Two young women in creative collaboration, looking at a train winding its way through the hills and immortalizing this moment on canvas—all the symbols on this cover—the blue sky, the hills in the distance, the misty horizon, the train, the sparse vegetation, the canvas and brush and the two female figures—signal the literary intention of the writer. She has set out, in the six short stories in this collection, to decode the lives of women as they negotiate their lives and search for meaning and identity.
The book has a synergy that comes from the stories being interconnected by the common underlying theme of a quest for the truth. In each instance, the story opens with a crisis and the narrator sets out to investigate the complex reasons that have set a chain of events in motion and resulted in this predicament. The plot, characterization and setting are all dexterously handled and the author’s decades of engagement with literature imbues the stories with a rich array of literary and historical references that give them a unique flavour and complexity.
The first of the stories, ‘The Simla Paintings’, travels back in time to investigate the mysterious death of an artist Sarah Smith and uncover the truth behind three missing paintings intriguingly called Bluebeard in Simla I, II, III. The narrator, who is also a character in the story and an art historian, travels to Simla and what she discovers changes everything. The fine detailing in the story makes it read like a ‘passage in painting’ in which apparently disconnected themes come together to create a new vision. The reader will be enthralled by the atmosphere evoked by the narrator as she seamlessly blends this journey into ‘the heart of Whiteness’—colonial Simla—with the events unfolding in the theatre of the nationalist movement for independence from the colonizer. Sarah’s diary evokes not only the anguish of a young artistic woman trapped in marriage to an unsympathetic patriarch but also simultaneously hints at the larger issue of the control and oppression of India by the white man. An interesting subsidiary theme is that of the trauma of the Anglo Indians, disowned by both Indians and the British and forced to live in a noman’s world of disquietude. Before the reader thinks that this is another feminist story with a predictable agenda, the author throws in a surprise and that is her masterstroke—the diary of Edward Smith, the Bluebeard of Sarah’s painting! The truth, when it emerges, is neither straightforward nor simple, nor is it easy to pass a gendered judgment on what took place—in fact the reader is left questioning his/her own assumptions. This opening story in fact contains in either overt or covert form, all the issues that the author will explore in the other stories.
The second story, ‘The Goddess’ is also located in the foothills of the Himalayas. The narrator of this story takes up the issue of living goddesses, the exploitation of the vulnerable and the commercialization of religion and crafts a fast paced narrative about the harsh realities of the lives of women in rural India. The aptly and evocatively named town of Peepulganj comes alive, as do the temple of Narirani and the whole thriving industry that surrounds it. This story is interesting not only for its vivid descriptions and the breathless anxiety that grips the reader as the action rushes to its denouement, but also for the multiple perspectives of activists, journalists and sociologists that the author brings to bear on this issue that transcends the boundaries of gender and class to talk of the larger issue of hegemony and oppression.
The third story ‘Curtain Call’ begins dramatically with the sentence, ‘My sister Padma committed suicide a fortnight ago.’ The narrator of this story, Dharma, recreates the story of Padma’s professional and personal life and in this act of retrieval gives Padma her due. This story is by far the most complex one in the collection and brings together myriad perspectives and ideas. The device of using ten points of view to complete the story of Padma’s life is a masterful one and the author dexterously gives Padma a polysemy that life denied her. In addition to the problems of contemporary theater and its fight for survival with the gaining popularity of cinema and television, the story also journeys into the lives of women in fact and fiction, the arcane corridors of philosophy and spirituality, the seductive and ultimately illusory panacea of astrology and psychiatry and the difficulties of retaining a sense of self in an avaricious and capricious world.
With ‘The Case of the Missing Necklace’ the author pens a detective story with a difference. The dramatis personae of the story are as interesting and variegated as the precious stones that make up the necklace and their stories as remarkable as the history of the necklace itself. The ingredient that sets this story apart is the author’s ability to sketch vivid miniatures as each character is put under the literal and metaphorical lens of the detective, Miss Agni. Whether it is the cupidity of Andrews or the fading glory of Rani Sitabai, the drama needs all of them to give the reader an insight into the dynamics of social relations in contemporary India, for which the fabled necklace becomes both symbol and synecdoche.
In ‘Driving Through Delhi One Evening’, the narrator is privy to the stories of ten women who are united in being recipients of the narrator’s generous offer of a lift on a rainy evening, and in their struggles to live lives of dignity and independence. In the closed confines of the car, the stories become autobiographies of despair, determination and distress. The narrator lends a sympathetic ear and is the channel for us to hear what women silenced by circumstance and an indifferent universe, have to say. The grand finale of the collection is a novella ‘The Awakening’ skillfully written in a series of couplets that echo the central theme of the other five stories—‘women’s search for expression and place’— in a world that is indifferent at best, and malevolent at worst. The action of this novella involves the staging of a play in an undergraduate women’s college and harks back to Padma’s belief in ‘The Curtain Call’ about the universal relevance of great literature. While the narrator struggles to give shape to her creative vision, she also foregrounds the quotidian frustrations of living and working in a mundane space where politics takes precedence over poetry and things are rarely what they seem. It is ultimately in literature that answers are sought and sometimes found. This book is like a box of lovingly crafted dark chocolate, with six pieces of different shapes and textures making up its contents. Each of the pieces will give the reader a different experience which will stay on in the mind long after the book has been put away on the shelf.
Anjana Neira Dev is Associate Professor of English at Gargi College, University of Delhi.