Setting off on a conversational tone, the book makes the reader see themselves through the life journey of the author.
The blurb at the back of the cover pitches Lalita Iyer’s The Whole Shebang as a “smart little black dress of books for women”. Much like the LBD’s sartorial familiarity, the book’s neatly arranged 17 chapter saga sounds as familiar as an old friend sagely narrating her life experiences.
Setting off on a conversational tone, the book makes the reader see themselves through the life journey of the author (and society’s constructs of “womanhood”) – as she navigates periods, work, friendships, sex, marriage and motherhood.
Puberty, Panties, Periods & Other Things we don’t talk about
The book starts off with 15-year old Iyer’s experience with her first period, and makes its way into discussions on body-image, size, and those issues affecting women that require a “serious amount of admin”, as the author puts it.
Anyone who has ever-struggled with finding the right bra or experimented with ill-fitting thongs after succumbing to social pressures, will relate to a chapter like “Underwire and other instruments of womanly torture”.
The references to ‘launjerraaaay’ or permanent wedgies sound dated, and some of the wit is trite, but the content still manages to hold up with Iyer’s personal anecdotes injecting a sparkle into time-tested topics.
Every chapter can be read independently, or as a sequence of life events as we hop along with the writer in her journey through switching workplaces, work-out regimens, hairdressers and potential partners. The chapters on friendships, finance and sex make for good standalone reads, with their lucid and honest advice and pointers that hit home.
The author stresses on the importance of not just financial independence, but the need for financial literacy right from school.
Her writing is more observational than preachy, as she reiterates: “I have also observed that women don’t talk about money nearly enough – they are almost apologetic when it comes up in conversation, or plain ignorant…….We learn a lot from each other about relationships or work, but we seldom learn (or even ask questions) about money.”
The narrative is peppered with advice that is refreshing in its simplicity. Iyer’s uncluttered writing on sex takes away from the sensationalist frills of How-To columns.
“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 says.
The chapter gives sex-advice – particularly oriented towards women, instead of the hyper-masculine focus on pleasure for men.
Age-Old Narratives, Repackaged Authentically
Even as we’ve become more self-aware of how we’re handling real-life versus reel-life friends in the age of Twitter and Snapchat, the book hammers in a simple but oft-forgotten fact on friendships. It emphasizes the need for showing up and being present in solidarity especially as the support we show in our relationships becomes more performative, with each ‘Like’, Retweet or “Haha” react button clicked.
It’s crucial to realise that The Whole Shebang is not pitching itself as the greatest feminist tract of our times, nor is it the self-help manual that will revolutionize your way of living. Today, as our notions of “womanhood” and gender are being redefined and we are increasingly questioning patriarchal life choices and social conditioning, the book’s references to waxing body hair or insecurities surrounding breast sizes are problems many of us are now trying to shatter.
Moreover, the book doesn’t address how issues of caste or anti-transgender discrimination complicates the institutions of work, marriage or relationships. But it’s also clear that the author isn’t trying to make a value judgment on these issues, and it’s her subjective life-experiences we’re looking into.
At its heart, the content is quite basic. Much of the discussions on marriage, self-love, beauty standards and becoming a mother have been the stuff of conversations we’ve all had at some point in our lives. Be it Indian attitudes towards curly hair and Iyer’s reclamation of the same, to frequently switching between new jobs and homes, nothing rings new.
If you’re looking for something simple and unassuming, the book works well with age-old stories repackaged in an easy-breezy voice that’s likely to make many readers’ heads nod and bond over the shared struggles.