According to WHO, India has made groundbreaking progress in recent years in reducing the maternal mortality ratio by 77%. India’s present MMR is apparently below the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target which puts the country on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target of an MMR below 70 by 2030.
This is due to India’s concerted push to increase access to maternal health services. State-subsidized demand-side financing like the Janani Shishu Suraksha Karyakram allows all pregnant women delivering in public health institutions to free transport and no-expense delivery, including caesarian sections – has largely closed the urban-rural divide traditionally seen in institutional births. Overall, 75% of rural births are now supervised, as compared to 89% of urban deliveries. Significant emphasis has also been laid on lessening the social factors that
determine maternal health. Women in India are more literate than ever, with 68% now able to read and write. They are also entering marriage at an older age, with just 27% now wedded before the age of 18. These factors alone have enabled Indian women to better control their reproductive lives and make decisions that reflect their own interests and wants.
However, there are pockets in the country where maternal health and the demand for boy babies over girls is still causing problems. Against this background comes a rather unusual novel written by Almas Hussain, Venus With a P*nis. The title is, of course, designed to shock and attract, not to mention raising transgender issues. However, this is the story of Rajan the young handsome black sheep from a family of doctors who is shocked by the death of a woman in his care into wanting to do something to prevent maternal deaths.
He takes himself to his old maidservant’s district of Kaatgram in Jharkhand dressed as a woman and accompanied by Titli, a friendly anaesthetist from his brother’s clinic. The disguise is required because – and this is true in many cases – the men will not allow male doctors near their women, especially where the delicate field of gynaecology is concerned. Rajan reincarnated as the beautiful Rajani manages to make headway through a combination of luck and love. Along the way, the author brings in issues like rape and adoption which reflect on pregnancy, though many of her women are more fortunate than others. A rape victim in the book is lucky to find a young man willing to marry her if she has a dowry and someone else who is willing to adopt the twins she carries. Abused women find an ex-rapist willing to set up a centre where they can learn self-defence and find counselling.
There are echoes of Mrs Doubtfire and other such instances where men dress up as women but for the most part, the story is a different one and love, sacrifice and betrayal sum it up quite aptly.
Venus with a P*nis ticks the right boxes for readability and atmosphere, good family connections and romance but what sets it apart is the concept behind the book. A young doctor’s wish to do something for women against all odds and the fact that India is a country plagued by a shortage of doctors, hypocrisy and lynch mobs. Of course, Hussain writes that India is close on the heels of Nigeria in the matter of maternal deaths which may not find favour with government sources given the current figures. Given the fact that Hussain uses a secluded district with a landed family running it for her setting, certain things may be overlooked. Those interested in rural society dynamics, male-female relations and health care will find the book worth going through.