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Have you seen many books that talk about genuine female South Asian experiences? I haven’t. That’s why I created Masala Monologues, a collection of essays and stories written by fabulous South Asian women, doing some amazing work. They’ve written stories about the taboos that they’ve faced, from their unique cultural point of view.
As South Asian women, we don’t talk about sex. Or sexuality. Or periods. Or mental health. We don’t talk about childbirth, about choosing whether to have kids or not. We don’t talk about the double lives we all lead or the sense of shame some of us carry around our bodies. We certainly don’t talk about trauma, sexual harassment or domestic violence.
Well, that’s changing. Right here, right now.
This book is part of an ongoing project running for over two years, bringing together South Asian women with the objective of sharing their stories.
Masala Monologues will include stories from writers including:
- Shazia Mirza - award winning British Asian Muslim Stand up Comedian
- Asifa Lahore – Britain’s first out Muslim drag queen, TV star & LGBT activist
- Poorna Bell – renowned journalist, public speaker & author
- Anita Sethi - award-winning writer, journalist & broadcaster
- Sita Thomas – theatre director & TV presenter
- Neelam Heera – founder of Cysters, a charity for South Asian female reproductive health
- Cauvery Madhavan – author of bestsellers Paddy Indian and The Uncoupling
- Manjit Gill – CEO & founder of Binti, a charity focussed on menstrual health for South Asian girls and women
- Jane Chelliah – activist and star of Channel 4's Mums Make Porn
This book is part of an ongoing project running for over two years, involving a series of workshops bringing together South Asian women with the objective of sharing their stories. The workshops culminated in a theatre performance at Rich Mix, Shoreditch. The response was so positive that the project is now being shaped further, to involve bigger South Asian female audiences.
What the audience said:
- 'Moving, hilarious, shocking, sad, illuminating, brilliant…'
- 'It's the closest I've seen my identity represented on stage, and that's anywhere in the world!'
- Masala Monologues is urgent, relevant and radical. These are unheard stories coming from the lips of all too often unheard women, so start listening!
- Soul Sutras is challenging us, bringing often untold stories front and centre and giving South Asian women a platform to challenge the world we live in.
Masala Monologues has been featured on BBC Asian Radio, SOAS Radio and Brown Girl magazine.
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Sangeeta Pillai is the founder of the South Asian feminist network Soul Sutras, which is all about tackling taboos within the culture. It was inspired by her own tough experiences around growing up female in India.
She created Masala Monologues as a series of workshops for South Asian women which culminated in a theatre production, and also wrote and narrated Audible's 'To The Woman' podcast led by Scarlett Curtis.
Sangeeta won Spotify's podcasting competition and is currently recording Series One of the Masala Podcast. On each episode, she interviews strong South Asian women who challenge traditional norms, talking about things that are not 'supposed' to be talked about: sex, taboos, shame, periods, sexual harassment… and more.
Sangeeta has been featured on BBC Asian Radio, SOAS Radio and as Brown Girl magazine. She has been a writer for over 20 years, working in advertising and digital content in India, Singapore and the UK.
The Slumdog Feminist, by Sangeeta Pillai
The smell of shit was always in the air, in the Mumbai slum where I grew up. And now I smell the crisp canal air, below the East London flat where I live.
This isn’t one of those rags to riches stories that South Asian families like to tell. This is a tale of a long journey, of coming a long way baby and of paying the price for it.
I have been a feminist my entire life: it defines, it powers me, it shapes me.
Yet, I didn’t even know about the existence of the word ‘feminism’ until I reached my 30s. There was no reason for that word in my early life, in the culture that I grew up in.
As a young girl growing up in a traditional Indian family in Mumbai, being ‘married off’ to a nice man was the best I could hope for. And by nice, that meant a man who wouldn’t beat or abuse me. Love wasn’t even a word in the dictionary. Or dreams. Or ambitions.
Indian girls don’t just leave home, they just get married off. I refused and then stayed with my family for decades. I fought for everything. From the right to cut my hair short, to choosing the job that I wanted to not being forced to marry the first guy that I was told to marry. None of the other girls around me rebelled but a strong survival instinct spurred me on to fight, fight, fight.
Today, I live the sort of independent life that would’ve been imaginable to my little girl self. I moved to the UK fifteen years ago. My life in London is perfect: a great job, my own flat, great friends and a life of theatre going and socialising in Soho’s trendiest bars.
It all changed three years ago, when my mind unleashed panic attacks on me. I was ‘brave’ fighting with my traditional family and society for the life that I wanted. But I wasn’t brave enough to face my own pain.
My father was an abusive alcoholic who beat the crap out of my mother: that was my childhood from age 1 to about age 12. My earliest memories were of my father bashing my mother’s head against a concrete wall, in our little one-room slum home, in that filthy suburban corner of Mumbai.
My mother had lived most of her life suffering physical violence at my father’s hands. And she died suffering violence from a stranger’s hands: her throat slit, her belongings stolen, her body with his piss all over it.
I never grieved for my mother. Or for myself as a terrified, unloved child. I did what many South Asians families do – pretended it never happened. Until I couldn’t pretend any more.
It’s been a horribly painful journey for three years. I’ve suffered debilitating anxiety and depression.
I grieve over my lost childhood, for not having the one thing kids need: a secure, protective loving home.
I grieve for parents, the sort of parents who insist that you come home for the weekend, fussing over you to the point of irritation. Sometimes, I see older women on the street & the pain of my mother’s loss punches me in the gut.
So you see, having escaped across all those thousands of miles, I haven’t really managed to escape my life. Therapy and self-reflection revealed layers of pain that I have been running away from my whole life.
It feels like a limb has been chopped off, and I’m all bloody stump. Red, raging, fresh, raw. But I’m learning to do what I’ve never done before: face the pain, not run from it.
Through all the pain, the one thing that helped me was talking to other women about our common struggles and victories, our pain and our joy. And that’s what inspired me to create Masala Monologues - I wanted to create a space for stories from South Asian women, real stories that reflect our real lives. Nothing gives me as much joy as watching our stories emerge. Stories from our culture, stories that we haven’t really had the space to tell.
Someone asked me recently about why I choose to work around British Asian female power & sexuality? My answer: because I can. And because that little girl cowering under the bed in that Mumbai slum wouldn’t have dared even imagine this was possible.
I never did as I was told. I didn’t go away quietly into the night. And I don’t intend to.----------
Doing the Kamasutra, by Sangeeta Pillai
I was 38 years old and needed to get laid.
I was recently divorced and had only slept with one man for 9 years. In fact, my ex-husband was my third ever lover. Before you shout stuck-up virgin to my face, hear me out. I’m Indian.
Yes, I’m Indian. Now if you happen to be Indian or know someone who is, you’ll know what that means. We don’t have sex. Despite the fact that we make more babies than most other countries in the world, we pretend we don’t have sex. And as Indian women, sex is something we’re not supposed to even think about.
I was brought up to believe that just one brazen sex act was equal to eternal ruination and a lifetime of sobbing over my illegitimate children - just like those sad heroines in old Bollywood movies. So I kept my legs closed and my lust contained. Like a good little Indian girl.
Until the day I found myself divorced and single, and living in the UK: the land of booze-fuelled casual hook-ups. I was so impressed to see the women I worked with get totally smashed at the pub after work and go off with the first available man. (Yes I did judge them at first thanks to my super traditional Indian upbringing, sorry, but that soon turned to envy.) These women got to just have orgasms… whenever they felt like it. Amazing!
So finally, after my divorce, I decided to get me some of this liberated and wonderful sex that was on offer all around me.
These people are helping to fund Masala Monologues.
Yentl Y. Alam