Sunday, 27 May 2012

Book Review: "A Calendar Too Crowded", written by Sagarika Chakraborty

Ever since 1992 came to be known as the Year of the Woman, awareness about women’s rights has increased and every month there are more and more events meant to create awareness about the rights of the girl child or women’s rights in general. So much so that, according to Sagarika Chakraborty, author of A Calendar Too Crowded, the calendar seems to be getting rather crowded. If 24 January is the National Day for the Girl Child in India, 6 February is International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation, 8 March is International Women’s Day, 18 April is Anti-Harassment Day in Egypt, the 2nd Sunday of May is Mother’s Day (not everywhere, but Chakraborty doesn’t say this) , the first week of August is World Breast-Feeding Week, 26 August is Women’s Equality Day in the USA, 24 September is International Girl Child Day, 25 November is Anti-Domestic Violence Day, 26 November is Anti-Dowry Day in India and 9 December is Anti-Human Trafficking Day. These are just some of the days which Chakraborty’s A Calendar Too Crowded mentions prior to the commencement of each of the 12 sections, one for each month in the crowded calendar, with two or three stories or essays in each section.

Chakraborty also tells us that 4 April is Anti-Child Prostitution Day in Italy, that 21 June is Anti-Eve Teasing Molestation Day in India, that 24 October is World Silence Day (Anti-Selective-Abortion Day), but I couldn’t find anything on the internet for these days. Her claim that 2 February is International Widow’s Day in Italy seems to be wrong. According to this UN website, it is 23 June across the world. 1 July is claimed to be Daughter’s Day – nothing much on the internet, but this website says 1 July is Doctor’s Day. Some of the doctors celebrating Doctor’s Day might be daughters, I guess.

The point which Chakraborty tries to make is that though it looks as if a lot has been achieved, women’s rights have a long way to go. Using a mix of stories, essays and poetry to convey her point, Chakraborty covers issues ranging from dowry deaths to harassment and violence on the roads, to trauma inflicted on a woman when unable to bear children, to a woman getting her priorities right. The points made by Chakraborty are all well-made, though at times I wasn’t too sure if the most optimum delivery mechanism was being used to convey her points. For example, while reading what appears to be an essay written in the first person by a woman whose daughter has been conceived with donated sperm, I wasn’t sure if I ought to treat it as a story or an a work of non-fiction though it is written in the first person. I assume Chakraborty isn’t telling her own story – she is a law graduate from the National Law University at Jodhpur, currently studying management at the Indian School of Business at Hyderabad. However, the point made by the essay, that even though the narrator has brought up her daughter to be independent and, unlike a traditional Indian woman, to think of oneself first before worrying about the rest of the family, the narrator’s daughter doesn’t seem to share her mother’s views, is a valid one.

But then again, as I see my daughter explain to her friend that she would stay at home and cook dinner, while the friend took the make believe kid to the pool, I wonder if my independence too is really an elaborately constructed facade that hides a more traditional feminine desire to be protected and provided for? In my attempt to raise my daughter with the lesson that she has the right to call off any relationship at any point and not stick by it like her grandmothers have, I might be shielding her from domestic pressures of marriage and domesticity, but introducing her to new ones, such as the pressure to be strong, completely independent, shunning, even the slightest help from men.

Atleast once I thought an essay written in the first person is Chakraborty’s own story. In ‘When The Ganges Ran Dry’, the narrator analyses her grandmother’s approach to pollution on account of caste, such as when the domestic staff touch her food or puja articles. But then towards the end of the essay I came across the narrator’s husband and child and other paraphernalia. Which meant, this couldn’t be Chakraborty’s story. You see, I do have a problem classifying stuff like this. This essay is obviously not a true story. Maybe parts of it are true. Though the point made by this story is very valid, the legitimacy of the argument is undercut by the fact that this is fiction masquerading as non-fiction.

Many of the story cum essays have stayed with me even after I put the book down. In one, the narrator is a mother-to-be who follows the mother of a boy for a day as she takes the boy to the school bus, carrying his school bag, holding an umbrella over his head and fretting over and pampering him. There is no doubt that in terms of priorities, the boy and the boy’s father tower over the mother. As she observes the all-sacrificing mother, the narrator briefly wonders if she should abort her own child, but then decides to embrace motherhood because she has learnt what she does not want to be. ‘Today I am ready to embrace motherhood because I am ready to raise a child as a human being rather than a wish fulfilling machine who will make up for the things my husband and I couldn’t accomplish. .... For once I want the realisation to set in that kids are not the bearers of our unfulfilled dreams and that we should not make the sacrifices which we have seen our parents make.’ I can’t say I fully agree with the last bit of that statement. Is Chakraborty against parents making sacrifices because usually it is the mother who makes most of them? If so, she could have expressed herself better.

The best piece of the lot is a set of letters, one written by a commercial sex worker to her daughter and the daughter’s reply, written while on a flight to Berlin to pick up an award. Almost as good is the essay about a fashion model’s travails as she looks for standards and ethics in a work place where the designer’s hand traverses her derriere with a sense of entitlement. Off she goes to the police station to file a complaint and does she fare any better out there? I don’t want to give away much here. Do read this very interesting and even more unusual book to find out more.

What appears to be picture perfect on the surface might not be so tranquil underneath. A perfect mother-in-law gets a perfect daughter-in-law. As months pass, the distrust grows and bruises appear. The daughter-in-law was always clumsy handling the kerosene stove and one day it explodes. Nothing out of the ordinary – we are told at the end of the story that ‘one dowry death occurs in India every four hours. That for every one reported case, 299 cases go unreported and of all the reported ones, only five percent of the total number are actually pursued.

Some of the stories fall outside the pale of women’s rights. One deals with the treatment of senior citizens, the other deals with adoption and the third is about nationality, which Chakroborty calls a priceless gift. All three topics are dealt through fiction, with mixed results. The treatment of senior citizens is handled fairly well. Children are only too happy to dump their parents in homes for the aged. In this story, when a mother accepts a proposal from a fellow resident, the son who lives overseas, throws a fit. The story about adoption revolves around a girl, but it could just as well have been about a boy. The story meant to convey how one’s nationality is the most priceless gift didn’t really work for me. Set in an unnamed foreign country, the father and the two sons don’t relate to India anymore. The sons don’t speak Gujarati. In between, the mother rushes off for an ‘office emergency’, a trafficked girl has been brought in and she has to help. The girl who has bruises all over, is a Tibetan who was born in China, lived in Nepal and India for a while before being trafficked to the West, doesn’t have any nationality. When the narrator gets back home, she is even more convinced that nationality is the most precious gift and as she helps her son write as essay on his most-prized possession, you can well guess what subject she would choose.

The Homecoming is a story, thankfully narrated in the third person, of a woman coming face-to-face with a man who had rejected her while in college. The woman is now happily married, but is still flustered to meet her ex-crush, as long-forgotten memories are revived. How does the story end? Is the woman happy to see the man she was once in love with? Do read this book to find out more for yourself.

Chakraborty writes well with the authority and ease of someone with a lot of experience and understanding. However, atleast once this doesn’t work too well. In one tale, a home-maker attends a class reunion. Just before she leaves the house, she has to help her mother-in-law go to the toilet. She doesn’t get the time to dress up the way she wanted. At the reunion, everyone ignores her as an underachiever who has put on weight. ‘Families were dissected, in-laws were debated upon, husbands and their jobs were held up as the touchstone by which personal success was measured.’ However, with some prompting from an old teacher, everyone discovers that their bookshelves contained books written by her, that the places they went on holidays she travelled to for work, that she has won an UN award for fighting for the cause of the girl child in third world countries. It turns out that her husband has even more accomplishments. After the programme, the lady is not to be found, for she has left, to go on a long, romantic drive with her husband, after which she goes to a slum where she educates slum-dwellers about the dangers of arsenic infected water storage, hygiene etc., after which she goes home to make it up to in-laws for the special Sunday lunch they had missed out because of her class reunion, after which she tucks her daughter to sleep with a story, after which she shares a drink with her husband as she explains to her husband ........ The whole story seemed to be totally unrealistic and contrived. I even didn’t fully get the point being made – that a woman can cram in a lot into her day, achieve so much and still remain down-to-earth?

On the whole, this is an interesting book, worth reading if you are interested in women’s rights issues or if you are merely curious to understand the point of view of a dyed-in-the-wood feminist.


Amritorupa Kanjilal said...

this sounds like an interesting book, but i totally understand why the stories in particular the you singled out wouldn't work. But if they are the weakest part of this collection, it must otherwise be great!

Loved your book blog. will keep coming back for more. following you now.

Please do visit me at my book blog at, and if you like it, please follow.

Winnowed said...

Thanks Amritorupa. The stories I singled out aren't the weakest. They are a typical cross-section. I shall surely visit your blog. Good luck with it!