Tag Archives: feminist

BURNED

I wrote this piece of fiction in honor of victims of acid attacks — especially in India. It was developed at EnActe Arts as part of the WEFT (“women enacting for themselves”) program. It is a humble and probably inadequate attempt to depict the victims’ plight, written with deep humility for unless we walk in their shoes we cannot know the unimaginable pain they bear. I offer it with empathy for their suffering, and admiration for their courage in the face of such heinous crimes. India Today Data Intelligence Unit (DIU) has found that between 2014 and 2018, there have been 1,483 victims of acid attacks in the country, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau. Many more go unreported or unrecorded. 

In my dreams I am whole, with my easy laughs, ready quips, fleeting annoyances, steady love of ice cream. I am walking, happy. But I shiver. I walk towards the sun. I don’t see the gaping pit ahead. I wake up shaking, sweating, hot and cold. Then my hands are on my face, and… I feel the scars, the craters, the hardness — Your gift.

Your gift erased so much of me, my face, my one window to the world. They say we are nothing without memories. We are also nothing without a face. This visage, this countenance, this mirror where the world sees itself reflected and knows its place. How do I tell the world who I am? I look in the mirror and my one watery eye sees a stranger, a horror story with no end. This thing that used to be a face, a recognition, a mirror is now a dark hole where all light ends and nothing reflects. Where there used to be me, my signature smile, my left cheek’s dimple – it’s all gone. I remain a nameless, faceless ghost visible only in my misfortune. Your branding iron left a seething script. 

When it first happened, they wanted me to utter your name. I wouldn’t defile my mouth. The neighbors, the relatives, even the police came asking. They came to condole, to comfort my father, my mother, my brother who seethes in daily rage. But I know they just came to see me – the remains of me. Curiosity beats empathy but sometimes that’s the only vehicle to my door. I wrote your name down only once and gave it to the police. My mother took a photo of that piece of paper with my brother’s phone. When did she learn to take photos with a phone? She knew I wouldn’t utter it again, so she kept the “evidence” she said. But I know she keeps this paper to rekindle vengeful fires in her heart. My gentle, god-fearing Kali, who quietly tolerated harsh words from her mother and mother-in-law, is ready to kill for me today.

My father does not look at me. I miss how he used to cup my face, kiss my forehead every morning. Proud Papa. Now he won’t touch my face, just puts a hand on my head looking away. Sometimes I hear him crying when he thinks I can’t hear. My mother hardly cries. Instead she asks him harshly, “What’s the point of crying now?! Have you called the lawyer?” She is hard. So hard I fear her brittleness will break her. She only softens when she brings me food. Patiently lets me eat, gently wiping the drool from my mouth. My lips’ bare remains, mere lines relearn how to contain food. Grateful I can still taste, I tell her how much I love it. She won’t even acknowledge this joy. She keeps her vengeance alive.

I can’t recall the particulars, only the horrific pain of your carnage. Or why? Later they said it was because “you could not bear an unrequited love”. “Love”? Yes Love! Love? I want to laugh! I have forgotten that sordid history. Somehow the acid erased that too; clean, flat, blank like the contours of my face. Perhaps best this way or I may join those that blame me. “She could have said yes…”, “She could have married him…”, “Girls these days think they are better than anyone…”. Your signature devastation demands justice and there will be none. Blaming me helps the onlookers feel better. Perhaps safer. Some relief for their miserable, beaten souls. 

When I came home after the first 23 surgeries, I heard them in my stupor from all the painkillers. I hated them then. All of them who said, who still say I could have alleviated your hate, who think I should now be traded off to someone even lesser, to “free” my parents. Perhaps free them of any hint of guilt. They know they are who made you possible. They supplied the fodder for the kind of anger you thrive in. When I first heard them I would scream but no sound emerged. Only violent, bruising tears. But then my mother – my gentle Kali – took care of them and their solicitousness. That makes me smile – only on the inside. The skin on my face borrowed from my thighs, my stomach stretches too thin to bridge a smile. I’ve tried it in the mirror – a contortion for a smile. I cringe with my eyes without eyelashes, even as I marvel at my perfect painted eyebrows. I often marvel at how well I saw all the flaws in my reflection before this annihilation of me. Maybe now I will learn to accept what I see. Maybe that is how I win.

It’s been over two years since I came home. I must have nightmares because my mother shakes me awake, often caressing my forehead, trying to calm me. But all I remember are dreams where I am whole. At first I prayed for a merciful death. But now I don’t want to die. I listen for the birds singing in the morning. My good eye loves the sun. I still marvel at how well my mother sings. I cook with her, I learn to sew with her, little things. Soon my hands will be steady. I put my head on my father’s knee when he comes home every evening. His blessing stalls the night.

This week I step out for the first time. I shake so hard that my Kali grips my hand tight as I accompany her to the market. I cover the side of my face. I want to keep my old face. I don’t let go of her hand. Soon I know I will bare my whole face and let them all see — and let you see. Maybe when I see you in court. I will look and point at you – steady, unselfconscious, straight. Maybe you can relish what you wrought. Your hatred manifesto. I will let you flinch at my ugly erasure. And when you flinch I will laugh. You gave me unutterable pain, you scarred me for life, almost erased me. Almost. The me that your acid cannot erase, is here. Still here. I win because I will make YOU look away. 


Reena Kapoor is a writer and photographer. Her poems take the reader on journeys through a multitude of places, time periods, and emotions. ‘Arrivals & Departures‘ is her debut poetry collection. 

Raising a Feminist Family

Have I raised my daughters to be feminists? An honest midlife self-appraisal.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at Congreso Futuro 2020

Impressed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “We should all be feminists,” I picked up the tiny purple book with the intriguing title, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. Eager to understand feminism in the twenty-first century from this articulate young woman who possesses an enviable clarity of thought, I planned to ask my daughters to read the book once I was done. 

As a lifelong bookworm who turns to the written word for knowledge and guidance, I had picked up “What to expect when you’re expecting,” during my pregnancy. Considerate colleagues gave me the sequel, “What to expect the first year,” at my baby shower. I referred to the book constantly. Like a child reading a mystery novel, I occasionally jumped ahead to read up on the next developmental milestone.

At my daughter’s first birthday celebration in India, seeing the book in my purse, a good friend joked – “You NRI’s bring up children by reading books.” 

I found her comment condescending but she had made an astute observation. Being far from home and lacking guidance from parents, I felt bereft. She, on the other hand, was raising her children in India in close proximity to her extended family.

To me, books had come to my aid when humans had failed.

*****

More than two decades after that conversation, I look fondly at my two daughters. In a few months, the older one will leave home in pursuit of higher education and the younger one will hurtle towards the end of her teens. 

Motherhood has been the most transformative experience of my life and the opportunity to raise two daughters has been a gift and a privilege. 

Adichie’s book is a long, thoughtful response response to a friend’s question about how to raise her newborn daughter feminist. I wondered if I had raised my daughters to be feminists? Would I find myself too outdated to understand this manifesto? I desperately hoped it wasn’t too late to make amends. 

“The solid unbending belief that you start off with. What is your premise? Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not “if only.” Not “as long as.” I matter equally. Full stop.”

Adichie’s first feminist tool seemed familiar. Not vaguely, but intimately.   

By this measure, I have always been a feminist. Perhaps I was born feminist. Although the word ‘feminist’ came into my vocabulary only after spoken and written language became my primary mode of communication, the inner knowing that “I matter’ must have been poured into my veins and set into my bones at the time of my creation. 

Born between two boys, I was the only girl child, brought up with great affection by egalitarian parents. Despite having a level playing field within the home, I was not immune to the rampant sexism that existed outside. I retaliated by waving the flag of gender equality, fighting for fairness, and arguing for justice at every opportunity. 

During the school years, my brothers and I were expected to wash our respective uniforms, polish our shoes, and keep our designated cupboards clean. But everytime my mother asked me for help around the house, I would protest. 

“You are asking me to do this because I am a girl,” I would pout.

“I am asking you because you are better at it,” she would patiently reply. 

“In life, you will find that the person who does a better job will be assigned more work, even in an office.” 

A part of me agreed with her. But I would have none of her rational explanations. Despite her college education, my mother was a housewife by choice. What did she know about work and career? 

I was academically oriented, bold, and outspoken. Unlike my mother who was content to stay home, I planned to study, get a job, and make my own money. I did not consider my mother a feminist, because feminism to me meant independence, financial security and power. Little did I know then that the seeds to my conviction about equality of the sexes were actually planted and nurtured by my mother’s parenting style.

*****

So much about the world has changed since my childhood. With women becoming astronauts and scientists, doctors and bus drivers, I wondered if Adichie’s suggestions were even necessary. But reading this simply-written, heartfelt manifesto brought forth many self-limiting biases and belief-systems that are coded into our DNA through social conditioning and serve as barriers to women’s’ achievements even to this day.  

In time for International Women’s Day, I thought of using Adichie’s list as an appraisal tool to evaluate myself. I was undoubtedly a feminist, but had I done enough to raise my girls to be feminists?

Of the fifteen suggestions, I scored well in 9. I am particularly proud of encouraging my girls to read. Regarding marriage – they know that marriage may be a part of their life but it is not to be counted as their greatest achievement. Through my own career choices, independence, and pursuit of interests outside prescribed gender roles, they have seen a working model of some of Adichie’s suggestions. 

But I have to admit that I have failed in a few areas. Even though we talk about boys and romance, open conversations about sex have been difficult; attributed more to my own cultural conditioning than to the oft-repeated excuse that such information is easily available these days. 

And there are suggestions about appearance, identity, likeability – important points that I am unable to assess at this point. Much of how my daughters find their way through the maze of conflicting messages and peer pressure depends on their ability to think for themselves, something only time will tell.

I think back to my mother’s unerring sense of fairness and transparent style of parenting. Unaware that the dictionary defines ‘feminist’ as a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, she had instilled in me the core belief that my life is valuable and my choices are valid, even if they veered away from socially accepted constructs.

Parenting is a uniquely personal journey. We undertake it with optimism and a combination of tools – some that we come equipped with, some we borrow from our own parents, and others we learn – from books, from society, from our own experiences.  

The thing that makes this journey incredibly interesting, if not always rewarding, is what Adichie says in the initial pages of her book, “You might do all the things I suggest, and she will still turn out to be different from what you hoped, because sometimes life just does its thing. What matters is that you try. And always trust your instincts above all else, because you will be guided by your love for your child.”

The best we can do is try. I know my mother did. So do I. My hope is that my daughters do the same when they have children. It doesn’t matter if they are raising girls or boys, I know without doubt that their journey will be interesting, and they will be richer for the experience.

Ranjani Rao, a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and former resident of USA, now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir.  Connect with her on Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog


Artwork by Feminist Sravya Atalluri.

Aaji the Feminist

Growing up in India, my sister Sudha and I were raised as feminists by our mother even though, at that time, we did not quite understand how the term applied to us. We simply understood that we were expected to grow into strong, independent, self -sufficient women, and so we did. My older sister was a practicing physician until she retired a few years ago, while I took a different path into law and continue to practice even as I raised my own family.

Both my daughters have left home now, to pursue their own dreams and careers, bolstered I hope, by the tenacity and drive of the women in my family. My daughters clearly understand what it means to be feminist though they will define it differently from my baby boomer generation. They are millennials/Gen Z women of the ‘woke’ generation, who use terms like ‘intersectionality,’  ‘cisgendered’ or ‘heteronormative’ to interpret their version of feminism.

It reminded me that feminism and its goals have evolved over the years, building  on the achievements of previous generations. Feminist goals that began with voting rights have grown to include reproductive rights and workplace equality to including men as advocates of the feminist agenda. Today, it’s not unusual for men to call themselves feminist.

Certainly, the goals my daughters have set for themselves in their version of feminism are broader in scope and so different from mine, not just generationally but even culturally.   Today’s young American feminists want the experiences of women of color and minorities factored into feminist goals of equality. Any biases I encountered growing up were primarily gender-based – my ethnicity or skin color were never a factor. 

My mission at that time was to find equality as a woman and fight the discrimination evident in my environment. It made me realize that back in India, some women are still fighting those same battles, even though my daughters who share my Indian heritage, are battling different ones. It reminded me too, of an elderly Marathi lady we called Aaji, who came to take care of my mother in the last decade of her life, and who I view as an original feminist.

Aaji lived across the street from us in a government-subsidized flat for low-level civil servants. Her husband was a government peon who provided a simple but comfortable life for his wife and three children. Aaji was well into her sixties when she joined our household as a carer – the first job she had ever had in her life.  

Aaji came to us on the recommendation of our cook, her neighbor. My ailing mother needed help with  everyday activities – bathing, dressing, combing her hair. Aaji arrived every day, clad in a traditional nine-yard saree, cheerfully batting away my mother’s short-tempered, brusque complaints. During her breaks she would remove a wad of tobacco stored carefully in a small cloth bag with pockets, crush and mix a concoction and pop it into her mouth.

As my mother grew to depend on Aaji’s gentle ministrations, so did her fondness and appreciation for this slight woman, with the thick spectacles and tiny bun knotted tightly at the back of her head. Aaji was gentle, but firm, keeping an eagle eye on the “boys” who took care of my father and  cheerfully responding to my mother’s exacting demands. When my daughters arrived on their vacations, she would escort them everywhere, convinced that nobody could keep them safe the way she could. 

All the while, she made careful observations of our household of outspoken women, who uninhibitedly shared their opinions and hopes about their lives and their future. 

Aaji’s son lived nearby with her two grandchildren whom she loved dearly. But clearly, Aaji’s favorite was her
granddaughter Nishita, pretty, pigtailed and bright. She had great hopes for that girl. She knew that though her son loved Nishita, he could not afford a college education for her. That privilege would go to his son.

So Aaji became a woman with a mission.  Nishita and her future would become her responsibility. It was a daunting undertaking for a woman her age, who came to feminism in her dotage. But she had observed the women of our household and inherently understood that empowering women gave them clout.

Looking back, I can only respect the singular determination with which Aaji pursued her goal. She was getting older, weakened by a bout of viral fever, and was once attacked by a gang, that used chloroform to subdue her and steal her gold bangles. My mother tried to offer support and a pension to retire, but Aaji persisted – she made it very clear she was not going anywhere as long as my mother was alive. When my mother passed, Aaji was the one who bathed and dressed her for the funeral.

She continued to work at our home for two years after my mother passed away, until Nishita graduated from college. Only then, did Aaji retire, self-sufficient, with a pension in her name.

In my mind, Aaji is an original feminist. Her definition of feminism especially for her grand-daughter would mean maintaining her independence, being safe from abuse or exploitation, getting an education and a career –  someone who would pass on those values to her own children someday.  

When I compare Aaji, myself and my daughters to other women on their feminist journeys, I realize that feminism has more than one definition, goal, and path.  In India, and elsewhere in the world, change comes more slowly and everywhere, there is an Aaji making a huge difference in her own quiet way.

This article is based on a conversation with Madhu Mehta, a lawyer who grew up in India, studied law in the UK & the US, and practices law in New York. 

Meera Kymal is a Contributing Editor at India Currents

Photo Credits: Nithi Clicks