I have just finished reading 'Unveiling India' by Anees Jung. The book is about Indian women, about their inner lives, about traditions and about change.
It is a beautifully written book, almost lyrical. Words flow easily for Anees; maybe it is a gift, but maybe it is also because she really understands the women she is writing about. As a Muslim woman from Hyderabad, she is as much a part of the story as the many urban and rural women in her book. Anecdotes about her mother and father, and the traditions she grew up with, helped me understand where she came from, so I was able to better see the country through her eyes.
In the book, Anees visits women in many parts of India. She finds that among them there is a commonality, a shared sense of femininity and motherhood, a sense of rootedness. She senses the enormous reserves of fortitude among the women she meets. Theirs is an exploited and under-appreciated existence, but they bear it with a stubborn dignity.
Where does this strength come from? Personally I think that it is a sense of duty, a vision of the 'ideal woman', that gives Indian women strength. High ideals, drummed into girls from early childhood, create a self-image where sacrifice, resilience and patience are not just virtues to be cultivated, but the very essence of womanhood, the very basis of identity. Through legends and tales, through mythology and popular imagery, these ideals are internalised until they become very real. Anees talks about how her own mother, by effacing herself, by completely living for her children and family, achieves almost a goddess-like glow. Anees envies that calm, that certainty which comes from the knowledge that you are living up to an ideal.
As someone who has stepped out from that comfortable traditional veiled corner, Anees is both an outsider as well as an insider. A lot like me, really :) and like many of the women I know. That's why I love this book. Because Anees sees the contradictions first-hand, and she looks for answers not only from the women she meets, but also within herself.
Perhaps she romanticizes things a bit; perhaps she puts Indian women on a pedestal. Perhaps she glosses over the role of women in perpetuating exploitative and unequal systems. But it is a wonderful book nonetheless, very moving, full of imagery, and a real insight into India. It is also a book where hope triumphs, so it doesn't leave you feeling depressed at the end of it all.