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Strong women with strong message at JLF

The art can bring change – and does not have to be limited to playing a role of meager entertainment. In fact, these two goals can almost work concurrently, as can be experienced at the popular Jaipur Literature Festival which becomes an amalgamation of intellectual and social conversation.

It has also been a place where women – strong women, celebrity women – have used the opportunity to share relevant messages.

One of these celebrities was popular yet unorthodox Bollywood singer Usha Uthup. In conversation with Sanjay Roy, the singer shared her diverse journey as she built her career without any film background, and became a household name.

As she began, she lent her voice to jingles and even sang in a club in Chennai (then Madras). However, Bollywood was not far away. “RD (Burman) saw me perform at the nightclub, and was really interested.” RD invited invited her to record a song with none other than Lataji. “I recorded my anglicized version with Lataji, but later they recorded the song again with Ashaji.” She grabbed this first opportunity and made the most of it – Dum Maro Dum became an anthem for an entire generation.

Of course, the road ahead was not easy – her voice was very different to the prevalent, melodious, soft voices of the female singers. “Bollywood has good girls and they have certain songs. For bad girls, there are different songs, which came my way.” She still grabbed these opportunities and created a niche for herself.

It is not just her voice that separates her from the norm. She has a unique style sense – kanjivaram saree worn with a prominent bindi (red dot on the forehead) which almost puts her in contrast with the western and westernized songs she sings. In fact, this contrast helped her create a strong image for herself. But this wasn’t intentional, she says.

“Raised in a middle class south Indian family, I wore cotton sarees even when I sang in night clubs My bindi and my flowers in the hair – this is part of my south Indian heritage. I love my accessories including the bangles.”

Not to keep her uniqueness limited to sarees, she even pairs up her kanjivaram sarees with “kanjivaram sneakers” especially designed for her by a cobbler in Kolkata. If this is not chic, then what is?

If Usha Uthup is an example of an unconventional voice carving her own path, there was another Bollywood celebrity at the JLF who has shown that there are no limits to achievement, even when faced with a life threatening situation.

Photo: Bollywood Hungama

Manisha Koirala fought her way back to life and then back to movies, after recovering from cancer. Launching her book “Healed: How Cancer Gave Me a New Life” at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Manisha shared the choices she made along the way which helped her fight some of the “deathly” battles that showed up unexpectedly at the peak of her career in Bollywood.

Her diagnosis with ovarian cancer in 2012 was sudden and caught her and her family off guard. Cancer brings up thoughts of death for most of us, she says. “I was shocked. I had a restless night. I felt so lonely. My regular journey from Kathmandu to Mumbai seemed like never ending.”

Soon after the diagnosis, she grappled with the possibility of death. But instead of asking gloomy questions like “why me?”, she was asking more enabling questions to herself – how will I come out of it?

Immediately, she started doing extensive research on cancer, and took control of her treatment, rather than being a passive recipient of it.

She was proactively asking questions to doctors, and even started reading cancer-related material online.

Her advice to cancer patients is to be actively involved in their treatments.

“Take your own decisions and take control of yourself rather than relying on others. Also equip yourself with information about your cancer.”

In such difficult times, the immediate family members act as a crucial support system, and in Manisha’s case it was her mother, who stood by her like a rock.

As she was fighting her battle, she kept her head high, and made a promise to herself that if won this health battle, she would create more awareness about this – something that she found missing during her own struggle.

“The attitude matters,” says the goodwill ambassador for the UN Population Fund, and has been making public appearances to raise awareness.

Books

JLF 2018: living with multi-ethnic identities

Having multiple ethnic identities is never easy. It was never easy anyway – whether living in India or outside India. In a sense, India is complicated – a Muslim can be Gujarati-speaking in Gujarat or Malayali-speaking in a southern Indian state.

However, second-generation Indian migrants face similar dilemma while living outside the country. Multiple ethnic as well as national identities get mixed over generations, giving rise to sometime funny acronyms like ABCD (American Born Confused Desi), which sums up the cultural and linguistic confusion often characteristic of children of migrating families.

And this is not unique to Indians – many migrants from other ethnic groups face similar issues – which is not surprising in the global, virtual world we live today.

And at a panel discussion at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival, not one but three panelists had mixed ethnic backgrounds, and who have chosen to become writers in their own right.  Syrian-American journalist and former civil rights laywer Alia Malek was one of the panelists, who spoke about her book “The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria and A Country Called Amreeka: US History Re-Told Through Arab American Lives.” She shared her experience of how Syrians are written about with an outside view, as if Syrian citizens, the insiders, cannot provide an objective view of their life.

JLF

Mixed-ethnic experience provides an undertone to cultural memoirs: (From left) Abeer Hoque, Juliet Nicolson, Keggie Carew, Alia Malek and Amy Tan

Similar experience of stereotypes was shared by another panelist, Nigerian-born Bangladeshi-American writer Abeer Y Hoque. Talking about her book publishing experience, she mentioned how publishing agents of different countries reacted differently to her manuscript.

After reading her memoir, her American agent wanted her to change the American section of the book, with some exotic elements to fit American perceptions of Syrian migrants. And wait, her Indian agent had problems with the Bangladeshi elements in the book. She wondered if she showed the manuscript to a Nigerian agent, they may want the Nigerian section changed as well.

Abeer pretty much summed up the experience of many migrants with mixed ethnic backgrounds: “I’ve felt a little bit out of place in all of the places I belong.”

Popular Chinese-origin American author Amy Tan expressed a slightly different opinion: “Belonging was to do with values inculcated by parents during childhood, rather than one’s country of origin. She, like many migrants, doesn’t feel so sure about her privileges as an American in the Trump era, as non-white citizen, even though she was born in the US.

The discussion became candid when Juliet Nicolson (grand-daughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson) shared an intimate truth about her life – how alcoholism had devastated her mother’s life, eventually killing her. Juliet pretty much saw history repeating when she herself took to drinking heavily. Writing a memoir was, in a way, Juliet’s way to give voice to her mother.

In fact, alcohol, as the Telegraph writes, was the dark thread linking mothers to daughters throughout “this gilded tale of life in magnificent houses,” as described in Juliet’s candid book “A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson”.