By Neha Kirpal
Lawyer and writer Priya Alika Elias’ latest book Besharam (Penguin, 2019) is a kind of survival guide for young, modern Indian women. A popular Twitter celebrity, Priya was one of Paper magazine’s ‘Amazing Women to Follow on the Internet’ and lived in the US for several years before returning to Delhi. We caught up with the 30-year-old about her new release.
How did you come up with the idea for the book?
So many of my favourite authors are American, and it struck me that there was no real equivalent for brown girls—no advice or mentorship. I tried to address that gap as best I could with Besharam [literal translation ‘shameless’ or ‘unashamed’].
Besharam is based on your personal experience as a brown woman in several countries as well as your stint as an advice columnist for Burnt Roti. Tell us about the racism incidents you faced or heard that found place in the book.
My experience of racism abroad was, unfortunately, one of the big contributing factors to my book. I realised that brown girls aren’t told to love ourselves. I got so many letters from girls who thought they were ugly, or who thought they were inferior somehow to white girls. This broke my heart. I saw so many instances of Indian girls—whether here or abroad—shrinking themselves for the purpose of making other people comfortable.
How does your book endeavour to break the stereotype of the ideal of a “good” Indian woman?
I talk about things in my book that good Indian girls shouldn’t admit to. I talk about having an eating disorder, mental illness, premarital sex. I have tried to be as honest as possible, and show through example that there’s nothing shameful or wrong about any of these things. I don’t want women to be silenced—our voices matter, and being loud or besharam is the only way we will survive.
The book is divided into seven sections: sex, love, hurt, culture, failure, judgement and independence. Do these, in a sense, embody the various facets of womanhood?
In a sense. These are phases and dilemmas of womanhood—not merely the beautiful or presentable, but the ugly too. I wrote about the most important questions we are faced with in life: How do we navigate sex? How do we recover from heartbreak? How do we attain independence?
Please relate one of your favourite anecdotes from your book.
I will never forget the time I sat with one of my best friends. We were drinking, we had both been unlucky in love, and she said, “When you’re in love, it’s not the heart that suffers, it’s the liver. Hai na?” It was such a small, simple moment—but it is very precious to me that we can both find humour in our heartbreaks. When you’re suffering immeasurably, you can always turn to a dear female friend and find comfort. I wish that every woman had such strong female friendships.
How does the book work as a manual for Indian women to manoeuvre through different cultures and times today?
I’m not trying to provide a one-size-fits-all manual for Indian women—we aren’t a monolith. But I do want us all to learn to be more fearless and individualist. So many women don’t feel free to be themselves—they behave one way with their parents and another way with other people. I hope some of the things I talk about in the book will encourage women to lead less of a double life.