Best-selling author Ratna Vira’s books hold up a mirror to contemporary society. In her first book, Daughter by Court Order, the protagonist Aranya discovers that her family has been fighting a decade-long legal battle over her grandfather’s expansive estate, all the while not only keeping her in the dark, but also keeping her very existence out of the court’s knowledge!
The book is about how Aranya musters the strength to fight for her rights. She stands up to her own mother, a woman who has never treated her well, and from whom she has had to endure nothing but curses and abuses.
Her second novel deals with the issue of bullying that teenagers are often subject to. We spoke to the author about her writing process, her inspiration and how she deals with, and portrays difficult but important societal issues.
Read some excerpts of our conversation with the author below:
1. What was the process of writing Daughter by Court Order like? Though the book is fictional, you have spoken about your own experiences with gender discrimination. How did you come to terms with your experiences when putting pen to paper?
I was a first time author, and it was extremely intense. The story was close to my heart, and it was also an amalgam of many stories I had heard. I had come across these kinds of stories in the corporate world and through interacting with other mothers in my children’s school.
The case I wrote about isn’t uncommon. It is an issue that has affected many lives. Women were hesitant to talk about it, but it hits a raw nerve.
I discovered that patriarchy has no bank balance. These issues exist even in the most seemingly progressive and educated families.
I respect my readers, and feel that I have to give them thoroughly researched books
I have been writing for a while. But it took two years for the book to go from desk to shelf. It required focus, and a lot of hard work.
2. What is the one message you would like your readers to get after reading the book?
Courage of conviction. Standing up for what they believe in. Not giving up on themselves. I want women to know that it is very tough to write off a daughter in today’s India.
I want the book to be a call to action. You have to become the new norm to create a new norm.
3. How has life changed after Daughter by Court Order got published?
I am thrilled with the reaction it got, and that encouraged me to write my second book. My children are very proud of me and that makes me smile. I have made new friends, spoken at University of Cambridge, and Oxford. More exposure has led to some really great friendships.
4. The book deals with property rights in India. What kinds of legal research did you do and how did you translate complex matters into readable fiction? What kind of research did you do for your second book, which deals with bullying?
Court cases are complex and boring. The research I did was detailed, and took time. I met with lots of lawyers. I respect my readers, and feel that I have to give them thoroughly researched books.
My second book has a 15-year-old boy as the protagonist. To get the schoolboy’s lingo right, I spent hours and many weekends with school children. I also wanted to understand the stress and increasing rates of depression I found in teenagers. I even went to a hospital, and sat in the lobby to feel the pulse of what happens when people are frantic.
5. Your book explores a unique relationship between a mother and a daughter. So much has been written valorising the mother-daughter bond. But you have turned it on its head. Can you speak more on this?
Typically in India, the mother is a deity and put on a pedestal. She is portrayed as forgiving and sacrificing. Then I come up with a book in which a mother is the anti-hero, the villain and the embodiment of patriarchy. In her public space she is educated, page 3, almost a feminist, but within her personal space, the way she treats her daughter is like a bad Hindi movie. That caught the attention of people.
What’s more is that I discovered that patriarchy has no bank balance. These issues exist even in the most seemingly progressive and educated families
There is a lot of research in America that has been done about the ‘malicious mother syndrome’. Mothers can be different. While I was writing, I came across many people whose stories had shades of what I write about. These kinds of cases are not unusual in India but they are taboo. People are uncomfortable talking about it – and that is what made it interesting.
People had said these kinds of characters do not exist, then Sheena Bora happened.
6. What was the idea behind your second book? What did you hope to accomplish through this book?
I try and hold up a mirror to society and contemporary India. I wanted to explore the tussle between education and exposure, with the stress of marks and being a teenager in modern India.
I am horrified by teenage suicide, and have seen how stressed parents and children are nowadays. Parents are constantly planning, but they never ask their kids what they are interested in. If you want kids to be something they are not, it has a negative result.
Most writers who want to tell a story that is unconventional will face opposition from vested interests. I am aware that my writings have also been subject to this
Often times parents don’t get what is happening. You can live in the same house and occupy different spaces.
At the same time, my books are books of courage, hope and happy endings. If you persist there is a happy ending.
7. What project are you working on next? What advice would you have for aspiring women writers, especially those who want to write on controversial topics.
I am working on another book which is completely different. I am going to surprise my readers with it. With each book I try and challenge myself. However, it will still be a story of hope, courage and will have a happy ending. Hope, courage and happy endings are my trademark, you could say.
For anyone who wants to write — persistence and focus are important. Having a story and believing in yourself is key.
Most writers who want to tell a story that is unconventional will face opposition from vested interests. I am aware that my writings have also been subject to this. And yet I have persisted and am overwhelmed by the response of my readers and am grateful to my readers for their support.
8. Can you tell us about the other women in your books?
Power structures are laid on society based on relationships. People use these power equations in a manner in which it is taken for granted that certain people will have power over others.
An example of this is the relationship of a woman with her sister-in-law, and mother-in- law. It is taken for granted that the woman on the receiving end will be subservient. The case of the sister-in-law is more unusual. It is actually very real and not talked about. In my book, I try and portray two generations of sisters-in-laws.
The sisters-in-laws in my books have colourful pasts, they pretend to be nice, but they are manipulative. They want their own share through marriage. They are less inclusive than the previous generation because education and access to a better life can sometimes vet your appetite for more. Education can be used to circumvent the law. Access to information can be used badly.
Society has to hold people accountable. There needs to be more checks and balances.