Fifteen stories, all about women and girls, mostly in ordinary, everyday situations. What are their experiences? How do they react? How do they cope? What effect do these events have on the characters? These, in main, form the thrust of most of the stories, though there are interesting variations throughout. The topic of the tales range from nostalgia, to illegitimacy, to anger and defiance, to sadomasochism, to name a few. Add a dash of magic and whimsy to some stories and you have an interesting read.
Some of the tales can be classified as stories about young girls. In ‘The Back Verandah’ and ‘If the Earth Should Move’, two girls are caught up in a vortex of unfamiliar emotions. They have to battle with the dread of nymphomania, illegitimacy, anger and revenge, incest, all new, frightening emotions. The conclusion perplexes them, though they deal with it in their own way. (No spoiler alert!). ‘The Phalanx’ is a schoolgirl tale. Though it starts in the manner of Angela Brazil and her ilk, it has dark underpinnings of lesbianism, jealousy and vindictiveness.
Anuradha, the heroine of ‘The Crossing’, physically overcomes her fear of heights when she crosses a rushing brook on a narrow makeshift bridge. In doing that, she crosses a psychological bridge and grows up, leaving her childhood anxieties and fears behind, while in ‘Doorways Without Doors’, Pragya responds to a childhood obsession and indulges in an act of great generosity.
A very interesting version of the same theme—childhood experiences influencing adult behaviour—is ‘The House of Cards’. The corporal punishment of the sisters in her convent followed by the unwarranted caning meted out by her father has left the nameless heroine with a taste for punishment, which she assuages by consistently losing in cards and other bizarre behaviour such as going to bed with an absolute stranger. In a milder form, Monisha Lal suffers from guilt as a result of being teasingly accused, as a child, of killing Mahatma Gandhi by her brother and his friend.
‘You Cannot Have All the Answers’, in its broad outline, is a normal love story—boy and girl meet, they fall in love, marry, have children, and so on. But add to it some magic, like wilted flowers turning into gold coins, mysterious scarves appearing and disappearing, the mundane becomes mysterious and more attractive, almost the stuff of dreams, although in this collection, the story by that name is more the stuff of nightmares, dealing as it does, with incipient madness. The same element of mystery is present in ‘The Path’, about an insubstantial road leading a motley lot of rejects to some unknown place.
‘Cradle Song’ is about nostalgia gone bad for some Hindu refugees from Pakistan; ‘Closure’ is a sympathetic account of unwanted old age and the way to deal with it, while ‘Babies’ is about obsession, pure and simple.
A more complicated tale is told in ‘Karma’, the story of Radha, a very poor girl forced to marry her dying sister’s aged husband, which she does stoically, while dreaming of the young milkman at home, who had once stolen her heart! ‘Visitors’ Hour’ is about revenge. A deserted daughter wreaks vengeance on her father by manoeuvring him to pay for her and her brother’s education. Unusual, in the sense she does not throw the proffered money back on his face as recommended by her friend, but inveigles him for more.
The tales are different in theme and treatment. But psychologically, they are all believable. The dignified older lady who leaves her daughter’s house quietly without any fuss; the spurned daughter who squeezes the maximum out of her guilt-ridden father; the jealousy and anger of the phalanx of friends; the obstetrician obsessed with her babies to the exclusion of everything else and so on—all subtle, all underplayed, all effective.
The language is good. There are some effective descriptions:
‘Her sagging cheeks were powdered more carefully than usual, her grey curls seemed cast in iron, and her bifocals had an implacable glint…’ (p. 50)
‘On those smooth, soft evenings when they sat outside, faintly curtained by the darkness, a little befuddled by the chilly, overly sweet scent of the raat ki rani, the lights from that hill had twinkled a secret, alluring message at her’
There are many such passages, but at times the language gets weighed down by words. The author should guard against it in future.
Meera Rajagopalan has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Bombay. She is a freelance editor and translator.
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