In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Indian novelist and filmmaker Trisha Das.
A young archaeologist, educated at the prestigious Columbia University, takes ownership of an excavation site in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Tara Singh is a Delhi girl, yet speaks with a foreign accent, having been brought up in several countries as a child. She’s smart, vocal about her sexual desires and well aware of the deeply patriarchal part of India she is working in, where even a smile can get one into trouble.
Tara Singh, the protagonist of Kama’s Last Sutra, Trisha Das’ latest novel, is a fictional character, yet her travails echo the experiences of many Indian women today. The modern Indian woman is strong, independent, yet chained by social norms. She can now smoke openly, but has to be careful in choosing a safe location to do so, where she won’t be spotted by someone who knows her. She can wear shorts, but only in areas where it’s common to see women do the same. Young women across India face this type of dilemmas every single day.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Trisha Das, an award-winning filmmaker-turned-writer, about her latest book, her decision to turn to writing and her thoughts on patriarchy and the modern Indian woman. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ankita Mukhopadhyay: You were a documentary filmmaker for many years before you turned to writing. Why the transition?
Trisha Das: I have always wanted to write. When I was 21, I started writing a novel on my parents’ computer. I was halfway through it when the computer crashed. I lost that novel and moved on to filmmaking after that. But writing was always the end goal for me.
Mukhopadhyay: Is there any particular reason why you choose ancient Indian history and mythology as the setting of your books?
Das: I write about things I enjoy reading about, such as religion, mythology, history, anthropology and sociology, which is why my books are usually centered around such topics.
Mukhopadhyay: Have you ever faced any opposition to your work, particularly because history is such a hotly debated topic in India today?
Das: Kama’s Last Sutra is my first book based in a historical context, so we will have to wait and see whether there’s any opposition to it. However, I have mostly encountered a lot of positivity even when I have done work on things as sensitive as the 2002 Godhra riots between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat. It all depends on how you approach a sensitive issue, to be honest.
Mukhopadhyay: Why did you choose the mythical character of Draupadi for your first book, Ms. Draupadi Kuru: After the Pandavas. Why did you decide to reinvent her character in a modern context?
Das: I chose Draupadi for her strong feminist undertones. I believe that we are all strong, independent women today and we should have role models to identify with. Draupadi, in my mind, was always a very strong woman. However, in the retellings of the Mahabharata, she was portrayed as a victim, which she really isn’t. I wanted to provide another perspective on her.
However, people have their own perception of things, as they are indoctrinated with a particular belief in their youth. A lot of people don’t realize that what they believe as history or mythology is someone else’s interpretation. It’s very difficult to know what really happened. It’s also very difficult to tell people to consider another point of view, as they then consider it untrue or defying the reality they already know.
Mukhopadhyay: Apart from Draupadi, do you feel other women characters in Indian mythology have problematic portrayals, such as Sita, the wife of Ram — always the ideal wife? Do you feel this can change?
Das: The ideal has always been the beautiful wife and the beautiful mother and less so the individual. A woman is usually a controlled entity for the betterment of a patriarchal society. Sita [the lead female protagonist of an Indian mythological text, the Ramayan] falls into that category as well. History and mythology have been manipulated by the politics of the day for thousands of years, and stories have been retold to suit those politics. Now we are in an age when we are finally talking about changing the dynamics of gender in society and therefore we need to start telling our stories that way.
Mukhopadhyay: By politics of the day, do you mean social politics or something else?
Das: Politics of the day broadly encompasses the control exercised by people in power on history and mythology. The people in charge, such as kings, interpreters and writers always had systems in place to control society and the population and their stories too.
How much courage did it take for a married woman with children to stand up to her drunk husband and refuse to be beaten up? That’s real courage. To write something is a different sort of awareness, not courage.
Mukhopadhyay: Do you feel there’s anything significant the modern Indian woman can learn from her historical counterpart?
Das: I think it’s important for a modern woman to acknowledge what her historical counterpart went through to get to the present day. There was a process for us getting here. The fact that women today get an opportunity to receive a higher education, can choose whom they marry — this was a process. It didn’t happen over one or two generations. It happened over hundreds of years. It’s important to acknowledge where women started out, and how far we have come.
Mukhopadhyay: In Kama’s Last Sutra, you talk about topics such as childbirth. Tara isn’t aware of the basic process of childbirth, despite being a modern woman who wields a mobile phone and has access to search engines like Google. Do you feel that there are many such topics that Indian women are still shielded from? How do we get past this barrier?
Das: Girls are not encouraged to discuss anything about their sexuality because of the shame attached to it. When a girl is a toddler, she is taught by her parents and society to not touch herself because it’s dirty. The shame is systematically put into you until you become a person who is ashamed of her sexuality.
We are finally in an age now where many topics are being questioned and raised, particularly related to reproductive rights, consent, harassment, violence against women and sexual hygiene. All these things are tied into a woman’s sexuality. If these things are discussed without tackling the problem of shame, then we are also depriving the Indian woman of an open discussion about those things.
Mukhopadhyay: Why did you choose the setting of Khajuraho — famous for its sculptures on temples depicting intercourse, nudity, homosexuality — for your novel?
Das: I chose the setting of Khajuraho as it was built at a time called the Dark Ages in India. The era was called that because of two main reasons: One, we don’t have a lot of information on it, apart from what is depicted on the temples; and two, a large part of the history was passed on through oral history and folklore, which usually isn’t a reliable source of information.
It’s also considered a dark period as it doesn’t tie into our belief of a modern, united India. We think of India as one entity, whereas at that time (9th-13th century AD), India was just a bunch of fractured kingdoms fighting against each other. This doesn’t fit into our current conventional view of our nation, which is why it is labeled as a dark period. However, culturally it was an extremely rich time. The rich cultural heritage coupled with the images from the Kama Sutra depicted on the temples made it a good choice for me to base my book on.
Mukhopadhyay: You mentioned that India was just a bunch of fractured kingdoms during the Dark Ages. Do you feel that the unity is still lacking in some way today? When you were conducting your research for the book, did you feel that there are still many barriers we have to cross as a nation?
Das: Yes, there are many problems, some of which I have depicted in my book too. For example, we still haven’t outgrown the caste system, which has been around for over 1,000 years! We haven’t managed to get rid of it as it has always worked for a certain set of people and, unfortunately, they are always the ones in power. The reason that people like me talk about it in our work is because we can address it and probably look for a solution for it in the present time.
Mukhopadhyay: You, along with your brother, comedian Vir Das, openly talk about many social issues that people normally refrain from. Does this courage come from your liberal upbringing?
Das: Can you imagine how much courage it took for a woman in the early 1900s to say that she will study medicine abroad, or imagine a woman even before that refusing an arranged match from her parents? How much courage did it take for a married woman with children to stand up to her drunk husband and refuse to be beaten up? That’s real courage. To write something is a different sort of awareness, not courage. I did receive a very liberal upbringing in a family with very strong-headed women, but I believe that our lives stand on the shoulders of many courageous people, and it’s our responsibility to take it ahead for future generations.
Mukhopadhyay: When it comes to your documentaries, what kind of topics do you like to focus on?
Das: I have been exclusively writing for a long time, actually. In my films, I usually like selecting topics that strike a chord with me owing to their uniqueness. One of my first films, Fiddlers On The Thatch [which won the National Award, India’s most prestigious film accolade], was about some school students in the Indian city of Kalimpong who felt empowered after embracing Western classical music.
Mukhopadhyay: What kind of barriers did you face as a woman in the largely male-dominated filmmaking space?
Das: When I first entered filmmaking in the 1990s, it was mostly dominated by men. At the time, you were not given respect and there was a lot of “mansplaining” that went around. Filmmaking in general was not viewed as a woman’s job. But eventually, I think, the industry has evolved. Sexism has reduced, but it’s still very much there.
Mukhopadhyay: Is there any instance you recollect where you overcame or embraced your sexuality during work?
Das: I recollect a particular incident when I was in Baroda shooting the film on the 2002 riots. I was at a 400-year-old dargah [mosque], and no woman had ever set her foot inside the monument. I talked the priest into allowing me into the space. I was the first woman in history to ever walk into the dargah. The priest, surprisingly, was quite fine with it. I think he just needed an explanation for my inclusiveness. I think there’s a lot of beauty in explaining our point of view, making it accessible by not alienating people and saying positive things to foster inclusivity.
Mukhopadhyay: Some documentary films such as India’s Daughter and Caste on the Menu Card have come under the scanner for their content on a range of social issues. Do you feel that Indian audiences have become less accepting of films tackling social issues such as rape and caste?
Das: No, I actually think that Indian audiences have become more accepting of films based on social issues. With access to streaming channels, social media and other avenues, Indian audiences are more open than they have ever been in the past.
Mukhopadhyay: In your documentary, Fiddlers on the Thatch, you portrayed young girls who were thankful for not falling prey to child marriage. When you met these girls, what did you feel were the barriers, either in school or at home, for their empowerment?
— Trisha Das (@thetrishadas) September 14, 2018
Das: I believe the barriers have a lot to do with lack of opportunity. One of the girls in the documentary was the daughter of a domestic worker, who did not have a husband to give her financial backing. When the mother saw the opportunity her daughter could get from schooling, her opinion changed regarding her upbringing. When you see tangible results, then people are more open to discussion rather than just talking about social issues.
Das: There’s a fair amount of depiction of homosexuality on the walls of the Khajuraho temples in India. Homosexuality was a fairly natural thing back in those days. In fact, it was very much accepted in our society at that time. But I agree that homosexuality is underrepresented in our history and novels. We live in a toxic world where masculinity, femininity — everything has become toxic. However, I think that with the scrapping of Section 377, we are finally ready to start talking about this topic and everything else associated with it, so I expect to see more of this in fiction.
Mukhopadhyay: When women get onto platforms like social media, they are usually cornered on many occasions for their viewpoint. Do you think social media is particularly harsh toward women?
Das: I get trolled too! I get a lot of inappropriate messages from people, every single day. I feel that social media is a powerful tool that can potentially be used productively. It has been used quite productively in the past — if you look at the debate that we had on Section 377 and the marital rape law. So many things have changed because of social media. However, I feel that we do spend a lot of time on social media just shouting at each other.
Mukhopadhyay: You talked about femininity becoming toxic. There’s a lot of talk about women losing their femininity while embracing their masculinity. Do you feel that this is a debate to silence feminism?
Das: I think feminism has been largely misunderstood. In my opinion, feminism doesn’t mean that you need to embrace “masculinism.” In my opinion, feminism basically means wanting a society where there are equal opportunities for both genders irrespective of outcome, because the outcome is determined by effort and not privilege. Feminism is what you want to do, who you want to be, as long as you have chosen it. So many young women are struggling with this nowadays. They are strong, independent women who have control of their lives, yet they still don’t have complete control as they are vulnerable.
They have parts of them, such as their desires and their sexuality, that they are still trying to discover. That’s the kind of character I have tried to write about in my latest book — a modern, young Indian woman.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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