Uma Chakravarty’s chatty yet sound introduction is the highlight of this collection of novellas. She cautions against the nineteenth century labelling of the novel as a lighter genre that women not only read but even write. Fiction burgeoned around the new middle class which required the charming, cultivated, educated bhadramahila to grace a companionate marriage. The publishing industry with its mushrooming journals, some especially for and by women, contributed greatly to the new constituency. According to Chakravarty, each of the narratives in this compilation creates and sustains an atmosphere that only a novella can absorb—short stories are too brief and tightly plotted, while novels are too complex and layered for the intensity portrayed in these. Time past and present intertwine fluidly through the narratives, constructing a mosaic.
In Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s Defying Winter, (translator Tutun Mukherjee) a woman writer in her sixties, persecuted and ill-treated by her daughter-in-law, leaves the house that she owns to her son and family and retreats to a home for the aged.
She encounters people who have taken refuge there for various reasons. The novella interweaves narratives by various women characters who have seen prosperous, successful and connubially fulfilling lives, talking about their past and yet interacting with the inmates of the home in a meaningful and open manner. There are also a few peripheral narratives by characters outside the ‘twilight shelter’ who are only tangentially involved in the lives of these characters. Another old woman dies a fulfilled death, surrounded by daughters, sons and daughter-in-law (Mrinal Pande’s A Woman’s Farewell Song, translated by the author herself). The story allows us more than a glimpse into the politics of the woman-centric domestic structure in the life of a modern woman who manages to combine satisfying the demands of her professional life as a lecturer with her traditional role as a wife, mother, daughter-in-law and sister-in-law. Its nuanced reading of her frustrations, struggle, bitterness, imploding within her largely benign and well-meaning personality, yet falls short of the best of Mrinal Pande’s fiction.
In Vaidehi’s Temple Fair (translator Nayana Kashyap), the adult narrator recaptures the mood of the fair as one that had forged a bonding between women and children in the family, feeling sorry for and othering older boys who have ‘neither tresses nor ribbons nor floral strings but only cropped heads’. Bringing her own children to the fair to sense its enchantment, she floats in and out of her own childhood. Only the collage of successive images links the narrative which does not have much of a story. B.M. Zuhara’s Moonlight (translator Vanajam Ravindran) also movingly recuperates a lost childhood through its protagonist whose wistful absent-mindedness is distrusted by those around her. Through watching television, she enters a world of reverie that lies outside the pale of relentless hustle and bustle surrounding a conventional household. Her imaginative temperament makes her husband consider her as incapable of being a reliable mother and home-maker. The use of the TV, modern India’s icon of middle class consumerism as well as ‘homely’ entertainment, as an entry point to a paradoxical unleashing of a kind of romantic impracticality is an interesting idea that could have been developed further in a story that ends up as more of a vignette with a similarly thin plotline as ‘Temple Fair.’
Saniya’s Thereafter (translator Maya Pandit), is virtually the only story that predominantly explores a woman’s existence within the context of conjugality. It is, however, a rather eccentric and whimsical husband who suddenly deserts his marital partner of several years without any explanation but with civility and consideration for her material needs. Almost as abruptly, he walks back into her life as if nothing has happened in between. Initially stunned, she learns to take it in her stride without getting unduly devastated, outraged or even flustered. At first, she stands on her own feet by educating herself regarding financial and other matters traditionally handled by husbands. She violates the wifely code only when she has a short-lived romantic interlude with a man she meets, and continues the liaison despite discovering that he is a debauch and a pimp. At the end, she receives the husband back with great poise and equanimity when he decides that he has had enough of leading a bohemian life in the name of experience. The husband is as casual in his willingness to go along with his wife’s new relationship, even marriage, with the other man as in erasing the past to start a new life with her. The story lacks conviction, not to talk of plausibility, and merely exposes a freak case in which an irrational break up is followed by a reunion devoid of sound and fury. It seems to be narrated unconvincingly without any insight. The protagonist’s relationship with her son and with her mother and sister, however, are portrayed with a marginally greater degree of sensitivity and depth.
I cannot comment on the quality of translation since I have not read the originals in Bangla, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam and Marathi. The motley fare, although united in its engagement with live issues apropos contemporary Indian women during various phases in their lives, does not really do justice to the unstinted commendation that Uma Chakravarty’s prefatory remarks confer on it. Chakravarty’s preamble, however, I repeat, is worth reading on its own merit for charting and reclaiming the history of the interface between women and the reading, writing and print culture developing around the growing middle class from the nineteenth century onwards.
Nivedita Sen teaches in the Department of English, Hans Raj College, University of Delhi.