The afternoon sun lights up the colonnaded chequerboard-marbled hallways of the Rambagh Palace, Jaipur. Built in 1835 as the residence of the queen’s favourite handmaiden, it later became home to Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II and his queen, Jaipur’s most famous royal, the glamorous Maharani Gayatri Devi, who captured hearts and headlines from Mumbai to New York. The ‘people’s maharani’, years ahead of her time, delighted in defying convention and making her voice heard. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that I am here on a crisp, pre-pandemic January afternoon to meet three women who are also unafraid to speak their minds: the writers Elizabeth Gilbert, who with Eat, Pray, Love (Bloomsbury) shook up the somewhat staid genre of travel writing by delving within; Leïla Slimani, the literary sensation whose Lullaby (Faber & Faber) won her France’s highest literary honour, the Prix Goncourt; and newcomer Avni Doshi, whose Girl In White Cotton (HarperCollins) was hailed as one of last year’s most illuminating debuts. Gilbert is the first to arrive, greeting me with a warm “Hi, I’m Liz.” Doshi breezes in next, lively and zoned-in. Slimani comes straight from representing her country at a diplomatic meeting (she’s also the personal representative of the French president Emmanuel Macron to the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie). Over the next hour, at a time when we have not yet been forced to contend with COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown, Gilbert, Slimani and Doshi reveal why they write what they do, why honest women are to be feared, and why, when wielded correctly, the power of literature is universal.
Neville Bhandara: What drew you to writing?
Avni Doshi: I’ve always been drawn to storytelling and I love to read, so writing came naturally—it was something that felt private and intimate and allowed for that feeling of expression I’d looked for my whole life.
Leïla Slimani: Before I was a writer, I was an admirer of writers—of [Charles] Baudelaire, [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky and [Gustave] Flaubert. When I was young, I thought that the life of a writer was fascinating—their days were full of passion and adventure, and they lived like rock stars. I wanted to live that way. But now that I am a writer, I write to say the things that aren’t allowed, to anger people, to disturb them...but more than anything, I write to have the right to be impolite.
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