Delhi-based economist Shrayana Bhattacharya’s Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence (HarperCollins India) is not a fan’s paean to the Bollywood superstar whose career has got a second wind after Pathaan‘s phenomenal success. Instead, the book closely tracks the “economic and personal journeys” of six women in post-1991 India.
Shrayana had closely followed these women for 15 long years — an engineer, a government clerk, a flight attendant, a social worker, a garment worker and a housemaid, and a migrant from Jharkhand working in posh Jor Bagh in Delhi. Their stories are told in a compassionate and engaging manner, as she captures their struggles, their search for love, battling inequities in jobs and at home, their rebellions against the borders drawn by patriarchy and their search for the ideal man — a man like Shah Rukh Khan, who once said no one can love like him on screen.
The author, who trained in development economics at Delhi University and Harvard University and works for a multilateral development bank, also effectively weaves in facets of the Indian economy, the dwindling female labour force, on unaccounted women’s labour and provides data and tables to back her theories. You can stumble on stats, for example, like “just five per cent of Indian women exercise exclusive control over who they marry” and tables on work force participation rates in India or on female voices in top 10 Hindi film grossers.
Shrayana also brings in her own disastrous tryst with love and her interactions with an elite alpha male in a brutally honest manner. She is unsparing in her account of how she had subsumed her sense of self entirely in her need to be with a man. So, it reads like a memoir in some very tiny parts as well. It defies categorisation really but it is a compelling read.
The book has been making waves since its release in November 2021. On March 23, HarperCollins is all set to bring out a Hindi translation of the book. Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee called it an “illuminating portrait of the dire state of gender relations in contemporary India”, while Shah Rukh Khan, who was presented the book last year, was glad he had been “put to good use”. In an interview with The Federal, Shrayana, who is happy the book reached him, “a culmination of a long journey” as it were, says Shah Rukh understood the book was on the “economics of things”.
If it’s not clear what Shah Rukh is doing in a book exploring gender relations in contemporary India, she explains, “Mr Khan was a research method, a companion. Many women won’t remember specific dates in their lives. But when you ask them when or where they watched his 1998 film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, it becomes an accessible way to oral histories. It’s interesting how you can use people’s enthusiasm for something to document lives and social realities better.”
Describing the actor as a “research vehicle” which allowed women to talk about their lives in a more open manner, she further said she would ask them why they loved the actor in a particular scene or song and that gave her an entry into their personal life. It is a methodology she used, and anything you learn about fandom, or about Mr Khan is a plus, she says.
“Conversations on dry subjects like labour, deprivation, inequality can be entered into by getting people to talk about something that brings them alive. They participate more willingly. In the case of my book it was SRK, for others it can be Mohun Bagan (Kolkata’s popular football club), Carnatic music, cricket etc. It’s better than the traditional direct way of questioning,” says Shrayana, who got the idea of the book many years ago, while working as a research assistant interviewing informal women workers for a SEWA project in Ahmedabad.
On Women’s Day, Shrayana talks about her book and the Indian women’s search for intimacy and independence. Excerpts:
Has anything changed in the Indian women’s quest for independence, to be free to make their own choices?
Based on the stories I describe in my book, I feel things are changing. The younger generation of women are asserting greater romantic autonomy. For example, in my book, the garment worker in UP, Manju, as we call her, takes a holiday from her marriage. She has her own expectations about marriage and life. I am not going to spoil it for readers by telling what happens to her in the end but she does imagine a life outside marriage.
The government clerk is not against love or marriage but she doesn’t want to settle. The idea that marriage is what legitimises a woman’s life no longer exists for many women. Many women, including me, are willing to imagine life without marriage exploring other options. The urge to settle into marriage as an instrument of stability and selfhood is not as strong among women anymore. The appetite for settling seems to be on the decline.
Secondly, the appetite to fight against the tyranny of marriage is certainly growing across all classes. It is only in the hyper elite perhaps that the appetite for marriage still exists like in the past.
What happens to these women who want an identity outside marriage and motherhood? And their futile struggle to find an ideal man who understands them and is supportive?
We do have a crisis of masculinity. Women have changed a lot in terms of aspirations and what they want, young men are struggling to keep up. They are getting conflicting messages. Having said that, I am still hopeful, economists call it a repeated game — a set of constant interactions where as women assert themselves, either there will be a male backlash, which we already see in our culture, or we will have men who will step up and think about how they can participate in the work of care and labour of love.
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I am not going to say things have changed entirely. It is a struggle for most women who enjoy an identity outside marriage and motherhood — it is a struggle to find men who support them. It is not as if that kind of man doesn’t exist; our culture needs to allow for those kinds of masculinities to bloom as well.
Is it possible to bring women of all classes and backgrounds under the umbrella of a single feminist movement in India? Won’t their needs and wants be different?
I think all these women in my book are equally committed to wanting infrastructure that works for them. They all want to access markets while they feel safe, all want access to housing, to create a space of their own and want jobs that pay well. They want to go out and watch SRK’s films without feeling harassed, judged and unsafe.
Feminism essentially argues that women’s dignity needs to be respected in the way they interact with infrastructure, public spaces and in relationships. I think everyone in the book are on the same plane — feminism is not a prescribed label — it is a lived practice and the idea of lived practice, to me and feminists I have read, is believing in the dignity of everyone’s choice and recognising the labour of everyone’s choices. All the women are united in the book in wanting their care labour to be acknowledged, supported and remunerated by government and by families. They like to find men who can share in their burden of care labour.
What is your view on the pay disparity among men and women in our economy?
It is a big issue. Government data tells us that self-employed women doing casual labour earn less than men. Laws may mandate full pay but the problem lies in the practice. Often women help a household enterprise or in farming land cultivation and they are classified as helpers and don’t get remuneration. We live in a country where 68 per cent of women’s labours are unpaid. Employment statistics show that women’s participation is so low. Yet, if you go anywhere, you can see women are always working. The reason for this disparity is that a lot of work is not counted, not remunerated. That is a big challenge. The way to address the pay gap is to be much more open, recognise and reward care labour and the different kinds of work women do.
Do you get asked how you can be an economist and a SRK fan, who may not be considered by some as a thinking woman’s hero?
I don’t agree that he is not a thinking woman’s hero. He plays a real function for some women — particularly after Pathaan, it’s not a big surprise that many women are into him. Also, there is an automatic dismissal of women’s enthusiasm, on fangirling, it is the chronic ‘chitlitification’ of women’s voices. When women write anything, it is immediately cast as gossipy or not serious. It took time for people to make the connection that my book is about women in the economy.
Also, consider Ashwini Deshpande, the best labour economist in the country; she’s a mad SRK fan. Incidentally, there was a report that a lot of academics are big fans of SRK. For me, it was great that many organisations involved in the book like SEWA, the world’s largest labour union for working women, have a podcast on which there was a conversation on the book. It’s great to go back to one’s roots as it were. I’m humbled with the response to my book — there’s a steady reckoning in India today that we need to have difficult conversations about handling women’s role in the economy.
Is Shah Rukh a saviour for the women in your book?
No, not really. All the women see a different Shah Rukh. He’s not a monolithic person; women, based on their own personal experiences, construct a very different SRK for themselves in their minds. One thing common among all these women is that they are exhausted by patriarchy. They are looking for images that can make them smile or feel better — it is not just escapism, for some it is also encouragement.
In the case of the government clerk, she maintains a scrapbook on what SRK has said in interviews; he’s her self help guru. She faces a lot of rejection and disappointment in her career and personal life, but she listens to his interviews to feel encouragement. For the flight attendant, who is referred to as Gold, he’s given encouragement to dream to find a man like him. For these women, he is someone who encourages them to stand on their feet, to navigate failure, work hard, or find a mate that is actually interesting to them.
Your book has a distinctive writing style. Who are your influences in literature?
From Jane Austen right up to Franco-Moroccan writer and journalist Leila Slimani. When I was growing up, one of my favourite writers was Kamala Das; her poetry and her writing. I loved the direct and flat manner in which she wrote. The personal is centred in her writing. Among the contemporary writers, I love Meena Kandaswamy’s poetry and writing; similar to Das, the personal is deeply enmeshed in what she is trying to say. A lot of this writing tends to centre the personal when it comes to political and social issues. I wanted to do this with economic issues.
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The other two big influences have been American essayist Vivian Gornick; she’s my all-time favourite memoirist. I also devoured Emily Witt’s Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love (2016). Emily is a writer based out of New York and hers was one of the most seminal books for me when I was thinking about structuring my own.
The book is a medley of influences of all these different writers, mostly women. They are always talking about the personal in a very rigorous way. Their books do justice to the fact that the personal is political; for me, personal is also an economic right.
I read a lot of Hindi literature as well. Mannu Bhandari (1931-2021) is one of my favourites. Her books have a wry sense of humour which is difficult to translate into English; it is true of all regional language writing. I was clear that I did not want the book to be dire and depressing. The statistics as well as the situation is depressing, to be honest. But I brought in a lightness of touch, a sense of humour because none of these women are unsmiling all the time. I did not want anyone to read the book and think that these women are such becharis; they are actually valiantly trying to have fun bargaining against patriarchy.