The Madison-based South Asian-American author spins sagas of complex and nuanced women characters fighting patriarchal influences.
Photo: Priti Srivastava, pictured here facing the camera in her headshot, recently published the third book in her series “The Chai House.”
After the terrifyingly close 2020 presidential election, Jamie Priti Gratrix began writing. A South Asian feminist dystopian world had been brewing in her head for years. She had started and abandoned the work several times.
Fueled by anger, her spiritual practice, and National Novel Writing Month, Gratrix, the daughter of Indian immigrants, wrote and edited her debut novel The Chai House. It was released in early December 2020 under the pen name Priti Srivastava, her middle and maiden names. In June, she published the third book in the series, The Ladoo Crew: Feminist Fables From The Chai House.
“I don’t think that the books would have been published had there not been a pandemic,” says Gratrix, who also teaches yoga.
In The Ladoo Crew, government and corporate surveillance, reality TV, and conservative media dominate social norms. A woman named Kavita is tasked with feeding her brother’s right-wing militia-mates and caring for his nine-year-old daughter, Gayatri. Kavita, while fulfilling the traditional feminine Indian stereotype of putting her family before herself, entertains and teaches Gayatri with fables. Meanwhile, Kavita has sent her younger brother on a solo wilderness journey to take up refuge with the Ladoo Crew, a girl gang of elite security and revolutionary fighters.
Gratrix’s feminist fables are akin to Aesop’s Fables and other cosmologies. The stories intertwine the moral themes, animal characters, and natural settings that span cultures. Gratrix didn’t grow up on such Hindu tales, so she invented her own. However, they do feature the goddess Durga, a dynamic feminine presence associated with protection, strength, motherhood, destruction, and wars.
Gratrix describes her book as social fiction, a genre written by women for all audiences. Traditionally, men’s stories have been considered canon, while women’s are considered to be a gender-focused category.
“We really need men to read our stories and understand the pain that we’re going through and the suffering that’s happening,” Gratrix says. Women characters are often portrayed as either one-dimensional, pure, good Snow White characters or as femme fatales, she says.
In The Ladoo Crew, the government has barred women from holding jobs and staying out past curfew. Corporate media designs programming to manipulate them into subservience. At the same time, the super-feminist Ladoo Crew is charged with protecting and training Rebecca Voss, a second-generation reality TV star and the spoiled granddaughter of a technology magnate. Longtime Ladoo Crew member Rashmi begrudgingly guides Rebecca, teaching her first, how to tie knots and later, how to use weapons.
“I wanted to tell a story that shows we’re more than that [stereotype], and the power that we hold is really, really close to reality,” Gratrix says. This portrayal shows women with agency to make choices to change the current systems that cause suffering. That power of choice can be used to help others and affect the bigger picture, she says.
Gratrix wrote her stories to build empathy. The Chai House series is influenced by maitri—also known as metta or loving-kindness—which is a practice of wishing ourselves and others well.
“We all—every single being—deserve to know what it is to feel loved, protected, safe, and free,” Gratrix says. “It’s really easy to just dismiss it if you only read stories about your own culture or you keep your worldview to what you know.”
Abuse is another theme throughout The Chai House series. In the second book, AAM: All About Me, a college student finds herself in an abusive relationship with an older man. Gayatri is treated poorly by her militia toadie brother, who was the target of her father’s abuse, in the new book. Gratrix aims to normalize discussions about abuse so victims can get help leaving these situations with the support of loved ones.
“It’s really important that when someone speaks out about abuse, it’s never their fault—it really is a great act of bravery to say ‘you can’t treat me that way,'” she says.
A main character of the fables, Saaya, is a big, black, nonbinary feline. Saaya hides from hunters, marvels at humans hoarding riches, and becomes a symbol of self-confidence and self-worth. Saaya was inspired by Gratrix’s pandemic adoption kitten, Elroy. Soon after, she adopted Elroy’s mother and watched her teach her son how to be a cat.
Throughout the series, Gratrix digs into family relationships and motivations. The Chai House begins with a young woman in a small, dark cell, remembering the things her grandmother told her to pack and to leave behind before she was sent away for her own safety and for the future good.
Immigrants in many societies face the pressure to assimilate. Elders toil to give their children a good life. Gratrix, who wears a bindi and a mangalsutra—a necklace with similar significance to a wedding ring—has been addressing her own internalized racism in the current political climate.
“Just how much of myself did I push aside to make others comfortable?” Gratrix says. “I wanted to tell a story that there’s more than just fitting in… When we do that, are we making a sacrifice for the greater good—to deny ourselves our full selves?”
Works of fiction by Indian authors and with Indian characters are gaining attention in mainstream literature. The Life And Death Of Vivek Oji by Nigerian-Indian author Akwaeke Emezi tells how a young trans man tries to navigate the world in a traditional environment. Indian author Megha Majumdar’s A Burning jumps between disparate Indian characters’ perspectives on an act of terrorism in and how it affects them. Both books, released in 2020, were New York Times bestsellers.
“I think about how close [the November 2020 election] was every single day. I hope that more and more stories are being told so that we don’t have to live like this anymore,” Gratrix says.
There’s more where this came from.
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