Besharam: Of Love and Other Bad Behaviours by Priya Alika Elias is a guidebook about what it means to young Indian women and how actually to be one. The author writes it from her perspective of having lived across various countries and how multiple locations for an Indian woman actually don’t simplify the expectations around her. The book has been divided into eight sections demarcated over sex, ugliness, love, hurt, culture, failure, judgement and independence. Through these themes, Priya describes the negative relationship between Indian women and sexuality. She writes, ‘maybe this is the saddest thing about being a woman: attaining womanhood means learning what we are forbidden to do. Attaining manhood means learning what you are capable of.’ The varied metaphoric expressions add to the narrative, as the account races through coming to terms with sexuality. Through anecdotal references about masturbation and consent, Priya tries to weave how sexuality innately empowers men to violate bodies of women. She also brings in issues of skin colour, featural appropriation, body shaming and how society inflicts this on women. She uses the example of the Indian actress Kajol as not a particularly thin woman and how popular culture then was not promoting skinny women in particular. In hindsight, she misses out the fact that popular culture was always catering to demands of fashion cycles, which in this case were having a particularly curvy structure. In one of her interviews, the popular Indian actress Rekha mentioned that body awareness in the 1980s and 1990s was limited as compared to now. As a result experiments were carried out on female actresses. In one instance for retaining a particular weight and structure for a certain role, the poor actress was fed only baby cereal for months together.
From categorizing men and their characteristics, to despising religion, this book has been written for the average Indian reader who is angry about everything, and at the same time, not sure about what to do with the anger. To Priya’s credit, she brings out problems a kid in India from the 1990s faced like the fear of mathematics, disciplined parenting, etc. Yet again, no sense of negotiation comes up between how things were and things ought to be in the entire 275 pages.
The biggest shortcoming in the book is that it has been written from a pedestal of privilege, specifically for a certain caste, class identity. It successfully creates chasms within the theoretical category of women; making problems of the brown upper class and caste woman, appearing bigger than perhaps anything else in the world. The author seems to have totally ignored the idea of location while constantly ranting over breaking the glass ceiling of misogyny. The ambitious feminism it seeks out doesn’t seem to be derived from public political values nor through dismantling existing hierarchies and forms of disadvantage within a variety of political, economic, and social contexts. The book provides no real insight into the relationship between culture and the production of gendered social life, as well as the implications of cultural location for women’s agency. The idea of having a guidebook for young Indian women in itself is problematic as it imposes exclusion. When the focus on writing around feminist themes is largely getting shifted to intersectional analyses with debates on diversity and difference becoming so important, Besharam disappoints.
The front-page illustrations of the book show legs of two women wearing conventional pants, again failing to convey much. To the credit of the author, many anecdotes in the book about dating, meeting judgmental relatives can resonate with the urban upper class Indian woman. In totality a light funny read, without much substance though.
Arshi Javid is a Research Scholar, Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.