Q& A with three fabulous “women writers” from India

Radha Thomas, who has written three books, Men on my mind, More men on my mind, and The Cauliflower Diet; Andaleeb Wajid, who has written 18 books at last count, in a variety of genres such as family-oriented books, Young Adult fiction, and horror; and Anamika Mukherjee, who is the author of both fiction and non-fiction titles.

  • What do you feel about being called a woman writer in India? Does the term “woman writer” irritate you?

Radha Thomas – It’s peculiar to be asked about the way I feel being a ‘woman writer.’ I feel the way I do about everything I do from the point of view of a woman since that’s what I am. Whether it’s singing a song or leading my band. Editing copy or running an office.  Running my house or running around with my dogs, I guess I do it all as me. So I have no way of describing it except by saying it feels normal. When people ask me about my thoughts as a ‘woman’ I find myself getting annoyed and irritated. Maybe I shouldn’t let it bother me. I wonder if people ask Ram Guha how he feels tweeting as a man.

Andaleeb Wajid – I’ve stopped letting it irritate me because it seems pointless. It’s only women who are called women writers. Men are just writers. But like I said, I’ve stopped fretting about it. I’d rather focus on writing my next book.

Anamika Mukherjee – I wouldn’t say that the term woman writer irritates me, but I think it’s irrelevant. The two descriptions are, in my opinion, orthogonal. I am a woman. I am a writer. So what? What’s the connection? Do we describe people in other professions by their gender: the woman shopkeeper or the man doctor? I don’t think the gender of the author should matter one way or the other. It’s the author’s creations that matter, the author’s characters and plot and style. These might be influenced by the author’s gender, in which case a discussion of the author’s gender might become relevant. But as a description, just “writer” will do fine.

  • How have you represented women in all their facets in your books? What are some of the themes central to women that you have explored in your books?

Radha Thomas – When I write a book, the things that come to my mind are the plot, the theme, style and other important issues that go towards making a good read. I almost never think about women, feminism, causes that are women-focused etc. That is not where my literary leanings are. I like language and humour, originality and literary rhythm, so that’s the direction in which I go.  But I must also admit that since I am a woman (no getting out of that one) and my perspective is shaped by my experiences as a woman, I suppose I have women-type responses.

Andaleeb Wajid – That’s tough to answer. I’ve written several books, and the common thing between the women is that they’re strong-minded, willing to go the extra length for something they believe in and don’t give up easily.

Anamika Mukherjee – In my books, women are strong central characters who are independent decision makers and don’t shy away from making difficult or controversial decisions. Strangely enough, this remains true even though two of my books are fiction and the other two are nonfiction. My nonfiction works are based on my own personal experiences, so, of course, they are a statement of the person I am. The characters in my novels, though, aren’t based on me at all. In ‘Survivors’, the female protagonist is just a girl in her early teens. She’s alone, terrified, small, and vulnerable. And yet she’s also tough, brave, and most of all, independent. In ‘Worlds Apart’, the sequel to ‘Survivors’, the main character, Sresha, isn’t so obviously strong or brave, but her character develops through the events in the book and in the end, she emerges as a woman not afraid to walk away from everything that’s comfortable, familiar, and safe, to venture alone into a dark and terrible place.

From left to right: Anamika Mukherjee, Andaleeb Wajid and Radha Thomas
  • What do you think is the role of a woman writer?

Radha Thomas- The role of any writer is to entertain, elicit a response and not bore a reader to tears. I don’t think that merely being a woman places the onus on a writer to produce morally superior works, if you know what I mean. To sort of quote Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, “Why can’t a woman (allowed to) be more like a man?”

Andaleeb Wajid The same as it is of all writers—to tell a good story or to create a piece of writing that moves the reader.

Anamika Mukherjee – Again, why would it be different from the role of a “man writer”? Writers tell a story, hold up a mirror to society, reach out to people, weave worlds that are or aren’t or could be or shouldn’t be. Every writer brings a different perspective from every other writer. Is there any one thing that links all women writers together? Well, is there any one thing that links all tall writers together? Or all bespectacled writers together? If we can’t find a common role for writers based on one physical attribute, why should we expect or look for a common role based on another? The question is absurd. In the light of #MeToo, you might think it the role of all “women” writers to talk about gender, about sexuality, or about sexual harassment. But why should it be? And even if it were, why should it not be the role of “men” writers to talk about such things too? And who says that just because you are a woman writer, you have an opinion or a perspective on #MeToo – or anything else, for that matter – that at all aligns with the opinions or perspectives of other women writers?

  • Do you think women are expected to write only in certain genres, such as chick lit or romance?

Radha Thomas – I actually have no idea about this. The books I’ve written so far (The Cauliflower Diet, Men On My Mind and More Men On My Mind) were straight out of my womanly head. No one told me what to write.

Andaleeb Wajid- No and I don’t think women are anyway following what’s expected of them. Why should we? We’re writing what we want to write.

Anamika Mukherjee – I can’t comment on what is expected and by whom, but I think women writers should and do write on a broad range of subjects across genres. My first book was about trekking in the Himalayas. Is that the sort of subject women writers are expected to write about?

  • What advice do you have for women aspiring to write a book?

Radha Thomas – Forget about the fact that you’re a woman. Or a mother. Or a teenager. Just write and then edit and proof your material. That’s more important than you can imagine.

Andaleeb Wajid– Read a lot and write every day. 

Anamika Mukherjee – Go, write a book. That’s the fun part. Then get ready for the hard work looking for a publisher. But don’t give up. Don’t put it off. If you want to write a book, go write a book.

  • As a woman, what are your thoughts on the “me too” movement?

Radha Thomas- I’m not a card-carrying member of the #metoo movement. I believe that violence and abuse deserve punishment, but revenge and hiding behind someone else’s petticoat are shameful and undeserving of a woman.

Andaleeb Wajid: I think ‘Me too’ is important but what’s more important is that we sustain it and not let it slip by us as a mere trend. The effects of ‘Me too’ have to be far-reaching and not temporary as some of the cases we’re seeing now. 

Anamika Mukherjee: I’m very conflicted about it. Obviously, there’s nothing good about sexual harassment. I’ve faced enough of it myself. Long ago, long before #MeToo, I had my own moment of facing it, talking about it, blogging about it, sharing it, trying to get closure… a pointless exercise. There’s no closure to be had by just talking about it… but there’s no doubt it is better to talk about it than to bury it inside. Either way, though, you can’t get away from it – either your past experiences, or the present, or, in fact, the future. In my case, I worry about my daughters, who are 12 now.

On the other hand, though… there’s nothing right about trial by media either. Many of the men named might indeed have done the things they’re accused of doing, but name-and-shame isn’t a decent way to get retribution. What is? I don’t know. Going to court? Ideally, yes, that’s what one should do, but this is not an ideal world, and there are many good reasons one doesn’t do that even if one really should. Even so, slinging mud in the media or on social media isn’t right, and it isn’t – even if the accused really is a sex offender – fair. And that’s without even talking about the potential for misuse, something we all want to pretend never happens.

Ideally, I’d like two things to happen. I’d like men and women to be more aware of sexual harassment in all its bold and subtle forms; and not just aware but empowered enough, assertive enough, and confident enough to stand up against it. Not just the victims, but everyone around them who knows or senses it’s happening. Stand up, address the issue, make it stop.

And the other thing I’d like is to have quick, unbiased, and closed arbitration – through special courts or any other means that could be put in place. If we women knew that we could go to someone, tell our tales, and we would be believed, and the perpetrators would face punishment… the world would be a much, much happier place.

I don’t think either of these will happen anytime soon. But if #MeToo can provide some impetus in that direction, then that’s a tremendous step forward.

  • What is your definition of a feminist? Are you a feminist?

Radha Thomas – I don’t think I’m a feminist. I don’t believe that the sexes are equal at all. However, I’m a humanist if that’s even a ‘thing.’ People can exceed their own expectations and be better than someone else, whether that someone is a man or a woman.

Andaleeb Wajid: I’m definitely a feminist. I think a feminist is someone who looks for equality in whatever they’re doing and what they expect back from society.

Anamika Mukherjee: I’m not a feminist. I don’t have a definition of a feminist, but certainly, there are aspects of feminism, a militancy of opinion, a belief in the supremacy of womanhood, that I don’t subscribe to. I don’t even go so far as to say men and women are equal. Watch any sport on TV, and you know that men and women aren’t equal. It’s silly to claim so. What I believe is that women should be treated with respect and dignity not because we’re equal to men, but because we are what we are. We’re smaller, shorter, lighter; we can’t run so fast or hit so hard. So what? We can do stuff that men can’t do. So what? Some women are bigger than some men. Does that mean that only they should be treated with respect and dignity, with equality? Neither our physical attributes, nor our gender, nor our skills, nor the jobs we do, nor the clothes we wear, should determine who is worthy of dignity or respect and who isn’t. We’re human – all of us – and that makes us equally worthy of dignity and respect. Everything else is irrelevant.

  • How does your writing reflect the changing role of women in society?

Radha Thomas- I have no idea what this means actually. I don’t presume that my writing will make a dent on anyone’s role. I’m happy if I get a laugh and if people enjoy themselves. I’m a writer of novels, music, poems and so on… I am not a prophet or a guru and so don’t think for one second that I can seize women’s minds and alter their thinking!

Andaleeb Wajid: My writing tries to portray women, not just as they are but also as I wish them to be. I really do want to see more spunky women who are willing to pursue what they want and not focus on what society wants.

Anamika Mukherjee: Each of my books, both fiction and nonfiction, portrays very strong central women characters. In nonfiction, those characters are me. I decide the course of my life in ‘Adopted Miracles,’ when I realise that my husband and I can’t conceive naturally. And I go wandering in the Himalayas in ‘’Worth Every Gasp’ – alone, without any family or friends, because I choose to do so. Both were bold, somewhat controversial decisions, and both had some detractors. But it delights me to see now, years later, that often people reach out to me to ask about adoption and that several of my friends and acquaintances have undertaken solo journeys of their own. I wouldn’t flatter myself that I was the inspiration in either case, but perhaps I was ahead of the times, a trendsetter. In any case, it’s good to see that others are taking their own bold, somewhat controversial decisions to go out and do what they want to do.

  • What are your thoughts on how women are portrayed in the media?

Radha Thomas- The media is a reflection of society. I imagine women and men are portrayed in the manner in which they act.

Andaleeb Wajid: That’s a tough question. There’s too much to say here.  First of all, advertising needs to change its tune from portraying women as mothers and homemakers and self-sacrificing paragons of virtue.

Anamika Mukherjee- The two central women in my fiction, Natasha and Sresha, are also extremely strong, self-willed and independent women, although in different ways and in very different settings. Sresha is like someone you might know. Happily single, extremely intelligent, hard working and committed to her career, a caring daughter, a loyal friend, not unduly shy or prudish about boyfriends and sex. You wouldn’t have found someone like her in real life a generation ago, but now, she’s not a rare phenomenon anymore.

  • Do you think men and women portray women differently in their writing?

Radha Thomas – Good writers get into the skin of their characters. So in that sense, it depends on how good the writer is. You know what I mean?

 Andaleeb Wajid: Not answered

Anamika Mukherjee: I can’t say I have noticed any commonalities in how male writers portray women, nor have I noticed any commonalities in how female writers portray women. I have read books where the author has been severely criticised for getting a certain character wrong. Let’s say, a male author writes a book from a female protagonist’s point of view. I’ve seen reviews where the author might be accused of being unable to get into his character’s head, or under her skin. But then, I recently read a book by a white male author written from the perspective of a black teenager. I’m saying anyone can write a book about anyone. Whether it works or not depends on how well the author is able to get into his character’s head and create that character in a way the reader can believe. It also depends on how much slack you want to cut the author. I generally feel that every person is unique and so is every character. Any character can exist, can be believable. What’s important is that the character behaves in a way consistent with their nature. That internal consistency is important. So, it isn’t that men and women portray women differently. Every writer portrays each of their creations in a unique way. Whether that works or not is determined by the writer’s skill.

  • How do you approach the craft of writing? Do you write a certain number of words a day? 

Radha Thomas – Writing is a joy and pleasure. I write to deadline. I sometimes write for pleasure. I’m on a project right now, writing about my favourite subject these days, dogs.

Andaleeb Wajid: I take my writing very seriously, like a job. I sit down at my desk every morning and try and complete at least one chapter in the book I’m currently writing. It’s not so much about the number of words, but the idea of completing a chapter so that I can tick that off against my list. I don’t write continuously throughout the day. 

Anamika Mukherjee: Yes. I set myself a goal of one thousand words a day. It usually takes about an hour. I like to write six or seven days a week, and I prefer not to be interrupted by travel or other distractions when I’m writing. I also prefer not to be reading books while I’m writing. I don’t want to unconsciously mimic the style or tone of the book I’m reading. The first draft takes about three months. After that, I take a break from that work, and I come back to it a few months later. That’s when I do a second draft. During the second draft, I’m not so particular about the number of words I get through each day and so on. I’ve got the basic ideas down, that’s the main thing. Also, while working on the second draft, I’m allowed to read other books. That’s a relief! It’s hard not to read anything for three months!

Aishwariya Rai is a writer/editor who has featured among the Top 20 writers in three categories – Travel Writing, Creative Writing, and Poetry for The Orange Flower Awards in 2018 out of a total of 1600 entries.  Her byline has appeared in supplements of The Hindu, The Economic Times, and The New Indian Express. She has also been published in magazines like Woman’s Era, Eve’s Touch, City Mag, Shopper’s Digest, Womensweb and an e-zine called sitagita. She has over 250 published feature articles to her credit.

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