Meet the Editor. Part One.
Walking Towards Ourselves, edited by Catriona Mitchell, is a literary exploration of what it means to be a woman in India today. Along with the vibrancy, colour and intensity that India represents, it has long harboured a systemic culture of treating women as second class citizens. However, India is undergoing a gender revolution. In what might be the first anthology of its kind, Mitchell has pooled together a collection of personal narratives written by some of the finest women writers in India — some of whom are tangled up in age-old socio-cultural traditions, and others who are experiencing new freedoms.
Refusing to hide and showing immense courage, the women who lay their stories bare in Walking Towards Ourselves shed light on the challenges and obstacles, as well as the rewards and joys, involved in being a woman in India today — all in a deeply personal, candid and intimate way.
Walking Towards Ourselves represents the culmination of Mitchell’s intense love of India and her deep interest in the issues faced by India’s women — issues which have resonance with women’s experiences everywhere.
This first part in a three part series gives you access to Mitchell’s world and the path she has walked in creating Walking Towards Ourselves.
My fascination with India was inspired by her writers. I owe thanks to my father for this, for plying me with Indian literature and thereby bringing colour and vividness into a banal adolescence in a Melbourne suburb, replete with its manicured lawns and stifling domesticity. Indian literature set my imagination on fire: it conjured worlds beyond anything I had known possible, and filled me with a hunger for a place I did not yet know.
I decided, as a teen, to go to India as soon as I had found the right man to take me. Twenty years later, it became apparent that I would need to venture forth alone if I wanted to see the country of my imagination, before it had morphed into something entirely new.
India’s economy had opened up by then and the country was modernising, fast.
I met a Belgian woman on the plane on the way into Mumbai. Somehow I managed to convince her to share the hotel room I had booked in advance.
It took our rickshaw driver three hours in the night to find this little hotel; we finally got there to find paan stains covering the walls, tangles of electrical wires hanging from holes in the ceiling, and no sign of life at all.
At last we managed to wake the hotel manager, who shuffled out in his night-shirt and slippers. Other men were asleep on the floor in the hallway, with nothing in between them and the tiles. We had to edge past them to get to our room.
I didn’t sleep that night. And I wouldn’t let that Belgian woman go. For two weeks.
The probing, unabashed stares of the men we encountered in the streets provoked a fear in me that I can only describe as primeval. I didn’t know such fear was latent within me. There were few women out in public and, being blonde, I felt particularly (and uncomfortably) visible. This unnerved me so greatly that I wouldn’t even venture to a restaurant’s restroom alone.
The Belgian didn’t share my panic, though she too was in India for the first time. In fact, she found me ridiculous. Eventually she told me in no uncertain terms that she wanted to see the back of me.
We parted on the train platform in Varanasi, where I was promptly mugged by a group of gangster monkeys who snatched my bag (containing bananas) and made off with it at speed down the railway tracks.
Forced to continue my journey without the Belgian, I was thrown back into self-reliance. I surprised myself. I not only coped without the Belgian, in three weeks I learned more about life in all its lightness and shade than I normally would have in three years.
And from the moment I boarded a plane for Australia again, I could only think about how to return.
India had got under my skin.
Walking Towards Ourselves published by Hardie Grant Books is available at all good bookstores now. Read more about the book here