Often, the literary world tends to be so heavily dominated by male voices that it is easy to overlook the presence of female voices. This was true across the board, but the reality cut a little too close to home when I thought of Indian female authors. However, the time is changing, and we have seen quite a few Indian female writers seeing the light. At Least the pandemic has been a boon to the Indian authors’ community. One such book that was released during the Pandemic is Omana, written by Vanaja Pillai.
A confused and memory-loss Omana flits between multiple worlds as she struggles to cope with a permanent state of confusion. Sam begins her career with talent but also with an unhealthy dose of anxiety. When faced with yet another situation where her boundaries are challenged, Tapsee recalls every moment of humiliation and anger. After many years of marriage, Gita feels ready to divorce her husband. On her way to achieving greatness, young Valli battles her lack of English proficiency. Her love of good food clashes with her love of God, while Prabha strives to balance. With the changes that have occurred in the world over the last decade, women have found themselves facing new challenges as well as old ones. There are fifteen stories in this book, and they acknowledge the struggles we all face – no matter how big or small. Before our girls see a semblance of fairness, we have such a long way to go.
Vanaja Pillai speaks with Meghana Harikumar of The Balcony Stories about her newly published Omana, as well as her journey as a writer.
Below are the excerpts from the interview…
Tell us about yourself.
I spent 22 years in marketing and advertising before I decided to take a step back from a business role and focus on gender parity as a goal. Thankfully, DDB, the advertising agency I was working with, allowed me to create and run their India-specific women’s leadership program. Through the pandemic, I have had the good fortune of working with some of the best talents in the company towards achieving their personal and professional goals and getting DDB India on the path to more gender equity.
In that journey, I got the time to reflect on minor instances, stories, anecdotes that I had stored in the recesses of my mind over the years, and Omana happened.
What inspired you to write Omana?
The desire for a better world for girls when my nine-year-old niece grows up and ‘adults’! A few years ago, I had actively started thinking about what I could do to catalyze the movement towards gender parity – it is happening, but painfully slowly. I had been reflecting on the experiences we go through as women, and Omana started taking shape. After the first few stories were written, I realized that they told essential but straightforward stories about the real challenges in women’s lives across demographics. That’s what motivated me to keep writing and then publish.
How did growing up surrounded by women influence this novel?
Being close to the many women in my life – my mother, sisters, nieces, friends, colleagues, and now even young daughters of friends and family – gave me a view of the different lives women lead. What borrowing from their stories did was to keep it real.
One of the most common responses I have got on Omana is how relatable the stories are; that one would relate to at least a few of the stories and feel like you know the characters or recognize them in your lives. That ability to be rooted in simple but real lives came from the women in my life.
How similar or different do you think every woman’s story of life is?
I think the challenges are similar sometimes, but each story is unique and different. It is as much about the individual woman’s experiences, conditioning, strengths, weaknesses, coping mechanisms, and instincts – as it is about the generic problems they may face.
Many of the men who read the book have spoken about how surprised and shocked they were with some of the stories – ‘does that happen’ is a question I get often. So there are many, many nuances and depths that people don’t know about. We must tell more of these stories and tell them more often.
How did you go about settling on these women characters in Omana?
The first few just happened. I reflected on experiences that stayed with me – mine and others’ – and built around that. For example, the title story Omana is my interpretation of what my mother went through during the last months of her life battling dementia and memory loss. Or the one on harassment is a collection of experiences from many women I know. Then there were themes I was keen on exploring – like domestic abuse and living the life of an adopted girl, and I tried putting myself in the protagonist’s skin and finding moments of truth. Some of the stories are inspired by conversations I have had with my house help. It was a genuinely enriching experience bringing these women to life!
There have been other works that have aimed at reclaiming the narratives of women in the world and spoken of their struggle in life. So how does Omana set itself apart from these?
I feel like the stories in Omana hinge on the ordinary, almost celebrating the mundane. This is because they are about everyday people. Typically any work of fiction needs something extraordinary – a character, a situation, an incident – to warrant its telling. Omana delves into what has been ordinary in women’s lives for a long, long time and perhaps shouldn’t be.
That said, women’s narratives do not get their fair share in the sun. They must. I enjoy reading every new perspective and story I can get my hands on.
What are you working on next?
There has been a non-fiction book in the making for a long time. However, we don’t know much about the many women living successful corporate careers, whose personal journeys and struggles. So I thought it might be interesting to equip younger women coming into the workforce with those experiences but from a personal lens.
And of course, I do want to do the following fifteen short stories about other incredible women. But, this time, I want to step out of my immediate circle and explore new stories and maybe even make me uncomfortable.