What greater pleasure than to discover a wonderful writer and read an old favourite! Mitra Phookan is a delightful author from Assam whose stories in this collection are a sample of life set in a more leisurely pace and space. They touch the now and the here but the narrative technique is like a breath of fresh air blowing off the cobwebs but gentle and whispering in its flow. Ismat Chugtai is her usual sharp self, giving us her take on childhood, mercilessly stripping away the layers from the so called idyllic time of people’s lives.
Let us first look at the Assamese stories that while being rooted in their soil are also universal in their appeal. Each of the thirteen stories adds to the rich tapestry of wefts and warps of literary culture in the north east. The eponymous short story seems to belong to a more innocent time when rich women removed their jewellery and left them on the table with windows wide open! The hero is a thief who evades arrest and ends up having the readers rooting for him. The town in question is so small that he is ‘the official thief of Rupohi, [who] held a position, if not of honour, exactly, at least of recognition in the town’ (p. 60). When he attempts to steal the gold ornaments from the rich magistrate’s house, he is thwarted, and the ensuing versions of the same are so exaggerated that one of the narrators has ‘now become an acclaimed writer of fiction. Probably this childhood trauma has had something to do with it’ (p. 79)! It is precisely such sentences strewn around casually that enchant and grip the reader’s interest.
Mitra Phookan’s stories, some of which have been published already in other places, have been reworked and rewritten for this collection. There is a subtle intertextuality at play as the protagonist of the first story ‘The Choice’, a rudra veena player, finds mention in another story, ‘Homecoming’, focusing on the maker of the very same instrument. In the first, we see the heart-wrenching parting from the beloved instrument that the renowned player decides to give up as it is associated with a Curse. The story is an intensely emotional monologue of the protagonist as he convinces himself to part with it. The latter is the agony also of parting felt by the veena maker as he gives away each finished instrument, feeling like a father giving away a daughter. But as a painful parallel, when a veena returns, ‘like daughters who came from their marital home to their father’s house’ (p. 136) he is able to set it right unlike in the case of his daughter whose broken marriage he cannot set right.
The writer’s light touch makes the reading pleasurable and effortless. However, this does not in any way mean that the stories are all about innocence or naïveté. ‘The Reckoning’, ‘The Journey’, ‘Jogeshwari’ paint dark pictures of human nature and we can feel a silent scream forming in the throat as we read the suggested horrors that are more chilling than any gory description of the same. The understated but slowly built up narrative of a cunning superwoman of a wife in ‘The Revenge of Annapurna’, the guru who cheats his fan in ‘Ekalavya’ or the ‘The Tabla Player’ who plays on while his wife is in labour are fine tales tinged with sorrow and a sense of despair and helplessness. In ‘Ekalavya’, the author ironically compares the fan’s adulation to ‘an Arjun who saw only the eye of the bird’ (p. 44). Annapurna moulds herself into the cast of the sacrificing daughter-in-law, losing her own individuality in the bargain. As she says, ‘Bowari, daughter-in-law. I am a designation’(p.184). A single penetrating feminist statement that takes the arrow straight home. These stories are an unflinching look at society and its underbelly, a society that exploits and uses people and individuals who only think of their own survival.
‘The Gift’, ‘The Rings’, and ‘Spring Song’ are optimistic tales or rather stories that are not romantically sentimental, but delicate in their treatment of loss and childbirth, superstition and fate, first love and longing. ‘The Long Journey’ is the only other story that refers to militancy in the region but ends on a positive note for the couple that has a brush with it.
Ismat Chugtai’s collection takes a hard, unblinking look at the so-called ‘time of care free living, filled with joyous moments’ (p. 35) of childhood. She confesses to ‘bending the truth a little’ (p. 35) when talking of her own youthful days but adds that ‘I’m lucky to have survived that time and consider it fortunate that those uncertain times have passed.’ The story ‘Childhood’ lays bare the restrictions and boundaries that constrain children circumscribing their every movement and moment. She talks of a generation that was supposed not to be heard as well as not be seen. Being too many in number, the children were roundly cursed, forced to wait for meals, with no choice of what to eat or not to eat, and in short, just about barely tolerated. This most probably still holds true of many families and classes where children are more of a burden than a blessing from heaven and even more so if one happens to be a girl, and a curious one at that!
‘The Three Innocents’ is the only story which despite all the summer vacation plans of three kids always ending in failure, does paint a picture of innocence and that ephemereal delight that eludes most elders. The children actually think, ‘all important vitamins are to be found in toffees, gulab jamuns and rasgullas’ (p. 58); or that Kakku was a true businessman who would one day ‘succeed in bankrupting Tata and Birla’ (p. 59)! But their view of elders is the same as in other stories. ‘He thought Ammas, Daadis and Naanis are perennially bad-tempered which is why they constantly scold servants, children, hens, ducks, the cleaning women, wind, and storms. There is always a rebuke ready to land on someone’s head’ (p. 68)!! These figures normally seen as indulging, caring and protective are portrayed as normal beings with none of the idealized concepts of motherhood or grandmotherhood. This is reality at its best, simple and straightforward.
The third is an excerpt from the ‘The Crooked Line’ which is gut wrenchingly horrendous in its portrayal of a wilful, wild girl. It doesn’t let up even once in the entire extract and makes for a very uncomfortable read. While the brutally honest and starkly truthful portrait is to be lauded, it is not a story that I would like to re-read unlike the others in the collection. They too are ironical, biting, and blunt but not as grim as this narrative of Shaman, the feral child.
In her preface, the translator mentions ‘Ismat’s ability to take us back to that time of our lives when innocence reigned supreme’ (p. ix)! However, as the stories demonstrate, the innocence of childhood is peppered with harsh lessons of life. The stories are indeed delightful, but more for their turning on its head the concept of unfettered happiness in childhood!
While I do wish Tahira Naqvi had given us more of a glimpse of her approach to the challenges of translating from Urdu into contemporary English, the stories flow effortlessly and are a joy to read. Kudos to Tahira Naqvi for the same.
The last piece, ‘The Dust of the Caravan’ is Ismat’s portrayal of her own childhood with all the scrapes she got into and all the struggles she had to face. It is no surprise that for a writer of her calibre she found that she had ‘received something from every book, and I have searched for and found answers to most of my problems in books. They have proven to be the closest of friends and the best consolation in times of sadness’ (p. 132).
In short, here are two different writers who deserve all the accolades that they get. Ismat Chugtai is a household name now and I look forward to the time when Mitra Phookan will become one too!
N Kamala is Professor at the Centre for French and Francophone Studies, School of Language Literature & Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi