2 March 2018

Dark Tales, Unexpected Twists

Short stories are, in my opinion, slightly more difficult to write than novels. You have to compress a whole wealth of information into a tenth of a novel's length, allowing you little liberty to flesh out your characters. From my experience of her books – and I have every single one of them – Madhulika Liddle is at her best when she is constrained by length. She has the facility to tell much within the constraints of a short story, subtly suggesting nuances and undertones that leave themselves open to interpretation. What is left unsaid is as important as what is stated. However, whether novel or short story, what grabs me by the throat and pulls me in is her ability to make a place, an atmosphere, a person come alive. When I read the Muzaffar Jang books, for instance, I could almost smell the odours of Old Delhi – the horse stables, the inns, the sweetmeats, the reeking mass of humanity.    

Woman to Woman: Stories, her latest collection of short stories is Madhu's darkest (and possibly, best) work yet. These stories are centred on women – the men may appear on the periphery, or not at all, yet are crucial to the women's narrative – who each bear the burden of their own crosses, whether it be prostitution, sex slavery, old age, loneliness, childlessness, the abuse of privilege, loss, death. They are women from different regions, social milieus, and age groups. In a world dominated by patriarchal rules, these women are not happy; cannot be happy. Their victories, if there any, are small and, in many ways, unexpected. A couple of them manage to outrun the realities of their lives – whether by death, vengeance or, as in one delightful case, an amusingly wicked turning of the tables. 
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In Paro, a five-minute delay in reaching the ferry that would take her across the Brahmaputra to a better life, leads to Sana, a young Assamese girl, being passed on from one man to another as a ‘bride’. Her final vengeance is unexpected and wholly satisfying – even if cruel.

Ambika, a 13-year-old girl, is raped by a drunken neighbour. Her alcoholic father is driven to suicide by the shame. Because of course, Ambika must have asked for it. The rapist gets off by paying reparation – but only if the offspring is a boy. And Ambika herself is judged immoral by a harsh society that deems a woman’s worth by the purity of her honour.

Death is a recurring theme: Mala deals with a young woman who imprudently falls in love with the son of her rich employers, only to pay the ultimate price. Presenting the narrative through the eyes of three-year-old Ashu, allows us a peek into the more sordid backstory – the juxtaposition of the events with the innocence of the child allows the story to have a greater impact. It is also the most sensory of all the stories, with vivid descriptions of mangoes and phirni, parathas and lassi alongside the simple pleasures of a rural retreat.

Woman to Woman, the titular story chronicles the meeting between two unlikely women – a prostitute and a nun; the latter is to find that she has much more in common with the ‘fallen woman’ than makes her comfortable. It was, to me, the weakest story in the collection, despite its interesting premise. The narrative 'voice' rang false – but that could just be me.

In Collector of Junk, Amma is the repository of other people’s sorrows. This is a story that’s told from Munni’s perspective, and therefore, we get a child’s evaluation of her mother as a collector of 'the refuse of others’ lives’. When a chance meeting with another character, Sughra, leads to Amma being upset, Munni learns something new about her mother in this moving, compassionate tale.

A long-lost letter finally turns up, thanks to a conscientious postal clerk, sending Inimai into a frenzy of activity. Somewhere in the city, her son is living his life, oblivious to the fact that a three-year-old letter has wreaked such havoc in his mother’s life. Inimai’s anticipation is so great that her sorrow, as she realises that no one is coming, is even more heart-breaking. One can almost taste the delicacies that Inimai prepares in anticipation of her son’s arrival. The Letter deals with the twin issues of old age and loneliness.

Kamini is well-educated, well-employed, happily married – until societal pressure to conceive takes its toll on all of these, as well as her own sense of self. ‘Four years, five IVFs’ is a sadly realistic way to chronicle the fact that a woman’s social worth is determined by her ability to conceive. Two Doors is the story of a marriage that has outlived the initial passion, of a woman stretched beyond tolerance. One feels a certain amount of compassion for the violence of Kamini’s reaction.

Death leaves a visiting card in Maplewood. An upper middle-class woman finds herself alone, both literally and metaphorically, in a deserted colonial bungalow. She has inherited it from her husband, but she’s never felt at home there. In fact, Maplewood has never made her feel at home. When Gunvanti, the local mid-wife, seeks shelter there from the storm, the protagonist finds herself both envious as well as lonelier than ever. The question arises: what is privilege? And who, between the two, is more privileged?

Death reappears in the Captive Spirit, where Lakshmi refuses to die. It takes an unexpected (and slightly macabre twist) to let that spirit free. The story is as much about how constrained the young Lakshmi was in real life, as it was about how her obsession had her soul resisting death even while her body withered.

The Sari Satyagraha is the lightest story in the collection – the quiet rebellion of a cowed down wife against a man’s petty autocracy against the backdrop of the Indian struggle for independence. Sulakshana is aided and abetted in her own quest for independence by her sister-in-law, Devaki. It allows Madhu to give rein to her descriptive powers – her description of the saris made me want to buy them.

Who is Wronged? The reader can feel the claustrophobia of being trapped in a vehicle in a traffic jam. Your senses are assaulted as much by the noise and the smells and the heat of the day, as you are by the revelations that so disconcert the protagonists – siblings who become aware of a disconcerting family secret. It’s interesting to see – within that conversation – how the siblings’ shifting views challenge a black and white notion of right and wrong. They go through the clamour of grief, anguish, betrayal, and frustration, before reconciling their newfound knowledge to attain a certain peace. The story emphasises how no one ever knows what goes on within a marriage.

Poppies in the Snow (my favourite story in the book) takes us to Kashmir, where blood lies red on the pristine snow. By now, Death is a comforting co-traveller, but when it comes, is both sudden and unexpected. Place and period come alive in a story set against the backdrop of insurgency in Kashmir. Love, betrayal, revenge and violence all find play in this intricately woven story that was longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.  

Each story in this collection comes with Madhu’s trademark twist – most are satisfying, some even a sucker punch to the jaw. For instance, I was totally hooked by the narrative in Poppies in the Snow that I didn’t see that ending come at all. It was thoroughly satisfying. Sometimes, however, the twist appears to have been shoe-horned in, not risen organically from the narrative. (As in Maplewood.) Like in real life, stories can remain unresolved – they need not always be tied up in neat bows.

That’s a minor peeve, however, in a book that’s so beautifully crafted, and that provokes thoughtful discussion. The places feel authentic, the people real. One can empathise with their sorrows and their losses, with their struggles to take the ownership of their lives in their own little ways, can wonder at how life throws unexpected googlies that these women face unflinchingly; these are women whom we have heard of, or even know. They could be us. We could be them.

Curating the experience of 'everywoman', across castes and classes and religions, is not a job for the faint-hearted. To do so, to disturb the status quo, however delicately and sensitively she does, and leave us with conflicting feelings of gratitude (that we are not ‘them’) and discomfort (that we are not them) was perhaps not Madhu’s stated intention – however, it is just she does in this well-crafted collection. 

And that is a good thing. Gender equality is still a distant dream as these stories attest. Gender violence is as much a current issue as it was generations ago. Much has changed; much remains the same. In the end, these stories remind you that we women are connected not just by gender but by experiences, and that, however different we are in our places in society, we are still sisters under the skin.

*Since I've been scolded by Lalitha, here are the links to the vendors:
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