The other day, at a public event, I came across a young man who had heard that my novel Sita, The Forest of Enchantments, was about to be published.
“That’s great!” he said. “I bet your women readers are waiting eagerly for it.”
“I certainly hope so,” I said. “But I also hope that men will read it.”
He murmured something polite along the lines of “I’m sure they will,” and made his escape before I could engage him in further debate. But I could see from his face that he didn’t really believe that a novel starring Sita would be of particular interest to males.
It struck me that we live in a world today where there’s a sharp demarcation, in many minds, between books men should read and books women should read. This is not only in popular areas such as chick-lit and techno-thrillers, but even with more serious literature. Readers—and perhaps, more dangerously, publishers—often feel that books which have female protagonists will appeal primarily to women. Often, the covers of such books are designed accordingly (bright, feminine colours, pretty designs, clothing details, women’s faces). I’m sure the converse is true of books “real men” are supposed to read. The result: a promotion of gender-restricted reading habits that are, in the long run, dangerous.
I can’t help feeling that if women only read books centred around women, and if men only read books that prominently featured men, our worlds, and our understanding of these worlds, would shrink in harmful ways. (I’m using the terms men and women, but I mean to include all sexual orientations).
It is my deep belief that men and women need to read about and relate to “heroes” of both genders. If, through a good book, they can enter the mind and heart of a character of a different gender/orientation, and if they can sympathise with that person, they will grow immensely.
They will begin to understand how the world looks like to that person, and what their specific challenges are. They will become aware of mysteries. They will come face-to-face with long-kept secrets. They will feel the joys and sorrows experienced by other sexes.
Men will begin to understand how women think, and vice versa. If the book is written well enough, readers will laugh with the characters, and maybe also feel their hearts being wrenched.
I believe that once that happens, we come back to our everyday lives transformed and matured. We have much more compassion for the other gender, for both men and women have their particular crosses to bear in the world.
To the young man who had dismissed the story of Sita as being of little relevance to him, I would say this:
Sita’s story is the story of women of India, and of women from around the globe. It is the story of women who have dreamed of adventure, who have fallen in love. Who have married for that love and felt it to be a dream come true. Women who have fought to follow their beloved into danger, hoping to stand by their side and fight the battle of life together.
It is the story of women who have faced attacks and abductions. Who have been the victim of family or religion or race or nation feuds. And who, when they have returned or been “recovered”, have had to fight all over again to re-create a place for themselves in their community. Who have redefined what honour means.
It is the story of women who have been abandoned, women who have had to bring up their children by themselves, women who have had to rely on the kindness of strangers after all their dreams have come crashing down.
Women who have had to rely, ultimately, on themselves. Women who have finally pulled on the armour of their dignity and put their foot down and said, No more compromise.
Sita’s story, I would say to men, is the story of your sisters and your mothers and your sweethearts and wives. Their dreams and challenges. Their heartbreaks and victories. It is a fascinating story. A surprising, startling, perhaps even shocking story.
If you open yourself to it, it will change how you understand women. How you view the world and your responsibility in it.
What can be more relevant than that?
(Indian-American author and poet, Chitra Divakaruni’s new novel, The Forest of Enchantments, based on the Indian epic The Ramayan, is published by Harper-Collins)