“I will NOT read it,” says Bins, throwing the book down on the table between us. It’s Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Selector of Souls. “Yes, you will,” I say. “You need to wake up. It’s like an alarm clock for the spirit. It will make you angry. It will make you sad. It will make you thoughtful.”

Bins groans and clutches his head. “Why can’t you just tell me the story?” “Because it’s one of those books that uses an unusual character to carry the narrative load,” I say. “In order to appreciate the author’s ideas, you have to look through that character’s eyes and see the world from her perspective.” Bins groans some more. “You make it sound like medicine!” But it’s not, I tell him. Instead it’s like being a tourist, visiting the foreign country of another person’s life.

The story unfolds via the perspectives of two very different Indian women. One is urban, young and wealthy, the other is semi-rural, dirt poor and prematurely old. It is this second one, Damini, whose perspective is presented with unusual sympathy and insight. “For instance, you, Bins, would find it very hard to squeeze yourself down to fit inside the frame of a small, thin woman with hennaed hair —” The question in his face is this: why would he bother? What makes it worthwhile?

“Because she’s heroic,” I say. “Because she’s interesting. Because she’s complex. AND she’s a poor, underprivileged woman, struggling to hold her head up in a culture that likes to keep its women crushed underfoot.” Bins quirks an eyebrow. “So ... it’s a feminist novel?” I shrug. “I would say it’s humanist rather than rigidly feminist.” For instance, at a certain point in the story, the author seems to suggest that it would be kinder for all concerned if poor, underprivileged women could use the magic of ultrasound sex-determination to save themselves the terrible burden of bearing daughters whom they cannot afford to raise.

“Are you saying you think that too?” asks Bins. It’s illegal in India, after all. “Well,” I say, “I do really think it’s atrocious that rich women can bribe their doctors to select the sex of their children, but poor women cannot. It’s dreadfully unfair that the very women who are least able to feed their too-many children, also have the least access to sex selection. I believe the author just wants to show us how cruel the system is. How much in need of compassionate overhaul.” She doesn’t condone the actions of her heroine but she’s clearly deeply sympathetic. As we should all be.

Bins picks up the book again now. “Is that all it’s about?” he wants to know. It’s a fairly hefty volume, almost 550 pages long in paperback. I click my tongue. “No, no — of course there’s much more to it! The other protagonist, Anu, has a lot of life-complications to overcome, such as an abusive husband and her own confusions. There’s an underlying mysticism combined with a free and flexible interpretation of theology. Plus a flickering of ugly saffron politics in the background.”

He’s about to open the book when he stops. “How about some tea?” he asks. “Coming right up,” I say.

Manjula Padmanabhan , author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US in this weekly column

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