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A Conversation with Author Sindhu Rajasekaran: On Beauty, Body Politics, Queerness and Desire

By Raiyah Butt

Sindhu Rajasekaran is a literary nomad and transgressor of genres. Her debut novel Kaleidoscopic Reflections was nominated for the Crossword Book Award. It told the tale of an inter-caste Tamil family. Her collection of short stories, So I Let It Be, explored love, loss and female sexuality. Her upcoming book of non-fiction about Indian feminism(s) is titled Smashing the Patriarchy – A Guide for the 21st-century Indian Woman. Published by Aleph Book Company, it is out from November 5th 2021. Part One of this interview explores the first two chapters of her book, talking about beauty, body politics, queerness and desire.

We opened up the video call, said our hello’s, and that it was nice to meet face to face (well, as face to face as you can get during a global pandemic) after communicating by email for so long. Sindhu previously wrote a piece for The Lipstick Politico earlier this year called In Defense of Vanity, so I knew she had a background in feminist writing already and was excited to hear more about her newest project. I started with the basics, the “who, what, where and how” of Sindhu’s life and why she chose to write this book.

Sindhu: I like to call myself the literary Nomad because I'm like, I'm the person who's lived. I've lived in India, I've lived in the UK, I've lived in Canada, you know, I've moved around a lot. I experiment with the narrative style. I've done a novel, which was my first book. And the second book was a collection of short stories, and then I wrote poetry, and now I'm writing nonfiction. I like to experiment with different narrative styles in that sense. Since I have a master's in creative writing, I think that's where it started from in the University of Edinburgh. So that's where I started experimenting with, you know, with how to write something right. It doesn't have to be boring, because it's nonfiction. That's something I wanted to explore, that's how this book came about. So this book is a lot of theory, it's pop culture, it's also interviews with a lot of women. I use a storytelling narrative to tell it. So it's not a boring research piece, it's to put all these things in perspective, that’s how I constructed it.

Raiyah: Knowing that this has been four years in the making, I'm sure it has been quite a journey. And as this is a book about feminism, I'm sure there are women who have inspired you in your life, to write it and be a part of it. So can you tell me who those women are? I'd love to know.

Sindhu: I love writing women's stories, I think both my previous books were women-centric. In that sense, the protagonists are women.

And what really strikes me about women's stories is that I hate telling it from the point of view of oppression, because obviously, that is there. But what I look at is the grit and the resilience of these women and the power of these women that we overlook when we have this third world narrative of “this woman has to be a victim because she's from that country”. I hate that narrative.

And also because South Asian women have such a feminist history to look back to and we've not really reclaimed it. It's funny how we've forgotten about all of that. So when I look at women's lives, not just contemporary women, but even historically, say 50 years ago, 100 years ago, there's so much there that we could be inspired by.

Raiyah: The book will explore various topics such as beauty, and caste, sexuality and power and choice and body politics. What are the main theories which draw all of these issues, which seem separate, but are all connected?

Sindhu: I'm very interested in a post-structural and postmodern way of looking at things. So I think subjectivity is so important. You can make a meta-narrative for anything, but then each person is so unique, the experience is so unique for each woman. So although you have this one feminism, you could call it whatever it is, you could theorize it in a particular way. But for each woman, the experience is so different. And from where she is in society, her location, her caste, her creed, her community, it's such a different experience.

I wanted to look at women's lives through very different lenses, I did not want it to be like, say, a Marxist feminist lens, or any one type of view. I explore what I call postfeminism, not in the Anglo American version of it. I'm redefining it for what it means for Indian women in the sense that you are re-looking at feminism in a contemporary time but renegotiating the politics.

And what I mean by that is, there are many contradictions, even within feminism, and how do we resolve these things. We can’t overlook it and say “this is the only way you can be a feminist, if you do any one of these things wrong, you're not a feminist”. We end up bashing each other a lot, so I feel that we're wasting time doing that. I think it's important to call each other out, obviously, and it's important that we all understand all these issues and be intersectional in theory and in practice. But at the end of the day, what does it mean for each woman? Where does she stand, that subjectivity, her voice, that individual voice, that's what I was interested in. I brought all these theories together to look at women's women's lives very individually and collectively. there is also queer theory, which I'm very interested in because I'm bisexual myself. And I look at history a lot because I think it's very important to historicize every issue where everything because you know, obviously decolonize ourselves, we need to understand the past, right? There is also psychology, as I am really interested in women's mental health and to see how all these issues affect us mentally.

Raiyah: The first chapter explores beauty and these expectations of women pushed by the fashion in the beauty industry. And a lot of this, especially in the last year since we've all been at home and communicating through our screens, it's easier for young women to be influenced by beauty standards in negative ways. But at the same time, because of social media, we have this interconnectedness, and the emergence of movements that celebrate beauty specifically for women of colour of Black women and Brown women which didn't previously exist, and you're able to connect with women from all over the world who have shared that experience with you. So do you think that social media hinders or helps in tearing down these beauty standards which typically disadvantaged women of colour?

Sindhu: Yes, the contradiction is the basic thing, right? The fact that it does both. There are these corporations who have this one understanding of what beauty means, which is mostly Caucasian, and they push that particular theme throughout their channels. There's no space, right? It's not, it's not like the Internet is a democratic place or anything. It's all paid for, it's all just telling you what you should be and what you should not be, and whatever. It's very difficult to find that space on the internet for these women to show our own beauty and decolonize that space and tell them that beauty can be this and this and this. As you rightly said, it's happening a lot because of community. And even before the pandemic, I think it was happening to a large extent that all this content was being pushed onto the internet by a lot of Brown women and Black women, of course. But top-down change, that's not happening yet. It's a very sad thing. What happens is a lot of products that are made for Caucasian women are sold in India, those products remain the exact same, but they get into all the racist tropes, all the problems that are there in India, they use that to sell it to Indian women. They manipulate the locals against skin colours.

Raiyah: Yeah, Fair and Lovely is the main example of that, they've had so much criticism for exactly what you're talking about.

Sindhu: Exactly. And now they call it Glow and Lovely which obviously does the same thing, it's pathetic. But the good thing is at the same time, you see all these local, homegrown brands, which are organic products that they're selling for women, men and all gender diverse people, and they go back to Indian cosmetology and natural ingredients. But as far as products are concerned, I think that it is changing, people are aware of what they're putting on their skin and they care about it. And I'm not against beauty products. I'm against what it represents. I'm not against the fact that someone uses under eye cream because it's gonna make dark circles go away, I'm not I'm not against that idea. But the idea that I should not have dark circles, the idea that it should be fixed is what bothers me. It should be my choice what I use and what I do not use.

Raiyah: It’s a similar thing to what you argued in your article for us, In Defense of Vanity, that we don't necessarily need to reject beauty or enjoying beauty isn’t anti-feminist. The popular narrative, you know, that we are doing it for ourselves now rather than for men, or for a society that's governed by men that tells us these are things you need to do or fix about yourself. But to what extent do you think that that's truly doable for women and people of marginalized genders because we live in a society that's still governed by those patriarchal standards? Although there has been progress, is it truly possible to separate indulging in beautification from the male gaze and consumerist beauty choices and trends that we are still very much influenced by?

So this has a lot to do with colonialism. In pre-modern India, before the British came, beauty and fashion were very important for all sorts of genders, for everybody to express their genders and their sexuality. It's not just men, women, it was for everybody, all genders wore makeup, we all had kajol, we wore jewellery, wore silks. But since the British came because of their Victorian moralities and their puritanical understanding of what it means to be a good citizen, or a respectable citizen, South Asian men were called feminine because of how they would dress. And at the same time for Indian women, the way they dressed really scandalized the British, we were “exposing” our bodies so much. There was a lot of policing of that. And in fact, Durba Mitra wrote a book about how so many women were outside the system of marriage, so the British would put them as prostitutes in the official documents. If a woman was not married, if she was low caste, and if she was doing a particular profession, that would be called prostitution, according to the British standard. But in India, that was not prostitution in the past, that was not called that. And it's not just the British right, then you have the Indian nationalists, like say, Mahatma Gandhi for instance, who also promoted this vision of female respectability, which was like this pure Sita, so asexual and so saintly. So he sort of married this puritanical Christianity with this asexualized aesthetic Hinduism, but that really still has stayed with us, We are still stuck in this like mindset where we think that to be respectable we cannot indulge in our bodies, we cannot indulge in our a sense of fashion or beauty and in our bodies. We've come to a place in feminism where we feel that, and this happened in the second wave, I guess, where we had to masculinize ourselves to fit into this masculine world. And that's fine because women are androgynous. I think we can be masculine, we can be feminine, we can be whatever, it's our choice at the end of the day. But what's happened is that society and in the patriarchal society, it cannot stand whether we are feminine or masculine.

Raiyah: We can’t win.

Sindhu: Exactly, whatever you do you're perverse, right? I think this whole thing about beauty and not doing it for the sake of the male gaze, I think that's a problem is it happens whether you do it or you don't do it. I don't think that's something that I worry about. If you want to do it, I think it's a choice. If you feel that's who you are, that's how you want to express yourself, you totally should because that's your body. Even in pre-colonial times, it was not like women had all the freedom in the world in India. They were still oppressed in their sexuality and still regulated by patriarchal ideas, especially through caste, class and creed. There were so many prejudices against women. How they regulated it was that it was “good sexy” and “bad sexy”. If you're sexy, but you're submissive to the men in your family, then you're “good sexy”, you're pure, you're beautiful, you're divine, whatever. But if you're sexy, and you capitalize on your sexuality, then you're bad, then you're done. You're vilified. And then they write horrible stuff about you into the history books and the mythology. I think that's the problem that we really have, in South Asian communities.

Raiyah: And the key here is whether or not you're doing it for your own and with your own autonomy. Because it's a debate we see frequently, for example, women who are in porn which is a male-controlled industry, they have all the control, money and power. But then if women choose to do sex work on their own, for example only fans, it's called completely degrading, wrong and morally corrupt. And all of this because she's deciding to make money off something that she would have been exploited for anyway.

Sindhu: Sex work is a great example because it's considered “bad sexy”. I think it’s very important that we need to decide for ourselves how we want to use our sexuality, whether we want to be sexual, or not want to be sexual, whatever it is, it's our individual choice. And I think that's what we should all work towards rather than worrying about whether we’re doing something for the male gaze or not.

Raiyah: The next chapter moves on to dating. What do you think that the specific or main challenges to South Asian women are in the dating arena? And how do you think that online dating has possibly exacerbated misogynistic and harmful behaviour towards women particularly?

Sindhu: I've not used online dating platforms because I met my partner before this took off, but I know a lot of people who have and who still use it. As far as this is concerned, I think racism, the bigotry, the casteism that you see in real society is reflected on the online platforms. And I think it's even more online. Because the rejection is immediate, the judgment is immediate. Online, something is written, and you see that and it stays with you forever. I think in the pandemic it's gotten so much worse because that's the only outlet we have to a society where we meet new people is online. We can be avatars like we've become the digital versions of ourselves now, much more than before. That is pretty frightening, but I cannot speak about it as much because I've not personally experienced it with online dating.

Raiyah: You're definitely right about that immediacy. We actually wrote an article about how things which you would have normally experienced like street harassment, have become now online. And it's kind of given another avenue for all of those challenges like you said, the same pattern that you already would have experienced anyway, it's now just been done in a technologized form. Something I think is really interesting is in the book, you talk about desires, and queer desires specifically. And how exploring kinkiness is the next step to having gender-equal sex, and good, healthy sexual health and reproductive health. Could you elaborate on that? How do you see that happening, especially for South Asians where queerness is still a hidden identity for a lot of people?

Sindhu: So again, it goes back to the colonization aspect. With queerness, it's so bizarre that we all have this colonial amnesia. It's like we've forgotten what our communities did in pre-modern times.

There have been so many books about it, Ruth Vanita wrote Queering India and Madhavi Menon wrote Infinite Variety. both these books look at how, in the pre-modern past, India was so queer in the sense that people could express their genders and sexualities much more freely than then we can today.

And also, queer relationships happened a lot and people wrote about it. I’m not saying everyone wanted to be in a queer relationship but it was there, and it's still there, like in Sufi poetry or in Hindu mythology, you find so much queerness. The British were really scandalized by this as well. So obviously, you do know that section 377 in India is a colonial law.

Raiyah: Yeah it was. A lot of things you think - is it because Indian society is like this? - but no, it was introduced by the British. Trust me, during an International Relations degree I realised everything can be linked back to colonialism one way or another.

Sindhu: Right, and that’s still in our minds. I remember as a teenager when people came to know I was queer, people would say stuff like “you'll get arrested” because that's the punishment for being queer because of 377. That's the sort of thing that you grew up with, thinking you have to hide yourself, because it's like, Oh, my God, you could get arrested, right? What does that do to you as a teenager, as a young person trying to figure out who you are yourself? The way the South Asian community sees queerness today in large part is because of colonialism, so we need to really decolonize that. I think that's why a lot of people in the queer community these days talk about pre-modern Indian queerness because I think it's important for us to discover the queerness to our own histories and not just look at it as a modern thing. It's not like queerness is a modern idea that came from the West to the East. It existed everywhere. South Asian communities think that if you're queer you're trying to copy the Western standard. That's all bizarre. So it's important to look at our own histories and decolonize ourselves to see what gender means and what sexuality means. Because even what we understand to be men and women, in pre-colonial India, there are so many stories, so many histories that we read, where people are born and the sex doesn't really matter. They live lives as very different genders from what sex they were born to, you would not think, “okay, because she had female anatomy she has to be a woman”, they may have lived as a man, there are histories like that in India. There's a Chitrangada story in the Mahabharata which is very much like that. And Madhavi Menon talks about so many of these Sufi peers and the disciples who lived in very close relationships, and they've been buried in the same Mausoleum because they were in love with each other. And that was okay in medieval India. And what happened to us, like, look at us today, we have to hide our own identities and grapple with who we are. What is this? And I think it's important to go back and look at that, from that angle.

Raiyah: Very true. I'm gonna take note of these books, and hopefully read them because it is very interesting, like you said, that we almost have this amnesia about the way it used to be. And you're also not the first person who has mentioned this as well. We've had a few other writers who've written about gender-fluid identities for us, and they've mentioned the same thing with our histories. There's so many traditions where people were not necessarily one gender or another, or they were intersex, and they had quite important roles in society. So it's a shame that we've almost forgotten that and we need to find a way to put that back into society rather than going back because it's kind of hard to do that. It’s more like incorporating it going forward.

Sindhu: I just wanted to mention Kama Sutra and tantric sex as well, which is from the sub-continent. In all in all sorts of relationships, whether it's heteronormative, or homosexual, or even in the relationship that you have with your own body, I think there are so many histories that we have, which looks at this beautifully. We've just forgotten about all that and we become so prude in India. So I think all of South Asia, and I can say pretty much the whole world is pretty prude in some ways. And that really bothers me because we have such beautiful histories where people could just explore their sexualities and be who they are. And the pleasures of the body, it's so important, it's a part of us.

So whatever pleasure means to you, whatever desire means to you, you need to seek that and see where that goes, right. So why should we repress ourselves?

Yes, why should we? The next chapters of Smashing the Patriarchy discuss women in the workplace, demystifying the feminine and the narrative of choice. Look out for Part Two of our interview, up on The Lipstick Politico soon. Smashing the Patriarchy is out on November 5th.


More about Sindhu Rajasekaran:

Originally trained as an electronics and communications engineer in India, Sindhu graduated with a master's in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh. A queer womxn at the intersection of colliding castes and identities, Sindhu often explores the themes of belonging and unbelonging in her work. Interested in queer pasts and languages, she’s currently researching and writing about decolonizing desire.

Sindhu’s poetry has appeared in the Canadian anthology Very Much Alive and The Dance of the Peacock. Her creative non-fiction, stories and essays have been published by several international magazines. Some of her work can be found here – The Swaddle, Room Magazine, Asia Literary Review, The Selkie, Kitaab, Live Wire, Condé Nast, Bella Caledonia, and Gaysi.

A woman of many avatars, Sindhu is also a filmmaker and communications strategist. She produced a critically-acclaimed Indo-British feature film Ramanujan in 2014, which won the best production award at Norway’s NTFF. Interested in futuristic technologies and their potential to revolutionize businesses, Sindhu has helped various organizations modernize their communications and tell their stories better. Over the years, she’s variously called India, Canada, and the UK, home.

Follow the Sindhu on her social media:

Instagram: @sindhu.rajasekaran

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