This January, Neha Hiranandani will join us in Mumbai to discuss her recently published book, Girl Power: Indian Women Who Broke the Rules, with Professor Jacqueline Bhabha of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Centering on the challenges young women still face when it comes to access to education and health while negotiating with the societal expectations, Hiranandani and Bhabha will discuss the stories of “rebel women” in India — pondering the factors that contribute to the success of those who break the mold, against the odds.
We recently spoke with Neha Hiranandani to learn more about the process behind writing the book and its potential impact in India. To learn even more, join us in Mumbai on Tuesday, January 14, to hear Hiranandani’s lecture.
What led you to focus on the stories of the women you’ve highlighted in your book?
Some books are just meant to be. Last year, my then 7-year-old daughter, Zoya, was reading Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a book that explores the lives of inspirational women from around the world. But then one day she came to me clutching her beloved copy of the book and asked sadly, “Does India only have two rebels?” pointing to Mary Kom and Rani Laxmibai. That hit me hard, and I immediately started to tell her about all the phenomenal women that India has had — our rule breakers, our homegrown rebels, the women who changed the game. Mary Kom and Rani Laxmibai are wonderful examples of strong Indian women, but there are so many more.
That’s how this project started, in what is perhaps the most organic way possible. I started telling her the stories of the women I was already familiar with — women like Kiran Shaw, Savitribai Phule, Indra Nooyi. Each night I told Zoya the story of one awe-inspiring woman at bedtime, but soon ran out of stories that I already knew. That’s when I started researching the lives of heroines, forgotten and unsung. And as I delved deeper into the stories of these women, I quickly realized that these were stories that had to be told widely. Their accomplishments and grit were things that all our girls — and our boys — needed to know about. This needed to be a book.
How is Girl Power different from other women-centric books for children?
Firstly, the selection of women sets it apart. I was clear that Girl Power! wasn’t going to be just a list of accomplished Indian women; the women in this book had to be mavericks, ceiling smashers. So, I set about finding the stories of women who broke the rules — and what stories they are! You will meet a spy princess who parachuted into France, and a warrior queen who defended India from the Portuguese six times. There’s Subhasini Mistry, who worked as a maid before winning a Padma Bhushan for healthcare, and Chandro Tomar, the octogenarian sharpshooter, popularly known as Revolver Dadi. Of course, there are some household names, including the Olympic medalist PV Sindhu, but personally, I am very proud of the untold stories. They were so exciting to discover!
Also, I was very lucky to work with an incredible artist, Niloufer Wadia, whose illustrations have brought these stories to life. Unlike other books that follow a standard “text and illustration” format, every page of Girl Power! has the story and the artwork talking to one another, which makes for an incredible reading experience for a young person.
You have taken great pains to include Indian women from different geographies and economic and social backgrounds. Tell us a bit more about your research process.
I have tried to be as inclusive as possible. Girl Power! includes stories from across the country, across industries, and across time periods. I also tried to pick stories that had an identifiable “snapshot moment” that could be written coherently in 300 words or less. This is easier said than done, especially given that all of these women have led very layered and nuanced lives.
With that said, I am the first to admit that this is not an exhaustive list. Such a list would run into volumes and is well beyond the scope of this project. Alongside the team at Scholastic, I was meticulous in making sure that every fact was double-checked. Many times, this meant watching several documentaries for a 5-word quote or finding obscure books and articles in dusty libraries. While there is no bibliography in the book, we have maintained an exhaustive back-of-house bibliography. So, for instance, the quote by Homai Vyarwalla is from an article in the Hindu, the one from Harshini Kanhekar is from an interview with Jovita Aranha, and the one by Priyanka Chopra is from a lecture she gave on “Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Chasing a Dream” at a Penguin event back in 2017.
However, women’s histories often tend to remain alive through oral histories in the shape of conversations that get passed down from generation to generation. This book will always be special, because it allowed me to participate in those conversations. Over cups of tea in the most unlikely of places — from railway stations to parks — I have spoken to people about the women who have moved them, inspired them. Some of the stories didn’t work out because I couldn’t confirm their factual accuracy, but others did. For many parts of the book, I wanted to move beyond the well-known women and tell stories of ordinary women who have done extraordinary things. It was in that quest — of finding the ordinary-extraordinary woman — that our unmatched recounting of oral histories became important.
Tell us about the woman in your book who moved you the most.
That’s a tough one; I feel so strongly about them all. Instead, let me tell you my daughter’s favorites. So far, she has loved Arunima, who climbed Mount Everest with one prosthetic leg and a steel rod in the other, making her the world’s first female amputee to climb the peak. Subhasini is another favorite — she worked as a maid and sold vegetables for 25 years to save money to build the first hospital in her village and went on to receive a national award from the President of India for healthcare. And Geeta, who rescued 300 bears and ended the cruel practice of “dancing bears” in India forever.
One of the themes that we have heard you discuss in your interviews is how to raise boys who grow into feminist men by exposing them to a gender lens. How, according to you, does the book help with that?
One might assume that this book is only addressed to young girls. That would be a terrible mistake. In fact, if anything, I think this book is critical for our young boys. For far too long, our boys have seen Indian women, in certain roles, as a mother, as a wife, etc. It’s time for them to see Indian women succeeding in places that were traditionally demarcated as “men only zones”: as wrestlers, as scientists, as entrepreneurs, and so on. Given that we are living in a time where violence against women — mental, physical, sexual — is so ubiquitous, I think books like Girl Power! open up the conversation about respecting women as equal stakeholders. In a world filled with glossy beauty magazines and Instagram filters, it’s also useful to have illustrated stories of women that celebrate their achievements as alternative visual representations of women.
I’m happy to say that this book has been the starting point of many such conversations amongst young boys. A mother from Mumbai recently wrote to say that her two sons are quarreling about who gets to read the book at bedtime. She was pleasantly surprised that it was happening over a book entitled Girl Power!
We are the first generation of parents to be raising children in the digital age. As a result, parenting has never been harder: there are no guide books, no maps, and no ancient wisdom to rely on. At the same time, as we try and make sense of this space, we know that the stakes are high. My forthcoming book on parenting in the digital age will be published by Penguin Random House in 2020. ☆
☆ All opinions expressed by our interview subjects are their own and do not reflect the views of the Mittal Institute and its staff.