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India’s Missing Women

June 25, 2014

bahadur_indiasmissingwomen_ba_imgThe number of reported rapes in India has surged by 792 percent in the past four decades, making it the nation’s fastest-growing crime. To an extent, the statistics reflect greater reporting, but they also point to a substantive issue. In late 2012, the unspeakably brutal and fatal rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a charter bus in Delhi focused the world’s attention on what the headlines decried as “India’s rape problem.” The economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen recently pointed out that India has far fewer reported rapes per 100,000 people than several Western countries, including the United States. But there can be no denying that Indian society is profoundly patriarchal, with deeply etched attitudes about the inferior value of girls and women and their appropriate place in society.

The way women navigated the boundary between the home and the world was a question with great resonance and imaginative significance for India’s anti-colonial struggle during the first half of the twentieth century. (The title that Rabindranath Tagore gave his 1916 novel about a progressive landowner who nudges his reluctant wife out of purdah, only to be cuckolded, was The Home and the WorldGhare Baire in Bengali.) As India wrestles with what is frequently cast by parties across the political spectrum as a new foreign onslaught, through the influence of global capital and Western culture, the free movement of women between the private and public spheres continues to be central to the nation’s reckoning with itself. Does the growing visibility of women in public explain the increased sexual violence against them? Or, to the contrary, does their relative ongoing invisibility continue to make them vulnerable? Two and a half decades ago, just as India was opening itself up to free-market capitalism, Sen coined the phrase “missing women” to describe the acute gender imbalance rooted in bias against females that existed across much of Asia. But the term can be applied as much to the women missing from India’s streets as to those missing from its population.

Read more in the July 7-14 issue of The Nation.

The Overseer of British Guiana

December 19, 2013

By Gaiutra Bahadur | Published in History Today Volume: 64 Issue: 1 2014

ILL25 Overseers, Guiana, 1897

Overseers, British Guiana, 1897. Courtesy of Dennis Driscoll. http://www.cooliewoman.com

On March 22nd, 1869 a young plantation manager in the West Indies wrote an expansive letter to his sister in Essex. Often Henry Bullock only managed to scribble perfunctory notes to his family, but this letter probably satisfied their hunger for details about his life, running a sugar estate far from home on the remote coast of British Guiana (now Guyana). He reported what he had done that day: as part of a jury in a capital murder trial, he had reluctantly sent a man to the gallows. He described his regular companions, a married couple who lived nearby and their baby daughter. Although he generally had little patience for children, he was fond of this little girl. The toddler liked to put a hat on Henry’s head and a pipe in his mouth and pretend she was hurrying him out the door. His sisters often had to coax from him such scenes, sketching his everyday, domestic existence. In that letter he must have made them still happier by providing an inventory of his desires from England: socks, music, a copy of Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ in green cloth binding.

Continue reading in the January 2014 issue of History Today.

Writers Retreat

October 1, 2013

Imagine an 18th-century London town house, once a fashionable address but recently home to successive huddled masses: Jewish refugees, Irish then Bangladeshi then Somali immigrants. Now fill that house with 30 foreign writers who have fled oppression and violence, all asylum seekers specially chosen for favored treatment. Call them “fellows.” Hang identity cards, with their mug shots petrified in plastic, around their necks. Appoint a chairman whose paranoia and megalomania recall, in madcap picayune, the dictators who tortured and imprisoned many of them. Outfit the house with security cameras that scan the corridors, the surveillance tapes complemented by the human watchfulness of ever-­solicitous volunteers. What you have is the premise for “The House of Journalists,” the former BBC reporter Tim Finch’s clever debut novel.

In an outburst toward the novel’s end, when one fellow disappears along with all traces that he existed, the power-­obsessed chairman name-drops Orwell, an unsubtle clue to Finch’s ambitions as a political satirist and his interest in language as a political tool. But aspects of his novel bear more resemblance to the “Big Brother” of global reality television than to “1984.”

Continue reading my review in The New York Times Book Review.

Mirror, Mirror

September 26, 2013

at-night-we-walk-in-circlesDaniel Alarcón’s first novel, Lost City Radio, focuses on a radio show that reunites the disappeared with their families in a country recovering from civil war. In At Night We Walk in Circles, regimes don’t steal people, but other things do: mundane death, rival lovers, America. The village where Henry’s late lover spent his childhood is eerily empty of men, except for adolescents and the elderly. It’s a world that García Márquez might have dreamed up, but in fact it’s real. Immigration has drained many villages of men across Latin America. It is easy for an infirm old woman to believe her son undocumented in Los Angeles rather than dead, and Alarcón evokes this simply, movingly, hauntingly. Continue reading my review in the Fall issue of Columbia Magazine.

 

Pink Sari Revolution

August 14, 2013

 

pink sari

Pink Sari Revolution, by Amana Fontanella-Khan, tells the story of the Gulabi Gang.

The gang’s story—of poverty-stricken, unlettered women standing up for themselves, struggling against centuries-old misogyny—inspires. “Hope is a very big thing,” one elderly member says. “Sampat gave it to us every time she came to the village.” Still, it needs to be asked how truly revolutionary the Gulabi Gang is—or can be—and the author doesn’t step back from storytelling to do so. In her account of a widow horrifically mistreated, then evicted, by her in-laws, she misses opportunities to explore the gang’s limits and thus risks overstating their impact. Read my  review in the Summer 2013 Ms. Magazine

The Cooked Seed

July 6, 2013
The Cooked Seed

 The Cooked Seed traces Anchee Min’s evolution from a woman with shattered self-esteem to one with brass enough to have a child when she wanted, although her Chinese-immigrant partner didn’t, and then to divorce him and find love with an American, a Vietnam veteran. Like him, Min suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and her prose bears the marks. Her book reads like the testimony of a woman who, in coping with haunting memories she’d rather suppress, swings between remembering too…

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I Am Your Mirror

November 15, 2012
I Am Your Mirror

Chinese-born artist O Zhang traveled across the United States, photographing thousands of blank and neglected billboards, a trek that echoes Dorothea Lange’s own documentary expedition during the Great Depression. Zhang has taken an object that has long been a canvas—with pop art icons such as Andy Warhol designing billboards for the Sunset Strip—and made it the subject instead. In capturing the formal elegance of the bare billboard, Zhang has, in some sense, flipped the script. It’s…

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