Memoir: Return to India

Shoba Narayan (MHC Foreign Fellow ’86-88) came to America to study all the subjects she never got to back home in India–theater with Jim Cavanaugh, music composition with Allan Bondi, and sculpture with Leonard DeLonga. Like many others before her, she fell under the spell of DeLonga’s unorthodox teaching methods, and took up sculpture full-time. Shoba then went on to pursue an MFA in sculpture, followed by a journalism degree from Columbia University. She writes about food, travel, fashion, art and culture for many publications, including Condenast Traveler (US edition), The National, Financial Times, Destinasian, Gourmet, Time and Silkroad,  among others.  She is the  author of  Monsoon Diary: a memoir with recipes (2003: Random House). which was a finalist for a James Beard Award.  Her latest book, Return to India, an excerpt of which appears below, was just published by Rupa Press and is available via  Shoba currently lives with her husband and daughters in India.

Quatrina Hossain came to receive me at Bradley International Airport. I’ll never forget her. She herded the three international students who were arriving on different flights into the van that Mount Holyoke had sent. Q, as she introduced herself, was from Pakistan and chatted brightly about the college and life there during the forty-five minute drive to South Hadley. With me was Emilie Ngongijol from Cameroon, and again, it is funny how vividly I remember her. We stared outside at the fading sunlight and the unvarying green scenery bordering the highway. It was dark when we reached the college.

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Essay: Why the Annihilation of Women Doesn’t Anger The World

Rita Banerji ’90 is an author, photographer, and gender activist. She is the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign, a global lobby that raises international awareness about the ongoing female genocide in India.  Born and raised in India, Rita has also lived in the US where she attended Mount Holyoke College and later The George Washington University.   Her work has been recognized by The American Association for Women in Science, The Botanical Society of America, The Charles A. Dana Foundation, and The Howard Hughes Foundation. Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies (Penguin Books, 2008), a historical study of the relationship between sex and power in India, and how it has led to the ongoing female genocide in India, was long-listed for The Vodaphone-Crossword Non- Fiction Book Award (India). She is also the recipient of a 2009 Apex Award for Magazine and Journal Writing (USA) for her articles on gender issues. Her website is

In another two decades, India will have annihilated 20 percent of its female population. To get an estimate of how many women that would be, add up the entire populations of Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Portugal. In less than a century, more than 50 million women have been targeted simply for being female and wiped out from India.  Millions have been killed before birth. Millions killed as infants. Millions killed as little girls. Thousands killed as new brides. Thousands killed as they are forced through repeated, back-to-back, unsafe abortions  to get rid of girls.  Thousands more killed for so-called “honor” or branded as “witches” and mob lynched. And many burnt alive as widows on the pyres of their husbands. Killed at every stage of life–simply for being female! There is no other human group in history that has been persecuted and annihilated on this scale. So, how did the world close its eyes to this?

I don’t ask this question lightly, for I have asked it of myself first. How could I, a woman born and raised in India, have remained blind to this all my life? It’s a question that caused me tremendous angst and put me through a year long process of soul-searching, and eventually culminated in my founding The 50 Million Missing in December 2006  – a global campaign to end the genocide.

One of the incidents that my deliberation uncovered remains like a thorn in my soul, and I recount it here with much shame. It is an incident from my college days in the United States, and involves the Nobel Laureate, Dr. Amartya Sen, who had first used the term “missing” for the women who had been eliminated from India’s population. This is where the ‘Missing’ in my campaign’s title comes from. In 1986, Dr. Sen first raised the alarm on what his study revealed to be an abnormally high skewing of the normal, biological gender ratio in the populations of India and China. At that time he estimated that 37 million women who should have been a part of the populace of India, could not be accounted for.  Despite that forewarning, the number of “missing” or eliminated females has continued to rise at an alarming rate.

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