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With the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that had enshrined a woman’s right to abortion, we turn to a handful of books which trace the long history of the reproductive rights debate. In her book, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Gloria Steinem goes into the crux of the matter when she writes that the goal of women activists has always been to fight for “the right to have children in safety, as well as the right to decide when and whether to have children.” The fight will continue, she points out, as long as there are attempts to “re-criminalise or terrorise it [right to a woman’s body] out of existence.” How did Roe become a political symbol for actors on the left and right of social movement struggles? Mary Ziegler, in her 2015 book, After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate, gives an account of the cultural and political responses to the landmark 1973 ruling in the decade that followed, and it also explains why it is such a divisive issue. Joshua Prager profiles Norma McCorvey and her battle to seek abortion in Texas in 1969, when it was banned in The Family Roe. The pseudonym picked for Norma was Jane Roe and that’s how the case came to be known as Roe v. Wade (after the defendant and district attorney Henry Wade in the case). Texas is one of the 13 states which will move quickly to re-issue bans on abortion after the overturning of Roe. Are reproduction rights connected to politics? In her detailed examination in Reproductive Politics and the Making of Modern India, Mytheli Sreenivas points out that from as early as the 1870s to the 1970s concerns about reproduction surfaced within a range of political questions – “around poverty and survival, migration and claims of sovereignty, normative heterosexuality and drives for development.”
In reviews, we read the stories of Damodar Mauzo in translation, a veteran diplomat’s narrative on the complex undercurrents in West Asia, a book on India’s role in Bangladesh’s liberation and more. We also talk to Sudha G. Tilak about translating Karichan Kunju’s Pasitha Manidam, said to be the first Tamil novel with openly gay characters.
Books of the week
West Asia is a strategically critical region faced with confrontation and conflict amid growing economic prosperity. In his latest book, West Asia at War (HarperCollins), Talmiz Ahmad, a former ambassador, brings out the diverse political, religious, military, socio-economic and cultural forces shaping the region. In his review, Dammu Ravi says that Ahmad’s long diplomatic career with postings there and wide-angled view from headquarters gave him uncommon insights which he pieces together in this book that provide a rare non-Western narrative of complex undercurrents. “The massive oil revenues strengthened authoritarian regimes, whose economic control often conflated with peoples’ livelihood issues. With about 66% of 400 million Arabs redundantly poor and 10% controlling 61% of the wealth, the region is one of the most unequal in the world. Beyond the dazzle of Dubai, Doha and Riyadh, the author observes, is pervasive poverty, inequality and injustice that is alienating people and making them susceptible to fundamentalism, drugs, terrorism, extremism etc., further fuelling tensions within.” Ahmad also looks closely at the evolution of India’s policy towards West Asia. “India’s de-hyphenation of its relations between Palestine and Israel is pragmatic as well as in sync with the changing dynamics in the region. Closer ties with Israel also served to get the backing of the U.S. on several fronts. The strategic depth that our relations attained is attributed to Prime Minister Modi, who took a personal interest through frequent travels to the region to build solid economic partnerships as well as secure the interests of our strong resident community.”
Damodar Mauzo won the Jnanpith Award last year, prompting intense celebrations not only in his home State Goa but also in Maharashtra, where the 77-year-old litterateur is being hailed as an icon of potential reconciliation after a century of tensions, resentment and hostility between Konkani and Marathi intellectual cultures. The fact that he celebrates Goa’s richly pluralistic heritage in his writing is evident throughout The Wait: And Other Stories (Vintage Books), translated by Xavier Cota. In his review, Vivek Menezes writes in the stories, there’s “his characteristic preternatural deftness in illuminating the inner lives of an extensive constellation of characters: insiders, newcomers, children and the elderly, labourers, middle-class strivers, the newly rich and so forth.” Menezes says that in every possible way, Mauzo is an exemplar of Goa’s fluid cultural identity, marked by an unabashed pluralistic universalism that persists despite threats and depredations.
To mark 50 years of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, several books have appeared in the past year, and December in Dacca (Harper) by K.S. Nair is a refreshing addition to the list. It makes the point, for example, that India not only achieved an “overwhelming military victory”, it also put a stop to humanitarian crimes, and importantly, “in view of the lessons from later conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq, India withdrew all its military forces from the new country [of Bangladesh] within weeks….” In his review, K.R.A. Narasiah says that Nair puts the spotlight on the land, air and sea battles of 1971. “The western sea front effort is narrated in detail, including the loss of INS Khukri off the coast of Diu, the first and only Indian warship to be lost in war; and how young IAF officers tracked the submarine PNS Hangor that sank the Khukri. The narration of the well-known Operation Trident and Karachi attacks reads like a war diary. In the final chapter, Nair recalls the events that took place both militarily and politically, including the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and later developments. Like many others, Nair rues the fact that India did not utilise the tremendous advantage it gained from the victory, and does not celebrate the moment often enough.”
Karichan Kunju, a writer of short stories, novellas and plays, wrote his only novel Pasitha Manidam in 1978. It has been translated into English (Hungry Humans) by Sudha G. Tilak, which will ensure that the book reaches a larger audience. The novel features openly gay characters for the first time in Tamil fiction, and in an interview with Meenakshi Shivram, Sudha G. Tilak says that someone like Singam Rauth in the book is compelled to lead a double life, “furtively seeking partners outside socially-acceptable heterosexual unions.” According to her, you could read the novel as a critique of a community and also as a book about human struggles – social, sexual and economic. As a translator, she wanted to “make it easy for the reader who is comfortable with English but also familiar with Indian bhasha cadences.”
- With a single-party majority in Parliament, the government is now in a position to launch political reforms on its own. The former RBI governor, Bimal Jalan, sheds light on some of the priorities that the government can implement at present, as well as in the future in his new book, From Dependence to Self-Reliance: Mapping India’s Rise as a Global Superpower (Rupa).
- In 2008, the Indian Space Research Organisation joined an elite space club with its moon mission. The foundation was laid decades ago by a small group of people, one of whom was Abraham E. Muthunayagam. He looks back at the nascent phase of ISRO in his memoir, From Space to Sea: My ISRO Journey and Beyond (Harper).
- In Suniti Namjoshi’s Dangerous Pursuits (Penguin), the righteousness in legends and myths is turned on its head. The characters follow paths that suit them the best, only to be shown another. With Ravana or Prospero (from Shakespeare’s The Tempest) as characters, the book explores hope, morals and existence in a bleak world.
- Christina Lauran’s Something Wilder (Little Brown) revolves around Lily who makes a living taking tourists on fake treasure hunts. When Leo Grady, the man she once loved, walks into her life, she is all business. Then, on a treasure hunt, with a chance of finding real wealth, things go wrong. Will they risk their lives and heart for the adventure.