During the launch of her book ‘The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl’ this month in Bangalore, co-author Annie Zaidi talked about a friend in college. Though Annie was close to her friend for three years, she never realised that her friend used to smoke through college even though smoking was banned in campus. It was many years later, when they met again, that Annie came to know about this.
The book by Annie and Smriti Ravindran explains why Good Indian Girls (GIGs, as they are called in the book) have to be ashamed of something as simple as one’s smoking habit, even hiding it from one’s friends. The book weaves together many stories explaining what makes a GIG and its opposite the BIG (Bad Indian Girl).
In the process the book gives almost a comprehensive list of what makes the perfect GIG. GIGs cook, clean, follow rules and most importantly, are happy being so. The perfect GIG is so pristine that she would not even know what rules she can break. A GIG is also good looking, not very ambitious or smart, does not loiter etc. All those who don’t fit the criteria are BIGs.
A story in the book is that of a high school student Reeta. Everyone in the town knows Reeta’s name. This puts aspersions on her character, making her a BIG. A girl who carries more than one mobile phone, talk to boys often or smoke/drink may also be called a BIG.
Annie says that it is the fear of being branded as a BIG that shapes all women’s behaviour. The stories in the book are those that the authors have witnessed, or of people they know, and some gathered through interviews. It is about 80% fiction, says Annie.
The stories are mostly from small towns and cities, of people from middle class and rarely upper middle class.
The stories show the effort that women put in to avoid being branded as bad, often putting up elaborate performances to gloss over their BIGdom. Some are happy breaking rules in very feeble ways, like one character who fantasises about being in love with a movie star while she is married.
The book argues that every woman is aware of social norms and responds to them. For example, it talks about how women use situations where BIGdom is accepted, like the workplace. A woman can be tough at work, or dress any way she wants to if she is an actor, which she cannot do otherwise.
The book also highlights family dynamics – how parents want their daughters to fit in socially, and how daughters conform to please them, despite resenting rules. Even while conforming to norms at home, many find spaces where they can be free – by lying to their parents, or by moving to a different city itself.
An interesting character in the book is the unapologetically BIG Padma. Padma does not worry about having to appear as good – she elopes with her car driver, cheats in exams and goes out with boys after marriage. Though she is harassed and becomes a social outcast, she neither protests nor changes her behaviour.
Annie says of such characters, "We admire such women in secret, but in public we censure them. None of us may be GIGs actually, but the good/bad divide is clear and we distance ourselves from BIGs as much as possible." The book says that a BIG should be "socially amoral and forgive herself soon".
A few stories on sexual abuse show how victims of these crimes are judged and blamed, even by their friends. These women are not seen as innocent anymore and feel betrayed. The book also talk about how marriage is the centre of women’s identity and about women who feel stifled trying to fulfil expectations of spouses and in-laws.
Ultimately the book is about how Indian women continue to be defined by social expectations. Something as innocuous as walking down the street without a ‘good reason’ is still seen as a sign of ‘loose’ character. Until the rules change so that women can just be themselves, women may remain the ‘mystery’ they are said to be.⊕