Lalita Iyer’s first book for women titled I Am Pregnant, Not Terminally Ill you Idiot! was a crowd sourced compilation of the common challenges of pregnancy, interspersed with personal stories about that not-so-pacific period. Her second book, The Whole Shebang: Sticky Bits of Being a Woman feels more intimate, being part memoir and part self help (or as she prefers to describe it “survival guide”). The thrust of both books, however, is in the same direction, a sort of bleary eyed celebration of the universality of womanhood in all its many “sticky bits”. A reminder, as she blithely states in her prologue, that, no matter how different women seem outwardly, or how well put together, “it’s the same shit everywhere” that they’re dealing with.
“What I do know is that being a woman is a serious amount of admin.” Iyer laments in the prologue. Then she goes on to catalogue some of it, “…if you factor in hair management (everywhere, all the time), ovulation management (once a month for most of us) relationship management (all the time, for all of us), parent management (even if you produce half a dozen kids, your parents will still treat you like a child), pregnancy (at least once in a lifetime for some of us), and marriage (hopefully not more than once in a lifetime) you know what I am talking about.”
The book is spread across 17 chapters that are a sort of pilgrim’s progress, as Iyer sets out to describe each station or rite of passage that goes into a woman’s journey. In the process, she describes, with both unsentimental candour and wit, a few decades post-puberty of a life well lived. So, it’s possible to follow her journey step-wise from the first experiences of girlhood on the cusp of womanhood, in chapters such as, “How I met my period,” to “Body image, size and other tricky things,” and “Underwire and other instruments of womanly torture.” The book goes on to address the encounters and challenges that come with sex, job-hopping, dating, marriage, money, friendships, in-laws and single motherhood. It’s apparent that the disclaimer running everywhere through the book is meant to be taken seriously there may be advice in there on whether to wear a thong, or how to approach food but, the only one the author is trying to sort out is her own self.
Nevertheless, reading The Whole Shebang makes you nod your head a lot, because it is the ya-ya sisterhood of women that Iyer is asserting here. This is a welcome break from how most girls are introduced to womanhood amidst a churn of advice from mothers and aunts, often disguised as stories or conversation, but loaded with the richness of conventional attitudes. In contrast, Iyer’s book is refreshingly bland in her attitude to pre-marital sex, “My advice to all girls is to lose their virginity as quickly and uneventfully as possible, so that your body is ready for the real, exciting sex you are about to have with all the wrong and not-so-wrong guys in the world.” She then proceeds to tell a story of her own “deflowering”, and while it would be a shame to give that away here, it’s worthwhile mentioning it involved several players and anesthesia. Likewise, she effortlessly dispenses with the idea of waiting for the “right” guy, playing hard to get, and then moving forward only after a commitment.
Few books cover with such honest and colourful detail the tedious but unavoidable aspects of being a woman. What it is, for example, to have a moustache a week away from the “full growth” phase (that will merit a wax or threading) and then, as luck will have it, meet someone special in between, or have a job interview lined up. Or the monthly trials of the period for which there is never a good time. “So you had to plan waxing cycles, treks, beach fun, sex, presentations, dates, travels, even your own wedding, around your period.”
The book is full of discoveries, big and little. Iyer describes, after much frustration with her underwire bra, taking apart an expensive Marks & Spencer bra with a paper cutter, “since scissors couldn’t dig deep enough” to find a “treacherous steel rim. Sharp enough and resilient enough to kill a human being. I had been wearing this human bomb for months now!” This kind of thing is a guaranteed aha! moment for the female reader who probably has a lifetime of welts, suffocating, fidgeting, aches and itchiness of her own to look back upon. Iyer’s short-lived triumphant abandonment of bras in favour of going commando is a sweet little side adventure in an otherwise set pattern that working women end up having to confirm to when it comes to dress and demeanour.
As for the business of living, when it comes to taxes and money and work, there’s advice on that as well based on her own honest-to-goodness experiencealthough it’s pretty basic. Then there’s her take on the soft-skills that come with womanhood, most importantly, learning to manage relationships. There’s her 13 ways to test a friendship list, and a sobering discourse on the importance of “showing up” and being a good friend. Perhaps one of the most demanding of relationships, parenthood, merits its own chapter. Again, Iyer uses a characteristic bluntness to put her views across. “Yes, we all want our children to have a happy childhood with a variety of experiences. We just have to stop curating it for them.”
The Whole Shebang is good company. Not every of Iyer’s highly subjective life lessons will spark a sympathetic chord in the reader, but almost all the experiences in there are authentic ones and likely to be shared. In a world where women are often made to exist in a state of fake perfection, as much as consumers as for other people’s consumption, this is a simple, unassuming book, on what goes into becoming a real woman.
Karishma Attari is author of I See You and Don’t Look Down. She is a writer, book reviewer, and runs the Shakespeare for Dummies workshop series....