A collection of essays that celebrates the achievements of women of undoubted substance.
Freeing The Spirit, The Iconic Women of Modern India, Penguin Books, Rs. 295.
THE title, The Iconic Women of Modern India, does tend to trouble you at first. The women written up, 16 of them in all, are all without argument women who have done and are doing much, but to elevate them to iconic status seems somewhat over-the-top. However, the book makes for an easy read, interesting in context and absorbing in text.
One big plus point is that the women's achievements take clear precedence over salacious personal details. Not hagiography, not chronicle, the essays are rather matter of fact, evocative and, for the most part, give us a clear picture of the woman; the pieces on Sonia Gandhi and Mahasweta Devi are the gems in this collection.Tribute is paid to a mixed bag of women: Begum Akhtar, Nargis, Mayawati, Jayalalithaa, Pupul Jayakar, Lakshmi Sahgal, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Mahasweta Devi, Mother Teresa, Amrita Sher-Gil, Lata Mangeshkar, Homai Vyarawalla, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Indira and Sonia Gandhi. These are women who, at some point in their lives, took hold of these very lives and moulded it to suit themselves, women who took on some formidable odds and came through winners. Women who honed their craft to near perfection, who lived without caring too much about what others would think.
There's an interesting mix of well-known facts as well as some freshly mined details in this slim volume. Faizabad's Begum Akhtar's tragic trajectory that in many ways was similar to that of the tempestuous Sher-Gil, Mayawati and Jayalalithaa's well-calibrated ambition, Lakshmi Sahgal's indomitable feistiness, Lata Mangeshkar's awe-inspiring sense of discipline, Rukmini Arundale's multi-layered talent; this is chick lit with a marked difference. If the essay that chronicles Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay's life is a tad dry, the piece on India's first woman photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla fairly sparkles. And when you think there can be no new angle on Mother Teresa, well, here it is, a fresh glimpse into a great spirit. The writers are a competent lot, ranging from T.J.S George, Tarun Tejpal, Sushila Ravindranath, Bhawana Somaaya, Sunil Khilnani to Leela Samson, Jaya Jaitly and S. Kalidas.
The compilation is helmed by Malvika Singh. In its own way, the book serves as a salute to all the women with backbone out there, across the length and breadth of our country.