Despite economic progress, many women in India ‘have no voice,’ says author

British author Lucy Beresford will speak about her latest novel 'Invisible Threads' at Asia House on 6 October. Photo courtesy Lucy Beresford

British author Lucy Beresford will speak about her latest novel 'Invisible Threads' at Asia House on 6 October. The book explores the position of women in India. Photo courtesy Lucy Beresford

Despite economic progress, many women in India ‘have no voice,’ says author

29 September 2015

By Naomi Canton

British author Lucy Beresford gives an interview to Asia House ahead of her talk on 6 October about her third book and second novel Invisible Threads (2015), which is set in India.

Tell me about your background.

I was raised in a small village near Chichester in West Sussex. I went to Peru in my gap year, which I think kicked off my love of travelling. I worked in a school in Peru teaching English and also travelled to North America. Then I read English Literature with a subsidiary in Spanish Literature at Durham University. After university I joined an American investment bank and travelled to New York. I then worked for BZW (the predecessor of Barclays Capital) from 1994 to 1997 and travelled a lot to many countries including India. That’s where I got my love of India. One of my colleagues at that bank was Sir Robert Wade-Gery who had been the British High Commissioner to India from 1982 to 1987 before he became a banker.

Editor’s Note: Sir Robert Wade-Gery died in February this year. Whilst in India he was on good terms with former prime minister Indira Gandhi, a fellow Oxford graduate. He was also a member of Margaret Thatcher’s war cabinet during the Falklands crisis and delivered the order to sink the Belgrano. He was appointed CMG in 1979, and both KCMG and KCVO in 1983 and was a Distinguished Fellow at All Souls College in Oxford from 1997 to 2011.

I often went out to India with Sir Robert in the 1990s and that’s how I met Manmohan Singh, who was at the time Finance Minister. I saw an incredible slice of Indian life through Sir Robert. He was so knowledgeable about Indian culture and history. I experienced the highest echelons of Indian society on my trips there. This was just after the liberalisation of the Indian economy, so there was so much energy. You would drive from the airport to Delhi and see these enormous billboards in hand-painted colours offering lower and middle class Indians shares in various companies because privatisation was a big thing back then.

How did you end up working in both broadcasting and psychotherapy?

I started dabbling in psychotherapy when I was at BZW and I can see now why I had felt so unhappy at the bank as it was not a very creative role and I wasn’t very numerate. In 1997 I was actively hoping to be made redundant as I knew the bank was going to be sold. I was in therapy at that time and the therapist asked me what I was doing in a job I wanted to be made redundant from. I resigned that very day. At that time I had already signed up to do a part-time Masters in Psychotherapy at Regent’s College, which at that time was linked to City University (now called Regent’s University London), and I started writing my first novel at the same time. I also started writing articles and agony aunt columns and then got asked to speak on radio shows about mental health, relationships and sexual issues and ended up hosting my own Agony Aunt radio show which is now on LBC.

Tell me about your first two books.

Well, the first novel was Something I’m Not (2008) which ended up being quite a controversial book. It was a fiction piece about a group of friends wondering whether they had made the right choices in life. It was based on my own life, because I chose not to have kids. There is a male character in the book surrounded by married couples who chooses not to get married and a woman, surrounded by women with kids, who chooses not to have children.  I was surprised that even in 2008 the book was seen as quite ground-breaking. Research shows that a higher proportion of women are choosing not to have children. I wrote an article on this very topic for the Mail on Sunday and a huge number of women commented saying they felt the same.

The next book was non-fiction and more in the self-help genre called Happy Relationships at Home, Work and Play (2013). It was about being yourself rather than being what people tell you that you should be.

So was Invisible Threads a move away from those books?

No, what links all of them is storytelling.

Invisible Threads is about the an English woman Sara, a pscyhotherapist, who travels to India to find out how her husband died and when there also discovers that there are women out there who are unable to tell their stories, such as women in the sex trade and in brothels.

In my first novel there are the characters working out whether they can tell their stories, such as a gay vicar and a woman secretly going through IVF.

In Invisible Threads, Sara, a therapist, falls in love with her driver, which is completely taboo in India and her colleague who shares the driver with her warns her off him and it is difficult for them to be together because of what India is like. The book is also about her learning to heal herself through helping others. It is also about the position of women in India mainly of those who don’t have much and also about the constrained lives of those that do.

At this point the interview is interrupted by a literary agent delivering boxes of books for women and children at Beresford’s home for her recent initiative ‘Refuge for Books.‘ The books will be distributed to Refuge’s London shelters. Beresford is delighted with the donation.

Tell me more about Invisible Threads.

It’s my love letter to India, which is a country I am passionate about. India is not all glitz and glamour, it’s also very gritty and there are a lot of people who struggle there, especially women over their rights. Women’s rights could be examined all over the world but I chose to tell the stories of the women in India. There are women kept in cages in Delhi who work as prostitutes and they don’t get seen and they don’t get heard.

British author Lucy Beresford with her  Delhi friend at the flat which inspired the one the character Sara moves to. Photo courtesy Lucy Beresford

British author Lucy Beresford with her Delhi friend at the flat which inspires the flat that the character in ‘Invisble Threads’ Sara moves to. Photo courtesy Lucy Beresford

How did you know about the sex trade in India?

I did a lot of research about it and I did some work for a charity in India as well that rescues women form brothers, namely  the Rescue Foundation in New Delhi. I have been volunteering for them for the past three years – mainly talking to girls in schools to make sure they don’t get caught up in it.  I also did three clinical sabbaticals in India as a psychotherapist in 2003, 2005 and 2007, including in a slum cluster. It was around the same time in 2003 that I started writing Invisible Threads. I met women who had been rescued from brothels and all the characters in my book are syntheses of people I have met and worked with. India has had a female prime minister (Indira Gandhi) but even the current prime minister Narendra Modi has admitted the country has an issue with the position of women. I don’t see Indian women as victims, but many of them are invisible. I think the women in my book are strong and they are doing their best in the system. Their stories are not heard and they are ignored. There is a swathe of Indian society that objectifies women and thinks they can treat them however they want to.

Indian author Anuradha Roy’s (Man Booker Prize 2015 long-listed) Sleeping on Jupiter book talks about Indian women as strong and feisty. Many Indian women in cities like Mumbai are modern and liberal. So why this focus? 

One of my characters is based on NDTV’s Consulting Editor Barkha Dutt. Like you say, many of the women I met in India are very accomplished women. There are indeed women in India living very sophisticated lives and some of them have found their way into Invisible Threads. But this book is ultimately about a women who has lost her way finding it again by helping women, who don’t have a voice, on the path to self-improvement.

Would you say that India is a patriarchal society?

That’s a tricky question as the high classes would not give that impression. India had Indira Gandhi as their prime minister, and there are women like Barkha Dutt who have smashed every ceiling there is, but there is a high proportion of women in India living in rural communities where they have very different ways of looking at the world and at gender balance. I would say that among the lower classes there is no equality for women.  When I was working in the slum clusters you could see how unemancipated the women were and this is 2015. So I would say Indian women are not emancipated at different class levels.

What is your view of Leslee Udwin’s documentary ‘India’s Daughter’?

I approve of it wholeheartedly because I think it got the debate about the position of women in India going but what I found disappointing was the Indian Government’s reaction to it.  They became very defensive. I would tend to see my book in a similar vein – in the sense it is saying ‘this is what is going on in India.’ You might love the country, the food and the colours but you can’t forget there is this side to it. It’s the same as if I wrote about the sex trade in Streatham.

I don’t want people to say that I am rubbishing the country. Yes, I know I am a Westerner but  I have been to India nearly 30 times. This is my assessment and this is what’s going on but it can change. We need to talk about it and expose it.

I found the ladies’ carriages on the local trains really bizarre.

A women-only carriage on an Indian train. Photo courtesy Lucy Beresford

A women-only carriage on an Indian train. Photo courtesy Lucy Beresford

I remember standing in the ladies’ carriage being stared at by about 30 men in their carriage, which was much more full than the ladies’ carriage, who were being held back by a guard. I remember thinking this is perpetuating this idea that women are remote, that they can’t be touched and can only be stared at.  Sara goes to India suffering from grief about her husband and her boss says to her: “I hope you don’t get changed” but you do get changed in India, but not necessarily in a way you imagine. I don’t think you can go  to India and just enjoy the food, the colours, the saris and the hotels and not notice the other side. You have to admit ‘this is not right’ and do something about it.

There is a whiff of the other side of India in the book. For example Sara goes to a five-star hotel like the Leela Palace where she has pizza with gold shavings and she also goes to a lavish wedding.

There are various causes you can feel strongly about. It just so happens that for me it was Indian women.

invisible-threads_frontInvisible Threads was published in June 2015 by Quartet Books. It will be published in India in January 2016.

Lucy Beresford will be in conversation with BBC journalist Bidisha about her book at Asia House on Tuesday, 6 October at 18.45. This will be followed by a drinks reception and book signing. For more information click here.

Join Pamela Kember, Head of Arts and Learning at Asia House, for a fascinating conversation with entrepreneur, art collector and philanthropist Simon Franks on life, art and film on Thursday, 8 October at 18.45. For more information click here.

To read a story on Anuradha Roy talking about her Man Booker long-listed novel Sleeping on Jupiter click here.