we have not only focused on women’s issues, but also situations which can be common to both men and women. This is evident in stories like Moinak Dutta’s Story Once for a Change…, where a young fashion designer finds herself in a challenging situation which she overcome in the crime based story To Be Or Not To Be by Paromita Mukherjee Ojha where the crime tears open the protagonists’ family ties; in Unfound: Searching for home by Vasudha Gulati, which sensitively deals with the pangs of adoption. Some Porridge and An Education by Sreesha Divakaran talks about a woman’s journey to find self-respect for herself and a new life for her son. These stories can be seen from a lens where they do not simply remain a woman’s issue, but one of human rights.
We must realise women are not different from men, we are all humans at the end of the day, and a woman’s issue or feminism is as much a man’s concern as it is a woman’s discourse.
LB: To it, I must add that the stories not only add to the gender discourse in a meaningful way, but also attempt to push boundaries. avoiding clichés, which is what we were looking for when the idea of the book was conceived. The stories presented here are not heroic portrayals of larger-than-life, black and white women protagonists, but they are chronicles of women who surround us every day, flawed and vulnerable, yet strong and indomitable. For example, we have the helpless drug addict girl from Kashmir in Santosh Bakaya’s The Drug Addict fighting with the trauma of her parent’s death, the troubled wife in Kirthi Jayakumar’s It’s Not the End, who chooses to terminate her pregnancy after discovering her husband’s promiscuity. Then we have the maid Fariba of Debosmita Nandy’s She Chose to Live, fighting to free herself from the nexus of human traffickers and later seeking redemption from her marital ties. We also have the young woman Dharma of Bhuvaneshwari Shankar’s Dharmambal, who discovers her sense of freedom by exploring the life and excruciating struggles of her grandmother.
ISSE: With such rich material, both thematically and stylistically, we are sure the book will sell well.
RB: This was our first work, and the focus entirely was on making a book that we could be really proud of. We wanted to create a book that would inspire others to rise above the ordinary and face their own demons and challenges. Sales were never our only concern. We put our blood, sweat and heart into the pages of Defiant Dreams; no amount of money could ever cover that. I only hope the book reaches a large section of readers who also appreciate the work put in by the entire team .
LB: Of course, like every other book released in this competitive marketplace, we as editors would like the book to be a success commercially. But that is not our only concern. Our larger objective is to raise awareness to the issues in the book
ISSE: I’m sure the book will succeed in doing that, especially since the time is right. Another indication that the time is ripe is the fact that a petition to end Female Genital Mutilation in India has recently been posted on change.org (https://www.change.org/p/end-female-genital-mutilation-in-india). Is there anything else you would like to add?
RB: The time is always right to raise our voices, but realistically there is still a long way to go for intentions to be translated into awareness and action.
LB: Yes, while a lot has been said about sensitive issues regarding women, including the recent focus on Female Genital Mutilation, a lot still needs to be accomplished especially in terms of mobilizing resources. We need to act proactively to effect social change in countries and regions where women are the most endangered species. As writers, as women, as thinkers, who have fortunate enough to have education, we must attempt to facilitate social change in whatever small ways we can.
ISSE: We wish you and your book great success
RB/LB: Thank you very much. It has been wonderful sharing our thoughts with you.
The book is available on Amazon