• Work Hard, Live Your Freedom: Writer Anuradha Beniwal

    Anuradha Beniwal is a young writer — the author of Azaadi Mera Brand — and chess champion, who isn’t afraid to tell it like it is, and passionately advocates for girls to step out and make shady places less so. Tracing a journey from Rohtak to London, she calls out sexism and prejudice where she sees it, whether it’s in her extended family or friends’ circles, or even living in London, playing chess.

    1) We had quite an interesting, lively session on mansplaining and misogyny at the Jaipur Lit Fest! It’s been widely reported upon, but I wanted to ask you your key take-aways, or any interesting reactions you got from what you said was your first panel discussion?

    It was lovely to be on the same panel with women rights stalwarts like Ruchira (Gupta), Bee (Rowlatt), Antara (Ganguli) and yourself, honestly I wanted to be in the audience and hear you all take on the patriarchy so prevalent in our society. But I was there with you girls and I got the opportunity to share my journey as a girl chess player in Haryana and in London. I will say here what I missed on the panel, I was Haryana state champion in all my age groups from under 8 to under 18, and because there were very few girls to have a separate girls tournament, I played with the boys. In 10 years I didn’t even draw a single game, forget losing. For the boys playing against me the pressure was not just to win a match but also to not lose to a girl! They tried doubly hard, I fought against their game and their mindset. This is what gender-stereotyping does to us, it makes it hard for all genders.

    For the boys playing against me the pressure was not just to win a match but also to not lose to a girl! They tried doubly hard, I fought against their game and their mindset. This is what gender-stereotyping does to us, it makes it hard for all genders.

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    For me traveling to tournaments in different states is not just traveling, it is so much more. You not only fight your own demons of traveling alone and winning competitions but also the demons outside, you fight the stares on the road, inappropriate touches in the bus and more. All of that after you have been received in the world as an ‘extra’ in wait for a boy child. There is no welcome no celebration, no joy in your presence, when you’re considered a responsibility, “bojh” on your family, then excelling in what you do becomes a mammoth task.

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    So far, I have only received very positive and encouraging response from the people who came across our views on the panel. But that’s only first step, real challenge is to inculcate those views in our everyday life.

    1 a) You mention this story about your father got “consolation” messages when your younger sister was born. What does he say about that, and what does she say?

    Call it sheer luck that my dad is a feminist and what is feminism? I can’t say if he knew the word “feminism” but he loved my mother, they were happy to have a child and didn’t care of the gender. There is immense pressure from friends, family and others who have no concern with you otherwise but would like for you to have a son. It’s insane! My parents had me and were happy to have a healthy child, they tried to shield me from the society which is so dismissive of girls.

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    Once my tauji (uncle) said to my dad, “mari nahi abhi tak, kharcha karwa ke maanegi!” (Is she (me) not dead yet, she is going to cause an expense!)

    It’s a common Haryanvi banter directed towards girls. My dad retorted saying, “Why isn’t his son dead yet!” My tauji was so upset after that, he didn’t speak to my dad for months. Things like this, they are funny in pieces, but put together it makes the girls feel like an unwanted, extra in the society. Her confidence goes down and she tries to prove her existence worth by making everyone happy. She is making up for the grief she caused by her birth.

    Once my tauji said to my dad, “Mari nahi abhi tak, kharcha karwa ke maanegi!” (Is she (ie me) not dead yet, she is going to cause an expense!)

    I saw little girls praying for bothers and sacrificing their share of milk (willingly!) because she was made aware of the hierarchy in patriarchal society form the very beginning. My dad tried his best to keep me away from this.

    Writer, chess champion Anuradha Beniwal

    When my sister was born, my dad distributed sweets. His friends were upset, because they missed a party (birth of a boy means celebration and parties). The whole structure was so dismissive of girls, it wasn’t easy to escape. And then these is a constant struggle to prove your worth, to make those people proud and say “girls are no less”!

    2) Tell me a little bit more about your book Azaadi Mera Brand — in conversation you had mentioned a bit about how liberating travel can be, but how for middle-class Indians, it’s still seen as a luxury, perhaps, and certainly not something that the average Indian girl would do solo?

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    As a child I travelled for tournaments — I associated travelling with stress and pressure to perform. When I quit professional chess, I found how relaxing travelling can be, when I travelled without a purpose or a goal. I was so sick of “goals” anyway! My first travel was just to take a break from work and relationship, it was only when I met backpackers from various parts of the world, I realised how easy or doable it is! They weren’t rich people, they stayed in the most budgeted hotels, they made money by doing whatever work came their way, and most of them were happy!

    It was a revelation for me! I wanted to do it all my life, there is a high in discovering what a street or a city has in it for you. Not knowing what will you see when you turn right from the next corner is exciting, losing your way in an unfamiliar city, and finding new alleys and streets is liberating. Knowing you will make it in the end by yourself is freedom!

    In my first book Azaadi Mera Brand I write about my first trip to 10 different countries of Europe. I write about the people I stayed with, alleys I got lost in and the food I discovered! It’s not a guide book, I don’t write about the touristy points in a city, I take you to the unassuming streets and real people. I write about the goodness and generosity of the world, how amazing most people are when met on human level. How we are all same, looking for warmth and company, hungry for love and good food!

    I travelled for a little more than a month, I used less than one thousand pounds, and I bought many earrings! The world is safe, kind, easy and cheap!

    3) What are some reader reactions to your book?

    Most of them were amazing but also wondering I did I manage to do it all by myself. No blatant criticism but some accusations of making it all up and hiding my partner (co-traveller) in the background somewhere! Some were unable to accept the fact that a girl could do it herself. It’s funny how for us it’s such a big deal in India, whereas in the west there is hardly any girl you meet who hasn’t travelled alone in her student life.

    It’s funny how for us it’s such a big deal in India, whereas in the west there is hardly any girl you meet who hasn’t travelled alone in her student life.

    Most humbling were letters from girls who said they took a trip alone wafter reading the book. And that’s what I aspired form the book, to encourage middle class Hindi speaking women to travel by themselves, to step out of the threshold created around them by the society or themselves.

    4) As a chess champion, what are two or three things that strike you as unusual — apart from the rarity of women playing competitive chess? You teach chess as well, in London? Any anecdotes you want to share?

    It’s noticeable how few women play chess. I play in the London league, it might as well be called middle aged men league, women have so much more responsibility, coming out to play chess late evenings is a luxury they still cannot afford! I am still to come across a middle aged woman who plays chess for fun. They are either married to chess players or it’s their carrier. We (women) are still a long way from doing stuff for sheer fun of it!

    5) Any 2/3 life hacks or advice you would give women, especially younger women looking at unusual careers?

    Work hard, very very hard! Be independent and earn your own freedom, and live it too. No one will give it to you, it’s yours you will have to find it within you. It’s only when you become fiercely independent economically and emotionally, society will set you free too.