Lessons in chemistry

When was the last time you were taught lessons in feminism that was easy breezy, devoid of angst and presented with hilarity? I don’t think ever. It’s rather unfortunate that feminism has to be schooled. Also, this isn’t any kind of shade on all those glorious women who have taught feminism with an angry diatribe. Because clearly the world hasn’t been kind to women since time immemorial. And we get a sneak peak into this unjust scheme of things through the book’s main protagonist Elizabeth Zott. The story is about this fierce woman scientist who is never taken seriously because of her gender. Set in the 1950s America, the book takes a hard look at the subordinate and often demeaning outlook of the society towards women then. Elizabeth is passionate about chemistry and struggles to make herself seen in the overwhelming and dismissive world of men. Adversities and inappropriate men force her to switch her career quite reluctantly. From a scientist she soon becomes a television cooking show host. Despite her rather unconventional approach to anchoring, she becomes very popular and women all across America can’t seem to get enough of her show. Because hers is a first show of its kind wherein women are tutored to think they matter; they are important and they are equal. All this whilst cooking up a storm and diligently doling out chemical equations and reactions.

To say this book is unbridled joy would be an understatement. Elizabeth Zott defies all the societal conventions and expectations and still remains an embodiment of womanhood. Her bold choices which if you examine carefully, were just about what mattered to her and what was convenient; can actually trigger the chauvinists and misogynists. Her decision to have a child without being married, to have a live-in partner, to be an atheist, to question authority are just some amongst many reasons which make Elizabeth Zott unique and her own person. She epitomises freedom, equality, independence, intelligence and her actions can inspire women all across the globe to stand up for themselves, to speak up for other women, and to support one other in solidarity.

Bonnie Garmus, the ingenious author and who’s debut book this is, gives us a taut and crisp story that never falters, never slackens its pace and delves deep into feminism while serving a healthy dose of uncanny, straight-faced humour. The author deftly handles complicated and emotional topics of sexual abuse, rape, patriarchy, and childhood trauma. Garmus gives us this iconic character of Elizabeth Zott, who strives for rationality every step of the way. Not just Elizabeth, the book is peppered with various other notable characters. Be it Mad Zott, her daughter who questions the necessity for the hoopla surrounding her status as ‘a child born out of wedlock’; and Harriet the neighbour who forges a rather quirky friendship with Elizabeth and later the same relationship turns out to be a force of strength for both of them. But the most delightful character of them all, has to be the dog, Six Thirty. Bonnie Garmus humanises the dog giving it the most cheeky one liners.

Lessons in chemistry is one of those rare books that will shock you one moment and make you guffaw the next. The fact that women are equal and should be treated with respect, irrespective of their status and stature shouldn’t be taught, rather it should be a no brainer. But here we are, even in 2023, subjecting them to inequality, disrespect and trauma. This book from Garmus is a necessity, rather a compulsory read for everyone to know these invaluable lessons in humanity.

(Psst..can’t wait for Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott!)


The Bride of Amman

📍Jordan 🇯🇴

This debut novel by the Jordanian writer, Fadi Zaghmout, originally written in Arabic (Aroos Amman), later translated into English by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, caused quite a stir when it was released. Understandably so, considering the bold and controversial issues it explores, which are often deemed taboo and blasphemous in the traditional Jordanian society. The story is told through five characters of Leila, Salma, Rana, Hayat and Ali; all living in the capital city, Amman. Through these stories, the author tackles the persistent and pertinent issues of patriarchy, misogyny, chauvinism, incest, rape, sexual abuse, homophobia, widely prevalent in the conservative Arab community. An Arab woman’s worth is equated with her ability to get married at the right age, be a dazzling bride and bear children, especially sons. Her career and education are just an ornament. Zaghmout repeatedly asserts how women have no authority or agency over their own lives and bodies, and their choices are subject to male dominance and approval. Particularly disturbing story is that of Hayat, who is raped and sexually abused by her own father; later chooses promiscuity with multiple married men to escape this horrid truth.

Zaghmout’s narrative is a poignant reflection of contemporary Amman, however, I felt, that at many instances, he has tried to infantilise the grave problems. Hayat, as a rape survivor, is shown to forgive her father for his unpardonable crime. Her choice of being promiscuous seems to be very flippant and it seems as the only way a woman can get over her sexual abuse past. Ali, a closeted Iraqi gay man, gets married to Leila, has a child, and continues to have gay sexual encounters on the sly. Leila later discovers his homosexuality and upon confrontation, chooses to accept her life as his wife, devoid of sex, delves steadfast into her career and turns a blind eye to his indiscretions. In the book, the men are forever exonerated for their crimes and wrongdoings, by the women. There’s always some “logical” reasoning to the way the men have behaved. This almost invisible, subtextual chauvinism can’t be ignored. Also, other than Salma’s story, the others seem to have the proverbial happy ending. This smacks of immature writing.

Majority of Indian gay men remain closeted and continue to have heterosexual marriages and children under the pretext of parental pressure and culture. They also have multiple gay liaisons after marriage with gay abandon (no pun intended) and literally no remorse. Are the Indian women too, like Leila, choosing to not see the obvious because of the pressure to stay married and the stigma of divorce? Or are they truly oblivious?

Though the book is about Ammani women, one can’t miss the fact, how close this hits home. Indian women, are still governed by the cis men around them, and it remains an ongoing struggle for them to establish their equality and agency.