By Swati Nair
On the morning of December 17, 2012, India woke up to one of the most shocking news in recent times. The brutal torture and gangrape that was soon dubbed the Nirbhaya case headlined not just in India but in prominent news sites across the world. It made every single person wince. Above all, it blew the lid off the simmering anger that a lot of women already felt at being victims of the male gaze in varying degrees.
In her book Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women (Juggernaut), author Deepa Narayan writes that she “did not set out to do research or write a book… It emerged from my determination not to be complacent after the rape of Jyoti Singh, Nirbhaya.”
Narayan, a trained social scientist, decided to address the gender question by interviewing several women and a few men across India and the world.
“It was like witnessing the breaking of dams. In the absence of any judgement, the interview process became a safe emotional space,” she notes.
The results, at the end of 8000 pages of notes, were nothing less than surprising.
No matter what age, or profession or educational status, women consistently projected an underconfident, unsure personality, molded by the crush of social mores and biases. Narayan distills the essence of over 600 emotionally-charged interviews into seven belief systems that are deeply ingrained in women, which make them silent, invisible, and non-existent.
All the beliefs are rooted in denial – of body, mind, voice, sexuality, and identity. Brimming with raw, unflinchingly honest prose, Narayan shares stories of women who have been groped, felt up, squeezed, silenced, abused, and everything else you can think of to deny their existence. Given these experiences, you would think that women would jump to support one another, right? Not so.
That was one of the most rattling truths to come out of Narayan’s extensive research. Women had gone through so much at the hands of not just men but other women too that they had just sealed the little pockets of trust, vulnerability, and compassion within them. Narayan brings forth some compelling thoughts.
“Powerless people often do not see the point of getting together with other powerless people,” she writes.
An interesting facet that emerges is how women unconsciously fuel the patriarchal rhetoric by placing their trust in men instead. They believe men to be uncomplicated and without ‘drama’.
One’s mind reels on reading how these opposing thoughts reside in the same person who has grown bitter because of the very men they trust. Women turn out to be polemicists arguing for and against the same cause.
Narayan comes to certain conclusions. That intelligence or education has nothing to do with behaviour and culture. That patriarchy is so deeply wired, it’s not even obvious. That even the men who have good intentions are unwittingly complicit.
But there’s hope at the end of the tunnel. In Meera’s story, “because she found a way out of fear and powerlessness to build a moral and fulfilling life for herself.” In Naaz’s story where she started realising and believing that “there is power in women working together.”
Chup, named after the Hindi word for “silence,” is an extremely unsettling, disturbing read. It does suffer from repetitions, a bit of a preference for a demographic that speaks Hindi in the interviews, and the lack of some tighter editing. But in the face of the jarring information that emerges, these aspects fade into the background.
This is an eye-opening book that challenges your every fibre of being, your every thought behind the thought. It is a must-read for both men and women to start questioning their innermost feelings. To form new habits and rewrite cultural stories. To start colouring women back into the canvas and fabric of society, and our daily lives.
Swati Nair is a Dublin-based writer and editor. Coffee, sunshine and books are her happy place. Find her on Bookstagram