The plotlines of most action flicks, are all about the hero. The hero rocks the roads, chases goons, tots guns, fights for justice, sows wild oats with white girls, and then heads back to home, to his heroine. All this while, this heroine, the girl, pines away back at home or sits pretty in a café (usually alongside a swimming pool for some reason), waiting for her hero. The only time she’s outdoors, she’s either surrounded by other girls, or is with the hero, or is getting raped or attacked by the goons. The message is loud and clear: The streets are unsafe for an Indian woman: If you’re out there alone, you will be slaughtered, you little lamb.
As a girl who grew up in Delhi, I was fed this message by family, society, school, college and onwards. Every time I walked on the streets of the capital city, as a teenager, as a working woman in her 20s, I had to constantly fight butt slaps, boob pinches, stares and hoots and whistles from strangers. Every time a violent act happened, I was told to not walk alone on streets, to wear looser clothes, not stare back and scream, not confront, not act, but be passive. For that’s how a woman should behave. Wait for someone else, a hero, a guy, the government or the police to react to the aggression that happens to her, to save her. An Indian woman is supposed to be passive, silently take on violence if given by her husband or in-laws, or ask for help from the boyfriend or police or government when faced from an aggressive stranger. Most of all, a woman is supposed to protect herself from all of it, to keep indoors, to make friends carefully in case they turn out to be rapists.
With Anantya Tantrist, the tantrik detective of my latest novel, Cult of Chaos, I decided to take all of these years of imbibed and heard and oft-repeated Indian values of passivity, decorum, rules and ethics meant for women and flip them, turn them on their head. Just to see what happens to the society in the world if I do. For speculative fiction gives you that freedom, to extrapolate, to try and do things differently, make new rules and new societies, explore gender roles and beliefs about gender. And I took it.
Anantya as a result, became a complete opposite to the restrictive idea of an ideal Indian woman.
First of all, she is always in the middle of action, she speaks her mind, there’s no passivity when it comes to her, in fact passivity bores her. She is boisterous, angry, spews gaali, smokes beedi, drinks hard stuff like a fish, hangs out on the streets with all kinds of things and species, doesn’t come home till wee hours, has crud in her kitchen, can’t cook to save her life, but can wield a boneblade to save another’s. She has unapologetic one night stands with all kinds of supernatural species, wears chappals and goes to parties and doesn’t know what a ‘date’ is.
Her society is an extreme version of ours—it’s more regressive, more patriarchal, more restrictive. In the social hierarchy she’s inferior because she has ‘breasts’ and a ‘fertility hole’. Legally, institutionally, she’s at the level of a slave, a nothing. Not that she lets this bother her much. She has kicked her father’s protectionist patriarchy and the cushiony life it offers in the face for her independence. She has deliberately chosen a violent, unstable, action-oriented, unsafe profession, even though its illegal for a woman, because she wants to. She has been abused in the past, but refuses to play the victim or stay protected. Instead, she’s always outdoors, right in the middle of action. On Delhi’s streets, at midnight ,dealing with all kinds of things. Herself. Without any help from any institutions.
Taking inspiration from action movies, I consciously replayed many scenes in the book, reversing gender roles. (He replaced with She). In the first scene of Cult of Chaos, Anantya rescues her blind date (who is six feet tall and quite alpha), from a rakshasa who attacks them. In the last scene of the book, Anantya rescues yet another guy, from the advances of a creep in a dingy bar, kicking the ‘goonda’s ass. In the middle, she’s the one who’s driving her scooty all over the city, trying to solve the case, while her assistant, Shukra, sits behind, taking the pillion seat.
Writing is a magical thing. It’s like crying, a sort of catharsis, subconsciously twisting and turning you into something else too as you type word after word after word.
Anantya is shockingly bold in situations where I had been timid in the past. For me as a woman, who had grown up in India, struggled with restrictions and biological nonsensical rules, with aggression from males, writing and creating Anantya was freedom of the highest kinds. When I walked with her on the streets of Delhi, the very streets I never felt safe on, I became more daring in real life. As the Greeks would say, she was cathartic, healing my the fears I had grown up with. If she could do it, so could I. I could look back at the men staring at me, and ask them why. I could confront, rather than look away. I could stand straight and stare back, even be more aggressive.
As I write this, I read that a girl was beaten up by an auto driver when she asked for change. Fifty men stood around the scene, none came for help. I cringe, feel helplessly angry and hope that the authorities see, that no matter how many walls, cameras, GPS devices, shout-for-help apps, cushions you build up, what you need to do is, to tell the women, girls in your life, to not live in closed spaces, or loose clothes. To rescue and protect themselves. To take care of themselves, to fight. For there’s no Salman Khan in real life who will come and protect you. You will need to do it for yourself. To own the streets, and as Anantya would say:
‘Be fearless. Let nothing stop you for what you want to do.’
For the first time in my life I understand what flying cars and superheroes do to boys. For Anantya is my superhero. If she becomes that for a handful of other women, if reading her, makes girls question why they can’t be fearlessly on the streets, my writing would’ve achieved its goal.
How did you see Anantya? Tell me here!