The role of women in Indian society remains an issue we still grapple with every day. At one level, we see women scientists leading space programs to send spaceships to the moon or Mars, and women leaders occupying positions of strength in business, politics, and the arts.
Yet in our fractioned society, with multiple norms and attitudes, subversive notions and expectations of womanhood persist and basic civil liberties require struggle. Some imposed, some self-imposed.
As media pervades into our homes through television and mobile screens, influencing everyone from urban metropolises to small towns, it is influencing young women, their aspirations and their lives. Fiction offers an immersive way of understanding thought patterns and behaviours, showcasing role models, and reimagining the role and perception of women.
As the judge for the books category of the recently held Laadli National Awards for Gender Sensitivity in Media and Advertising, it was wonderful to find stories where the protagonist made journey of self-discovery and self-realisation, discovering inner strengths and transcending circumstances.
It also led to many questions on the meaning of gender sensitivity itself.
These books were set in very different contexts - in time, place and cultural milieu - from mythological era to pre- and post-independence India to the current century - to examine the portrayal of women.
Liberation of Sita; Volga; Translated by T Vijay Kumar and C Vijayasree; HarperCollins India
These books offered views into the lives of women, as they navigate life and society, and their roles within bounds of domesticity and relationships, their efforts - sometimes without volition - to find strength and peace, and, less often, their desire to impact their environments and society at large. Where this year's selection fell short was in showing women grapple with ideas, vision, and action on a wider platform.
The Liberation of Sita by Hyderabad-based author and activist Volga, translated from Telugu by T Vijay Kumar and C Vijayasree, was the winner of the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity in Fiction for 2017.
Though a retelling of a mythological tale, it is an important book in a society where many strata remain mired in mores of paternalism, and expect self-limiting behaviours from women to remain within the bounds of those mores.
By re-envisioning Ramayana through the eyes of Sita, and creating imagined encounters with other female characters from the story-Surpanakha, Renuka, Urmila and Ahalya - the author takes Sita on a journey of realisation and strength.
From being a woman who accepts her circumstances and experiences unquestioningly, we see her slowly seeking to understand the situations that test her and the unspoken rules and expectations that bind her. In these moments of shared solidarity of sisterhood, the reader finds the sparkles in this book.
Surpanakha discovers strength by taking pride in her inner beauty. Ahalya learns that truth evolves and chooses to place her identity above perceptions that morph.
Urmila, in her solitude, realises that shadows and lightness, and invisible cords of power, layer our relationships and learns to immune herself from the topsy-turvy of emotion. Renuka learns to define herself beyond the relationships in her life.
Seeing each of these women live life on their own terms, and seeing her own travails reflected partially in the tribulations faced by them, Sita gathers her own courage and finds her own voice.
We see her emerge, not as a victim of circumstances, but as someone who accepts the flaws of society and willfully chooses to walk away from it.
The High Priestess Never Marries by Chennai-based Sharanya Manivannan was the second winner of Laadli Media Awards 2017. Strung like luminous pearls, these evocatively written and startling short stories feature women who seem suspended between relationships, living in moments fraught with desire and despair.
Set in current day Chennai, these unnamed female protagonists cherish their independence, even within the bounds of relationships, and find their inner voices through an exploration of sensuality and choice.
The High Priestess Never Marries; Sharanya Manivannan; HarperCollins India
Strangely, as much as love, relationships and sexuality punctuate their lives and create moments of transcendence and self-belief, it is curious to find these modern women strangely devoid of ambition and action, aspirations and struggles that are as much external as internal.
Yet, these are women who have arrived in their acceptance of their many loves, their imperfect selves, their fractured lives.
As individuals, we all occupy the interlinked spaces of thinking, doing and being. This triggers further questions on the meaning of gender sensitivity and gender parity - within a story, but by extension in life.
Are the best female role models those who have arrived at a space of strength, or those going through a journey of exploration, struggle and survival? Does the sphere of relationships define the strength of a woman, or does her mind and her efforts to influence people, spaces and ideas beyond the domestic realm define her strength?
Does the display of agency and choice matter more than acceptance of human foibles and external circumstances?
It is a modern-day literary conundrum indeed. What it the strength of a woman? Does it lie in rising above despair, desolation, violence, submission, fraction? Does it not lie in the simple pursuance of goals, the deliberate focus on effort and action?
Do we each not have these multiple selves, that demand fulfilment on multiple levels? Does this latter "leaning in" make a story clichéd, and if yes, then how will the immersive role models of the future emerge and be shaped?
This year's winners showed how the modern Indian woman making deliberate choices within homes and relationships, and managing the balance of power within relationships.