"So I used to tell her these fairy tales also, like Cinderella and Rapunzel and somehow when the story got to the part when Cinderella had to be rescued or Rapunzel had to be rescued, I would find myself changing the story because I didn't like it. I didn't want my daughter to grow up thinking that she needs to wait for some boy to come and rescue her and that she is going to be this passive person who doesn't take charge of her life..."
That is Sowmya Rajendran, a brilliant, thoughtful writer who I would describe as a literary torchbearer for the gender movement in India.
Welcome to the Story Rules podcast with me, Ravishankar Iyer, where we learn from some of the best storytellers in the world, find their story and unearth the secrets of their craft.
I came to know Sowmya first through her children’s books - which by the way, pack in a world of meaning in them. For instance, take her book, “Girls to the Rescue”. In this book, Sowmya overturns the typical ‘damsel in distress’ plotlines of most fairy tales. Instead, the girls in her stories are smart, independent and take charge of their own lives.
Later, I read some of her interpretations of the depiction of gender in cinema and how that is changing - ever so gradually - especially in south Indian films. (She frequently writes on cinema with a focus on the depiction of gender - for 'The News Minute' online publication). For instance, check out this richly analysed, nuanced review of 'Drishyam 2', the Malayalam superhit sequel to the original blockbuster.
Finally, I read Sowmya’s only adult fiction novel - The Lesson (published in 2015) - a scathing indictment of the patriarchy deeply embedded in Indian society.
The Lesson is a darkly satirical tome, and represents, for me, the 1984 moment of India’s gender movement.
In the book, Sowmya paints a dystopian totalitarian future where masculinity and hyper-patriarchy have been taken to their extreme logical conclusion. It's an absurd, deeply disturbing, and unfortunately, not entirely implausible tale.
It's a book that should have gotten more attention.
As I was reading through Sowmya's writing (and connected it with the section on patriarchy in Yuval Harari's Sapiens), I had a realisation.
We live in a world divided by nationality, religion, language, customs… but having one unifying theme: Patriarchy.
While massive strides have been made in the past several decades in the gender rights movement, the underlying patriarchal mindset - which is several millennia old - will not be easy to change.
Thankfully, in the long struggle for gender rights, we have leaders like Sowmya who are putting in their unceasing, fearless and most importantly, creative storytelling efforts ... in bending this long arc of the moral universe towards fairness and justice.
More power to you Sowmya!