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Conversations with men and women of wit, humour and letters
Photo: Aparna Swarup
Aparna Jain, author of Like a Girl: Real Stories for Tough Kids, takes us through her writing process, inclusivity in the workplace, and why she paints watercoloursWhat are you currently reading? Is there a work of writing you frequently revisit?
I don’t revisit books unless it is non-fiction for research. I enjoy reading crime fiction, especially books by Tana French. I’m currently reading Snap by Belinda Bauer.
Has reading shaped your work? If yes, could you share with us a few titles of books, or authors whose writing may have influenced what you do?
I can’t say that books have shaped my work because my work is not fiction. However, [with any writing] it is one’s own voice that is extremely important — you should feel like I’m talking to you — instead of imitating someone or being inspired by someone.
Your most recent book Like a Girl: Real Stories for Tough Kids brings together inspirational profiles of women across India, from historical icons to contemporary ones. How did you go about making the final selection? Did you have certain parameters in mind?
A bunch of them, in fact. There are many women that did not make it to the book, because of a bunch of reasons: I couldn’t contact them, there was very little material about them available or they didn’t want to be held up as icons. I could easily have added another fifty [profiles].
Has the notion of children looking up to certain ‘icons’ changed in the last few years? Do they lack icons or simply don’t know where to look?
The ‘icons’ from the entertainment industry, sports and the corporate world are usually whom children look up to because they are “media-heavy”. With my book, Like a Girl…, it was, for instance, important to write about the pretty evident names like Indira Gandhi and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw. But it was equally important to write about women like Jayalalitha or Mayawati whom we term as difficult icons, and to write about them as the formidable women they were and are who did much good. When it comes to them, people’s narrative tends to focus on what they perceive as egotistical or corrupt. Which, by the way, is also in the stories, but is not the focus of the narrative. I also wrote about women many had not heard of — Birubala Rabha, Muthulakshmi Reddi... all incredible women.
Have your interactions during the research for your book evolved you as a person?
Yes, they have. When you interview these women, read about them and think about their lives — about the hardship they had to undergo, about gender roles in the country — it brings a new sense of what one can do despite all odds. Just reading about the time, lives and context makes one grow as a person. Your thinking changes and evolves and you are spurred on to do more personally. To set higher standards for yourself in terms of making a difference.
Following the decriminalisation of Section 377 by the Supreme Court of India in September this year, how do you think the workplace should be made more inclusive for all genders? Or do we, as a nation, still have a long way to go?
I truly think we, as a nation, have a long, long way to go when it comes to making the workplace more welcoming for all genders — at least another decade or so, I’d say. And that’s a bit like diversity, when we use affirmative action. Gender-training programmes for corporates usually tend to exclude mention of LGBTQIA groups. There are instances where workplaces are being more inclusive, but that is a very, very small number. Companies and institutions have been trying, of course, and the larger outfits with global mandates for non-discrimination have it easier. But it is also a mindset problem. And in that we have decades to go.
How important do you think is the process of evaluating your own work? Do you tend to be self-critical?
With writing, I think the moment of being self-critical arrives when your book goes to the publisher, and then out in the world. Once the edits are all done, one is definitely relieved and in a different mindspace. Then you start thinking of marketing.
Your first book, The Sood Family Cookbook, published in 2013, brought together a diverse range of recipes from your family members from across the world. What are the challenges that come with compiling something as personal as a family cookbook, simultaneously sharing stories from various family members? Do you also cook often?
Putting together a family cookbook is far more challenging than writing one that is purely research-oriented. With the former, there is so much of co-ordination involved, with members of the family around the globe, and so I just had to put my mind to it and get it done. I used to cook and experiment but got bored of it and now barely enter the kitchen.
What do you do to unwind and slow down?
I veg out. I paint watercolours — I make a painting every day and post it on Instagram. I began doing this about 18 months ago. I also like to listen to non-jarring music (yes, I’m old). I enjoy Western Classical and British bands. I’m on flights every week and that’s when I listen to podcasts. Slow Burn was one I enjoyed recently.
What is next in the pipeline for you?
I am working on a sequel to Like a Girl…, this one’s working title is Like a Boy. We are yet to name it. I have a simultaneous project called Here Come The Millennials — a book based on over 300 interviews with millennials.