Transforming the World One Book at a Time

Nighat Gandhi is an author, mother, and a mental health counsellor. Waiting, Alternative Realities: Love in the Life of Muslim Women, Ghalib at Dusk, and What I Am Today, I Won’t Remain Tomorrow: Conversations with Survivours of Abuse, and Waiting: a collection of stories are some of the book titles to her name. Manasa Ram Raj spoke with her about her journey.

Tell us a little about yourself and your journey to becoming an author and mental health counsellor.
I was a depressed mother of two children. I had been volunteering at a women’s shelter but wanted to get back to college. I started debating between getting an MFA in Creative Writing or a degree in mental health counselling. I decided against the MFA because I had a hunch that MFA wouldn’t help me become a better writer. Writing had to come from my life experiences. I settled on the counseling degree trusting my gut feeling, which said, “You’ll learn more about yourself and writing”. I did learn more about myself and writing -- I have become a better listener, and a keener observer of self and others. I also realized that I liked listening to people’s stories, and that’s what counselors do. Following my gut feeling ended up being hugely beneficial, it made me both a better writer and a counsellor.

What does feminism mean to you? 
Feminism means everything to me: philosophy, politics, relationships, art, and so much more. It is not the kind of self-promoting, individualistic, capitalistic and consumerist feminism that’s all the rage now. Feminism pervades every aspect of my thoughts and my dreams for the future. Here is an article I wrote last year on International Women’s Day. It is a 21st century Sultana’s Dream - the dream of a pan South Asian Aam Aurat Party. It echoes my feminist vision: nationless, non-militaristic, and based on genuine needs, not greed for power. 

In your book Alternative Realities, you have woven the stories with struggles you have faced and seen as a Muslim woman? What inspired you to write these stories? 
I explain in the introduction to Alternative Realities that Islamophobia, especially the misplaced pity for the stereotypical poor, voiceless and veiled Muslim woman that became very trendy after 9/11, is what inspired me to write the book. I wanted to present the other realities of the Muslim women.  

What inspired the short stories in Waiting? 
Women, of course, inspired the stories. The way women live their humdrum lives, the way they watch their hopes and desires dry up, the way they struggle, the way they love -- all these are inspiring. My own life was an inspiration, if you can call it that. As a writer, one is always observing oneself, listening to others, jotting down notes, remembering snippets of conversations and so on. My life is entwined with the lives of so many women I come across in the course of my work and my wanderings. My notebooks are filled with such notes asking to be turned into stories. So that’s how Waiting came about.

Your characters are everyday people with simple lives and dreams. Is there a particular protagonist you would like to situate in your writing that you haven't yet explored?
I would like to write about elderly women. I would like to explore the complexity of the life of the older woman. Aging, especially among women,  is a topic that’s just not dealt with much in our conversations, movies or literature. In a youth-obsessed culture where older people, especially older women, are relegated to invisibility, their roles limited to being mothers-in-law, grandmothers, or out on the streets if abandoned by family. I would also like to write about trans women and trans men who have not yet transitioned, and older lesbians -- their feelings and experience as they get older and lonelier, and may be weaker (emotionally or physically) in a society that didn’t value or validate them much even when they were younger.

Your stories often portray a cause for activism - Have women reached out to you after reading these stories? What has the impact of your stories been like? How do you address the voices of dissent/criticism? 
Some women readers have reached out to me and mostly it’s been to tell me how my stories resonated with their own experiences. I write in English and nobody has offered to translate my stories into Hindi or any other regional language. If this happens, I think more women would have access to these stories and then perhaps I might hear from more of them. I’m also not on social media, so that might make it more difficult for people to reach me. 
I haven’t faced a lot of negative criticism, except one critic who said - my stories aren’t new enough, in that, they don’t imagine a radically new kind of future for South Asian women. Maybe that’s true and so it’s urging me to think about new narratives. Stories that depict what’s not the reality of most women’s lives yet in the subcontinent.

You are also a mental health counsellor. Do you often deal with issues that are considered taboo? How do you address something that your audience won't believe in?
Yes! Topics like marital rape and homosexuality are still  taboo in small towns.  When I’m writing, I don’t worry whether my readers will believe me or not believe. I worry about quality: whether my writing is authentic, my story telling is compelling, and my voice is truthful.

What are your thoughts and learning from the feminist movement happening in India and globally? More specifically, what according to you should be prioritized from a South Asian perspective to keep up with the global feminist movement?
To answer this question, I refer you again to my Aam Aaurat Party article, which addresses feminist concerns from a South Asian perspective. I don’t think we should worry so much about the global trends in feminism. If it’s something that’s relevant for us, we can adopt it. If not, we should come up with our locally-fashioned feminism that serves our need as the women of South Asia. What I see as a danger to feminism in general is its silent assimilation or co-option into patriarchal capitalism. To have a career of my choice, and live where I want with a partner of my choice, is not the only or ultimate goal of feminism. 
For example, if we are working for the right to employment - we have to work towards decent wages for all women, those in the workforce outside the home as well as working within home. Similarly, if we work to dismantle the ageism that’s dividing younger and older women, then it has to be tackled from various perspectives of health care for aging women and companionship for older women. What patriarchal capitalism wants is for women to be divided along whatever lines they can be divided -- religion, caste, class, or age. They want younger women to hate their aging faces and bodies, and the lucrative advertising industry wants women to locate their self-worth primarily in their fast-vanishing youthfulness thereby fueling the cosmetic surgery economy. Enter botox, face lifts, tummy tucks and makeovers for new moms, and aerobics for grandmas at the gym.

What is in the pipeline? 
Several things are in the pipeline. Bilingual (Urdu/English) plays. Another travelogue, maybe. Reading more poetry, more meditation, and further simplification of my life.