Many Indias

I’m working on a revision of an article forthcoming in Cancer Today about efforts in India to lessen the divide between health/cancer care in rural and urban areas of Gujarat. While it’s wonderful to revisit the people and places that take me back to my time in India this past summer, I’m struck, once again, by the complexities of the women I’m writing about, their local cultures, and the myriad of institutions attempting to bridge some very deep and troubling gaps between those who have resources and those who do not.

I appreciate that my editor at the magazine, Jessica Gorman, offers me the space to work through many of the complications that arise when writing about cancer. It’s an opportunity that a lot of publications and editors would rather not acknowledge.

It also helps that I’ve been researching and writing about another layer of Indian culture: magazines targeting Indian women. At a conference at Cornell last week, I spoke about two women’s titles, Femina and Woman’s Era, both of which attempt to speak to the modern Indian woman who has unprecedented freedom.

The problem, of course, is that this modern woman is largely a fiction. Even in the more outspoken Femina, women’s freedom–in the workplace, the bedroom, and the social sphere–is tempered by a reminder that “respectable” womanhood is tied to marriage, a family, and continuation of a cultural narrative that has deeply entangled roots in India. Even those women who choose a modern lifestyle while they’re young, perhaps earning an education and working in a corporation for a year or two, should heed Femina’s advice not to divulge details of their exploits to their families or future husbands. Such admission could ruin a woman’s chance of discovering real happiness.

The editor of Woman’s Era, whose grandfather, Vishva Nath, founded Delhi Press in 1939 and the magazine in 1973, told me that this title is intended to tackle “real women’s” life issues. Indeed, it does. While the pages of Woman’s Era address female aspirations to be more beautiful and stylish, they also offer readers advice on dealing with difficult live-in mother-in-laws (still the standard living situation for married women), domestic abuse, and an increasing rate of suicide among housewives.

India is a world of contradictions. I feel fortunate to have seen its many faces up close.

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