In Meghna Pant’s new book, The Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Good News, comedy becomes a potent tool for delving into complicated issues that pervade a woman’s existence today. From marriage to motherhood, the book’s protagonist Ladoo finds herself grappling with tough questions, as she finds herself in a stifling situation. Post her divorce, as a thirty-four-year-old woman, her biological clock is ticking. Desperate for a baby, she’s told that she needs to find a sperm donor as soon as possible. Thus begins her journey to find one. As she grapples with her circumstances, many contemporary feminist concerns arise, especially regarding a woman’s own authority over her body and the society’s perception of a woman’s autonomy. Soon to be seen as a major motion picture Badnam Ladoo, Meghna Pant’s new book is an indispensable read. We’re in conversation with her below:
What is your first memory of writing?
I was 19. Heartbroken that a guy I liked didn’t like me back. I wrote a short story called Aberration, where a woman rapes a man! It was published by a website named freshlimesoda. I learnt that all creativity stems from a wound that doesn’t heal. That in loss, there’s always something to be gained.
Since you’re a journalist and a fiction writer, does one affect the other?
It’s easy as a writer to shut myself from the world around me, which is ironic because the world is what I write about. Being a journalist forces me to keep seeing what’s out there. It keeps my curiosity alive; helps me break things apart and put them together again.
After all these years and books, how would you describe your relationship with writing today?
That’s a great question. I think that writing and I are like old lovers now. We can pick spinach off each other’s teeth and still kiss each other on the mouth. There are no walls, no pretense. I can be myself around it. I can reveal who I truly am, and still be loved. That’s freedom. That’s true love.
What inspired The Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Good News?
I was 33. Childless. Single. In India, this was a crime worse than murder. Landmines were planted everywhere to remind me of my failure. A casual comment at a party about how women cannot conceive after 35. An interrogation at a wedding about why I didn’t have children at ‘this age’. A colleague spinning a cautionary tale about women who ‘defy nature’. It didn’t matter that I’d had a good career, travelled the world, survived an abusive relationship, published two books, and won awards. I wasn’t woman enough until I had a child.
So, I spent the next three years torturing myself. I’d gape at mothers with babies and cry. I’d take folic acid because it improved fertility. I’d go on dates in search of a man who’d be a good father instead of a good husband. I spend my 35th birthday locked up in my room, weeping, because I was convinced that it was too late for me to ever have a child. Fortunately, that year I met a wonderful man. The next year we got married. Almost immediately, I was pregnant. No one was more shocked than I was. After all the cautionary tales I’d been fed my entire life, of the difficulty older women have conceiving, I’d braced myself for futility. Even more surprisingly, my pregnancy was smooth. I travelled. I went out. I swam. I shot a show about inspiring women. I wrote books and articles. I went on stage. I collected an award. I debated on TV news panels. I worked till the day of my delivery.
I had a normal birth ten days after I turned 37. Two years later I got pregnant again and gave birth six months before my 40th birthday. Having been warned ample times of chromosomal abnormalities in late pregnancies, I held my breath till I was done counting both my daughter’s ten little fingers and ten little toes. This led me to the obvious question: Was everything I’d been told about pregnancy and fertility a lie? It would seem so. That’s why I wrote about Ladoo, the protagonist of this novel. To debunk everything we’ve been taught about motherhood, marriage and the biological clock.
What is at the core of this book?
I want women to know that my body, my rules, applies to each and every one of them. Let no one tell you if you should have children, when you should have them, how you should have them, and what to do after you have them. Society is opinionated about everything a woman does with her body — from the way she chooses to dress, pleasure herself, to the hours she occupies in public space, to her biological clock –– and yet assumes a wide distance when a woman’s body is beaten, raped, mutilated or killed, just because she’s a woman. Fuck that hypocrisy. Your body, your choice. That’s the main theme of the book.
What guided your decision to employ comedy, a first in your creative oeuvre so far, as a tool to explore the heavy feminist concerns in this book?
I owe my first attempt at comedy to two things. First, the pandemic, our unexpected visitor that overstayed its welcome so much, it may be Indian, not Chinese. It converted me into a banana-bread-baking bank-robber-look-alike, wallowing in such gloom, that I was left too exhausted to write anything but comedy. I was doing so much heavy-lifting with a one-month-old baby and a three-year-old toddler, that laughter was the only thing throwing my COVID-life into sharp relief.
Secondly, weary of seeing strong and powerful women portrayed as crazy, screechy, vampy bitches (or, nowadays, ghosts!) in our movies, I wrote Ladoo’s character to show that a strong and powerful woman is usually just a normal, regular and even funny family gal. Because women can be funny without being fools.
Compared to your previous books, how was this book’s creation different?
Let me be honest. The Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Good News is the easiest book I’ve ever written. It gestated inside me for three years, and then just flowed out, initially as a 20-page story, then as a screenplay, and finally as a novel. It took me a few months to put together, as compared to the years it’s taken me to write my other works of fiction. I’ve also never had such an enthusiastic reception to a book. From the publishers, to the movie producers, to Audible that’s bringing out the audio book, the response has been phenomenal! I think everyone needs a laugh nowadays.
Any words for your readers?
Please sit back and laugh. You deserve it.
The last time I had the privilege of interviewing you, it was for your book Feminist Rani in 2018. I had asked about your personal views about the Indian brand of feminism. From then, where you do you think feminism in India is heading now?
Women have suffered the most in this awful pandemic. Feminism has gone from creating awareness to creating empathy. We need to focus on women’s mental health. The toll on their physical, emotional and financial well-being during and post the pandemic. And, on creating eco-systems that enable more and more women to get back into the labour force, once this madness is behind us.
Lastly, how have you been coping with the pandemic and what are you working on next?
Thanks for asking. The first month of the pandemic was awful. We were all dealing with a new reality, a new normal and a new way of living. Amidst juggling a postpartum body, sleepless nights, breastfeeding, keeping my toddler engaged, running a nuclear family home, being caged indoors and keeping my family safe, I was completely overwhelmed.
I had no option but to be strong. If I fell apart, my family would. Now I’ve stopped trying to be a superwoman. I let things slip. I eat that chocolate cake. I ask for help. I take me-time every single day. I follow all safety measures. I help whoever I can, especially those who’ve been affected with COVID. I pray for everyone’s safety and health. I just want to take one day at a time. And be as kind as I can. To others, and to myself. I have two more novels in the offing. Boys Don’t Cry and a young-adult novel, both of which should be out next year, and are being considered for movie adaptations.
Text Nidhi Verma