Why Priya Alika Elias wrote a book about being a ‘besharam’ Indian woman

Priya Alika Elias’s frequent tweets to her more than 34,000 followers discuss everything from her trying experiences in modern dating to IUD insertion to female friendships. Her collection of essays, Besharam, expands upon many of the themes Elias has been candidly tweeting about for years.

The essays cover the decade Elias spent in the US studying and working as well as the years since she moved back to India. They explore both positive and negative interactions with men, body image and eating disorders, the challenges of being friends with someone in a toxic relationship, popular culture’s influence on women’s self-perception, being a brown, upper middle-class woman, and debilitating parenting practices in India amongst others.

She spoke to Scroll.in about being led by honesty in the writing process, how women can begin to take up more space in the world, how she’s frequently asked for advice by other young women, the dearth of self-sufficiency in India, and what the word “besharam” means to her. Excerpts from the interview:

When did you start writing Besharam? Which of the essays in the collection were the first to be written? I am interested in what a collection of essays (on topics as wide-ranging as male entitlement and black sheep offspring in India) looked like in the early stages.
I wrote it a year ago – in three months, which is quite fast, but that’s because some of these essays have been years in the making. I’ve been thinking about essays like “Dump Him” and “India’s Sons” for years! I knew that I wanted to address a wide range of topics, based on my personal experience with love, body image, culture and racial identity. I gave myself free rein: all I wanted to do was be honest.

Could you walk us through the process of arranging the essays into a coherent collection?
I have always been interested in the dark side of Indian culture. That is to say, the shame, ugliness, and rot that exists just below the smooth surface.

David Lynch once said: “My childhood was picket fences, blue skies, red flowers, and cherry trees – but then I would see millions of little ants swarming on the cherry tree, which had pitch oozing out of it.” I think Indian society is rather similar: we cover up everything that we don’t want to see. Sex, mental illness, anything that’s unsavoury. So, I wrote about the truths that we don’t want to confront as Indian women: that is the only real theme that ties the essays. I didn’t need any other.

When I think of the word “besharam”, surprisingly I also think of “nirbheek” and “nirbhay” – both of which mean fearless. I wonder if there are similar positive and perhaps contradictory associations in your mind when you hear the word “besharam”?
When I think of a besharam woman, I think of someone who isn’t paying attention to what people think. Which is always scary, of course. I think of impudence, of fearlessness, yes – and of being slightly set apart from society. That is intriguing, and both positive and negative in its associations.

I was struck by the way some of the essays echoed conversations I’ve had with my friends – if not in exact content, then in tone and format. What did you have in mind with respect to audience and readers as you wrote Besharam?
I’ve read so many books of (excellent) essays by white women writers, but not so many by brown women. That’s why I wanted to tackle the form. I love Joan Didion as much as the next woman, but she’s not relatable to me – I wanted to write a book that was deeply relatable to a girl that wasn’t white, wasn’t living in New York, who was struggling with her link to brown culture.

In an interview, you brought up a Malayalam saying, “adakkam odakkum”, which you said means, “a good woman sitting in the corner, occupying as little space as possible”. At a time when we’re being encouraged to take up more space, what are some small ways of beginning that process?
Well, it’s insanely difficult to unlearn the cultural diktat of “take up less space”. But I think it has to start with our voices. I think we have to start speaking more. It’s so difficult to get Indian women to break their silence: most of us are never taught that we have anything worthy to say in the first place. Teach schoolgirls to be more vocal and pushier. Teach young women to be loud.

I don’t want to sound too much like Sheryl Sandberg, but we have to Lean In at the workplace. We need to speak up, to tell men “actually, that was my idea”. We need to be more assertive regarding wage discussions. All of these things are difficult, yes, but we can support each other when men oppose us. Strength in numbers, always.

There’s an essay in the collection, “The Story About An Air-Conditioner”, about self-sufficiency in the West versus the dependence of the upper middle-class in India on domestic help for a variety of tasks. Would you talk to us a little about what self-sufficiency might have to offer to upper middle-class Indian women in particular?
I noticed it when I came back to India. Suddenly, I was in a cocoon of privilege. I no longer had to cook all my meals, or carry heavy bags of groceries, or clean my own bathroom. I could outsource all these tasks. But I missed the freedom that I had in America, where I did things myself for 10 years.

I think self-sufficiency is a great gift. When you know that you can do things for yourself, that you’re not reliant on a system – that’s invaluable. Upper middle-class women would do well to give their domestic help some time off and try doing tasks on their own.

Parts of the book is written as advice and rallying calls for women. How do you navigate, as a person and as a writer, the (potentially) tricky terrain of giving advice?
I didn’t set out to give advice, initially. I started tweeting and found – much to my surprise – that people were asking me for advice. Loads of people, particularly young women. I don’t think I’m particularly qualified to give advice, but I do speak honestly about my experiences.

I wanted to give brown women the advice that it’s okay to put yourself first. That’s really the most important advice I could give. I’m not preaching selfishness, but it’s vital that we hear this message. After all, everyone else preaches sacrifice to us. And we don’t have any mentors – for instance, who can a young girl ask about sex? Not her mother, or her aunties. Perhaps a big sister, if she’s lucky. We desperately lack guidance, and I hoped to fill that gap when I wrote my book.

What is it like to have the book out in the world?
It’s a little scary, to be honest. This is an intensely personal book, after all, and I’m writing about things like my history of eating disorders. People can read the book and have access to my thoughts – I struggled with how much I wanted to reveal. But in the end, my need to speak openly won out. I’m so glad that it’s published, and that the women who are reading it can relate! That’s all I ever wanted.


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