Book Excerpt: ‘I Am What I Am: A Memoir’ by Sunitha Krishnan

Book Title: I Am What I Am: A Memoir
Author: Sunitha Krishnan
Publisher: HarperCollins India
Number of Pages: 294
ISBN: 978-9360452988
Date Published: Jun. 7, 2024
Price: INR 475

I Am What I Am A Memoir by Sunitha Krishnan Book Cover

Book Excerpt


A Paper Tiger

As I spent more time with Laxmi and other women at Majestic, I noticed some new, worrying patterns. More lodges had come up in the area, and many girls from across the country were being continuously brought in. This was mid-1996. The chief minister at that time, a flamboyant man, had openly proclaimed his love for wine and women. I wondered if it was his attitude that had encouraged the sudden spurt in the industry.

I did not have to wonder for long. The Miss World Pageant was set to be held in Bangalore. Lakhs of tourists were supposed to land in the city for the twenty-day event which would end on 23 November. The lodges and the women inhabiting them had risen in anticipation of the flood of tourists at the time—and the corresponding increase in demand for paid sexual services.

This was the first time I saw how prostitution was directly connected to tourism and other industries and events. The visible presence of very young girls was troubling. While I collected the data on the streets on these newer trends, anti-pageant protests broke out in Bangalore with activists across all ideologies joining in for their own reasons. Right-wing activists felt it was against Indian culture, the left felt it was an onslaught of multinational companies. Feminist groups, women’s groups, farmer’s groups, and everybody from all corners participated.

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Bangalore became a war zone, with protests in every part of the city. Every day there were marches, roadblocks, strikes and gheraos. The government came under fire for overtly supporting the pageant and allowing Amitabh Bachchan to speak from the VidhanaSoudha, the state legislative assembly. (Bachchan’s Amitabh BachchanCorporation Limited and Godrej were the main sponsors of this edition of the Miss World pageant.) All this forced the government to impose heavy restrictions on the pageant itself.

For my part, I had developed a strong revulsion to an event that had spiked a manifold increase in prostitution. I was also strongly opposed to the very construct of beauty that such pageants promoted. My work in Samvada had required me to oversee a child sexual abuse helpline. I had spoken to hundreds of teenagers suffering from anorexia nervosa, a psychological condition which compels sufferers to adopt disordered eating practices for the sake of becoming thin.

Who defines the right shape and size? Who decides what is a beautiful skin tone? What are the rules that define physical beauty? I felt these pageants helped create a false construct of attractiveness, aided by various cosmetics brands. And so, I decided to join the protests against the pageant. I remember how, in one of the open forums, a tall and beautiful model was trying to defend the beauty pageant by giving a detailed explanation of the beauty with brains argument. I asked her, ‘I am four feet and six inches in height, my body parts are proportionate, I am reasonably intelligent and I received a gold medal in my master’s. Do you think I can compete in this pageant?’ The stumped look on her face was, for me, all the more reason to deepen my involvement in the protests.

Excerpted with permission from I Am What I Am: A Memoir by Sunitha Krishnan, published by Westland Books.

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