A dramatization of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy starts on BBC1 on Sunday. In Sculpting the Elephant and Not so Black and White I tackle the problem of being a girl. In today’s BBC radio 4 Saturday Live the restauranteur Asma Khan described the disappointment felt by her Calcuttan family when she was born .
Unlike in the Middle Eastern religions , women in Hinduism are regarded as equal and there are goddesses as powerful as the male gods so why is being a woman a problem in India ? One factor is the dowry system . It was made illegal after independence but no one takes notice of the legislation and it isn’t enforced. A huge financial burden is heaped on the parents of girls. The unspoken story in India is the strength of the caste system which is essentially racist. Women have to be controlled to stop them marrying out of caste. That is one of the issues I tackle with a light touch in Sculpting the Elephant . Rama , the lead female character , is strong and determined like restauranteur Asma Khan . Because these issues are rarely talked about in India, I have tried to introduce the subject in a way that can prompt an un-threatening conversation.
The story is similar and possible worse in Africa. Families make money out of girls –the bride price means they are in effect bought and sold. The co –author of Not so Black and White, Nancy Mudenyo Hunt was given a boy’s name -Ishmael -when her father ignored her . She told me, “As a girl I was not valued — and that is probably why my father failed to register my birth. Some years later, my sister Betty decided that I needed a birth certificate and she registered me. She conjured up the date of January 10, 1970, although nobody knew for certain when I was born. So I have the choice of being either five years older or five years younger! I was named Ishmael after my grandfather, but Betty felt that I should have a girl’s name and, on the birth certificate, I am Nancy Ishmael Ndula.”
Nancy by founding the Nasio Trust is transforming the part of Western Kenya where she was born. Her mother Irene struggled to pay for her education and encouraged her to do something to support the local aids orphans. When the Education Day Centre was unveiled the men criticised her for naming it after her mother- it should have been her father. The former Chief’s name should have been over the door. Nancy asked the elders , ‘What did he do?’
During the current pandemic modest female leaders have out performed bragging populist male leaders . For a new greener world we need to empower women everywhere.