Literature as Conscience Keeper of Society
GANGA’S CHOICE AND OTHER STORIES by Vaasanthi. Translated from the original Tamil by Sukanya Venkataraman, Gomathi Narayan and Vaasanthi Niyogi Books, 2021, 255 pp., 450.00
July 2022, volume 46, No 7

Fifteen short stories of Vaasanthi, originally written in Tamil over many years, have been translated by the author (1 story), Sukanya Venkataraman (11 stories) and Gomathi Narayananan (3 stories) in this collection.  The dedication of this collection to Vaasanthi’s grandson who when young ‘asked a profound question/ “Are we real?”’ and the author’s answer to him, ‘We are.  Because we feel’ sums up the spirit of all the stories in this collection.  The octogenarian, bilingual writer Vaasanthi has engaged herself with journalism, political narratives and fiction for over fifty years now.  While she writes critical, non-fictional works in English, her creative works are often written in Tamil, which is her mother tongue.

The fifteen stories in this collection can broadly be divided into two major themes crucial to us in India today: gender, an all-pervasive issue woven into the very fibre of our society and the looming violence around us in the name of faith, war and law and order.

The nine stories centred on gender provide a complex dynamic of class, caste, education, history, bodily knowledge and the mire of patriarchal labyrinth suffocating women.  From the experience of an older couple whose tactile sense of touch stored in the memory of the husband about his wife’s hands in the story ‘Hands’ to the issues of violence, vengeance and retribution in the other stories provide a spectrum that is too difficult to sum up. We have the primordial Panchali immolating herself in the heavily guarded tribal village to speak her mind and is able to watch the rhythmic dance as a spirit; the patriarch grandfather, who harks on all things in the household and treats women as machines producing children, dies mysteriously screaming the name of the young Chellathayi who committed suicide on the same day when a quack attempt at abortion turns fatal to one of the daughters-in-law of the household; Rangamani, the village Dayi who does the unenviable job of silencing the unwanted female infants in the households, finally takes her vengeance by killing the new-born male child while Shanbagam, married from outside into the family brings up her first born girl child as a single parent; and the daddy’s pet girl vaguely understands that the father brutally murdered in his apartment has an untold story—not so dignified after all.  ‘Mousetrap’ and ‘Voice’ are two stories that present the lives of domestic help.  These two stories comment on the lives of the maids from their own perspective.  Sheelu in the ‘Mousetrap’ is a lively young woman, new to the city and finds in work her own liberation.  But the personal life turns out to be violent owing to the substance abuse of the father-in-law and husband.  The women are the breadwinners but assaulted by the men.  The most moving exchange of the two women applying mehendi for karvachauth touches us.  However, the urban life does not provide comfort to a young girl who has birthed a child and been betrayed by the man.  The community in the village provides a ‘safe’ feeling!

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