Women writers no longer want to be told what and how they `ought to' and `ought not to' writeThe cover of "21 under 40" resembles a bright Rajasthani dupatta — in parrot green, purple and orange and with a spot of mirror work. If you are the sort to insist on reading profound meanings, you might say the mirrors look like eyes wide open in joy, wonder, horror, shock, curiosity or what have you. Quite in keeping with the spirit of the book by Zubaan, a collection of "new stories for a new generation" by 21 women writers from South Asia aged below 40. The event that marked the Bangalore launch of the book at Crossword, organised by Toto Funds the Arts (TFA), was as bright and colourful. The book, said its editor Anita Roy, was like a "thali" with a spread of tastes in style, form, subject matter and mood. The stories are unusual, poetic, brave and funny by turns and show how "brownish kind of women" are boldly experimenting in their writings. The stories read out by four of the authors — Anjum Hasan, Adithi Rao, Meena Kandasamy and Ruchika Chanana — offered a sample of the kind of variety that one can expect from the book. If Anjum's story is an even-paced and contemplative look at a man who is trying to find his bearings in a new city, Meena's is a quirky take on relationships revealed through a series of breathless e-mails. If these break stereotypical expectations of what a woman's writing ought to be about, more surprises await in the book. The stories pick themes and narrative standpoints that happily break conventions. For those too used to the business of "girl seeing" before marriage being presented as a dehumanising experience for women, there is an absolutely funny take on it from the point of view of the "boy's party". There is a Holmes-style historical detective novel set in Mughal times, with a woman villain to boot. There is a graphic short story that speaks of an inter-religious relationship without getting all sweaty and ponderous on the question. These are interspersed with stories that deal with what may be called "feminist themes", such as the story of an abandoned girl child. But even this is told from the point of view of the tortured father. Yet another story set in a hospital talks of a woman's discomfort with her own body, but in an extremely gentle and understated tone. The editorial effort here seems to be especially directed at underlining the range women's writing is capable of. After a few mandatory questions on the "autobiographical element" — which writers, especially women, cannot escape — the discussion progressed to an interesting debate on the issue of "newness". Anita said that a good number of entries among the 200 that landed in her inbox had assumed what a "feminist publication" would expect from the writers. But many had "upturned the idea of a given social role" and were reinventing themselves in form and content. Answering another question Anita said that Zubaan called for stories in English and sent out applications on e-mail, which of course, "limits the demographic". The writers and readers are therefore, quite inescapably, the urban elite. The next logical question would have been how this compares with women's writing in other Indian languages. Though there was not enough time to take this up at the launch event, Meena Kandasamy, also a prolific translator from Tamil, shared a few thoughts on it later. An English writer is constantly conscious, she says, of what may or may not interest the urban, English-speaking readers. But it is also true that those who do venture to write about things beyond this world will be labelled "the kind who seek to capture Indian exotica for the West." The concerns of a Tamil writer make an interesting contrast to this world, observes Meena. "Tamil Dalit women writers, for instance, are keen to highlight the dynamics of caste and sexuality. Even Tamil women writers from the "upper" castes write about how caste orthodoxy has stifled their mothers and grandmothers, if not them. So, caste is something that is almost omnipresent in the Tamil women's writing. I found a whole silence on it in this particular English short-story collection."These new voices in Indian languages are often lost to an English reader because most translation enterprises focus on "established greats" and do not bother with young and upcoming writers. Can we hope for a "new stories" collection from Zubaan that picks some grey, reds and blue from this area to add to the colours of women's writing that "21 under 40" offers? More the merrier, after all, be it a Rajastani dupatta or the canvas of fiction. BAGESHREE S.