Why Mumbai women are meeting for book therapy

Updated: Jan 12, 2020, 08:15 IST | P Vatsalya | Mumbai

With discussions ranging from mental health concerns to interpretations of feminism, book clubs are increasingly offering a focused safe space for difficult conversations

Apurupa Vatsalya, founder of the eight-month-old Bibliotherapy. 
Pic/ Sameer Markande
Apurupa Vatsalya, founder of the eight-month-old Bibliotherapy. Pic/ Sameer Markande

Mithila Menezes, 21, was scrolling through Instagram last November when she came across a post by Bibliotherapy, an account she had been following for a few months. The next session was dedicated to reading and discussing My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

"We discussed the major themes from the book, including toxic relationships, using sleep as an anchor, and celebrating the individual. The meeting was a good balance between our analysis of the book's plot and our life experiences around these themes. It was a safe and warm space, truly one for peer-learning," she says. While it might have been Menezes' first book club meeting, there's a chance it might not be her last. At least not if she finds a book like Moshfegh's—which follows the journey of a rich New Yorker who attempts to self-medicate in an attempt to "put herself into chemical hibernation for a year," as The New Yorker puts it.

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While books clubs are many in the city, the last few years have seen the emergence of groups that cater to feminist conversations, also providing a safe space to discuss mental health concerns.

"As women, we are constantly pitted against each other. This manufactured competition is actually a myth that prevents us from tapping into our collective potential as women," says Apurupa Vatsalya, sex educator and the co-founder of eight-month-old Bibliotherapy. The group focuses only on mental health literature. The facilitator decides on the book and announces it on social media, after which those interested join in. A session typically sees an attendance of 10 people. There is no member policy and anyone who registers is free to come. "We are a mental health book club. I wanted to hold space for others struggling with their mental health and I chose the medium of books because of their universal appeal."

Mallika M, co-admin of Mumbai chapter of Bring  Your Own Book
Mallika M, co-admin of Mumbai chapter of Bring Your Own Book. Pic/ Bipin Kokate

An observational study conducted by researchers from Cambridge University in 2018 revealed that women are 2.5 times less likely to ask a question at conferences, when compared to men. This stark disparity indicates that some voices are more dominant than others in academic settings. On the other hand, book clubs can act as physical and emotional safe spaces that provide women the opportunity to vocalise their opinion and learn from others simultaneously.

About the importance of feeling heard, Mallika M, a 26-year-old lawyer and co-admin of the Mumbai chapter of Bring Your Own Book, says, "We've had an almost equal number of women and men come. A lot of them talk about their personal conflicts in the context of the book that they are discussing. This is because they feel like they can share things at our meetings and won't be ignored."

Unlike Bibliotherapy, BYOB doesn't specify a particular book for discussion, but it could have themes ranging from romance to sci-fi. And, invariably, the titles that people bring throw up deep conversations.

Mallika recalls discussing Franny and Zooey, a 1961 book by JD Salinger. "Apart from relating to the lead character, I think I could talk about my feelings [similar to the character's] in great detail. It helped me understand my emotions at a time when I couldn't comprehend them. It's so difficult and personal to explain sometimes. The closest I have come to describing it is anxiety or maybe a vast emptiness," she adds.

Friendships are formed as a result of people resonating with each other's opinions. "I joined BYOB because I didn't want to lose touch with a friend from college and it gave us a place to meet regularly. My first meet was also the first time the club met. So, after the initial awkwardness, I made new friends. In fact, some of my closest friends in the city are from BYOB," says Vedant Sharma, 29, a teacher.

Book clubs enable you to engage with ideas critically, in the presence of like-minded others. Some clubs overtly cater to women's issues by focusing on their rights. Women also seem to be seeking such spaces to explore and sharpen their politics.

Vandita Morarka, CEO of the non-profit One Future Collective, and co-founder of Sanskaari Girls Book Club, says that the choice of the name is an important factor of what the book club stands for. "Sanskaari is a Hindi word often used to encapsulate a number of so-called desirable qualities. It can be translated as traditional, well-behaved, conservative and more. We are obviously using the name sarcastically since we are anything but well-behaved!"

A meeting of the Sanskaari Girls Book Club, where feminist titles such as Ms Militancy by Meena Kandasamy and The Liberation of Sita by Volga are discussed
A meeting of the Sanskaari Girls Book Club, where feminist titles such as Ms Militancy by Meena Kandasamy and The Liberation of Sita by Volga are discussed

Sanskaari... was started in 2018, by Morarka and Nishma Jethwa. They have discussed Ms Militancy by Meena Kandasamy, The Liberation of Sita by Volga, and Karukku by Bama. "It's a space for curious feminists to explore a range of readings in a safe, supportive and diverse setting. The club is led by young, Indian feminists who are excited to challenge their biases, explore what feminism means in their lives and learn from others. We wanted to provide a platform that hosted a safe space for discussing South Asian feminist literature," says Morarka, highlighting the cathartic value of these sessions.

Giving an example, she says that the most recent book the group read was Karruku, an autobiographical account by Bama, the pen-name of a Tamil Dalit woman. "It speaks of a Dalit woman's struggle with her identity and the oppression she faces. I was facilitating the discussion. We had an 'aha' moment as a group when we realised that there are micro-aggressions in everyday life which help hold systems of oppression in place. It was a room full of well-read feminists who were open to learning but we hadn't thought about it this way. There's a need for an honest effort for correction in terms of social justice. We came to the conclusion that there's still a long way to go."

Vandita Morarka, co-founder, Sanskaari Girls Book Club
Vandita Morarka, co-founder, Sanskaari Girls Book Club

Most of these clubs have been founded by women, who run them to help others grow. Hence, they act as a supplement to traditional, mental health initiatives. "While we host a safe and open space for healing, we clarify that we are not mental health professionals," Morarka says.

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