The echoes of the above sentence reverberate throughout the book. For what is chaos? That which resides inside one’s head and reaches the heart slowly but is supposed to remain hidden: not shown or shared. The short stories in this book are not supposed to jolt you out of your quiet existence nor will they attempt to. But by giving a glimpse into lives it sends across a powerful message of the various forms of ‘waiting’ that one has to live with. The writer does not mince her words as she opens up lives for the readers to see for themselves the heavy bearing the word can bring with it—the wait to be acknowledged/respected for who one is and the struggle to come to terms with one’s own identity.
‘It isn’t as if her mother can’t buy the slim sanitary napkins from the market. But buying them from a shop would mean asking a man for them; and that would be shameful.’
‘The definitions and boundaries of izzat were never explained to her. Nor was it made clear how or why a girl could lose her izzat in a second.’
The idea of preserving one’s izzat seems to be smashed head on by the characters in these stories when they begin to question the very notion of what constitutes honour/reputation. The very act of questioning these parameters of behaviour by those who have been chosen to carry the mantle of cultural prestige and reputation catches the vein of change that is slowly coming along; where a younger generation refuses to blindly follow the rules that have been set out while those passing on the mantle now stand distanced from their former self. The idea that women are in charge of their bodies and have a mind of their own has been captured really well in these stories. But Nighat Gandhi does not show a world through rose-tinted glasses—there is a feeling of being trapped; a never ending chaotic circle where one begins to feel like a hamster running inside a never ending wheel of life.
‘“Haven’t I been saying the same things to you?” he says. “Your father still rules your head and heart. And you won’t become an adult unless you make a conscious effort to get him out.” I feel bewildered. Am I not an adult? I need to become an adult by shifting loyalty from father to husband?’
‘Tennessee Williams is writing my obituary: “Her life was made up of details. Disgusting, unavoidable details. She could never muster courage to say no to details, so how could she stay up nights writing, in the service of her craft.”’
But there is a creation of a world to escape from this—a world that has been created consciously. Siting inside the courtyard of a shrine, the observations throw light on how one looks at the world if only one can see through the veil. The writer observes two women entering the shrine to offer prayers. The relationship the two share cannot be restricted to familial ties or those of friendship. They could also be lovers. This is where linear thinking is put to rest and the writer encourages her readers to look beyond definitive lines. A simple act of having tea at a roadside tea stall draws attention except, as the writer observes, by a beggar who is oblivious to the equations set by/on gender.
‘Questions. Questions. Some days, you are restless with an unnamed anxiety about her existence in this place full of questions, where the very existence of an independent woman is a question mark.’
There is a poetic touch to the stories that is hard to miss. As one travels from one story to another a philosophical whiff spreads across the pages. A special mention for a short story titled ‘Aab-e-Hayaat’ in the book as it is infused with poetry. It is a beautiful blend of when poetry meets reality and self-introspection begins. When a question in the story about how friendship can be compared to a crescent moon is put forward, the response brings forth a multitude of voices that are to be found within the narrative.
‘Well, there’s only a sliver of the crescent that’s visible and rest of the moon lies hidden. What the world can see is just that crescent. What we truly feel lies hidden like the unseen moon. We can only sense it in our hearts.’
If there are voices to be discovered outside then there are voices within that tend to tear one up from the inside. Distinct voices that predominate the mind and what one projects is not necessarily how one feels or how one is. The dichotomy between the self and the Self has been brought out in these stories.
‘What was even more frightening now was that the mismatch between image and reality was making her question her own susceptibility to getting fooled.’
Another story, which interestingly is the only story where a man is the protagonist, delves into the projected image of masculinity that one shows and the inner self that has to be kept hidden, most of the time.
‘He couldn’t confess that he woke up in the middle of the night with his heart thudding, longing to be held and soothed. Longing to be embraced. Who could embrace him? It was an infantile yearning for a safe corner, a tucked-away haven where his inner child could rest.’
The title of the book exploring the varied strands of the word, delves into the darkest form of the word when it brings up a story on a rapist’s wife. The story takes up a very interesting angle that very few books in contemporary Indian English literature would have. The concept as unique as it is—is also the most painful one to read through, as not only a victim’s account has been recorded but also that of the wife of the perpetrator—the one who is dismissed or not even acknowledged.
‘Whoever heard of a rape victim moving in with her rapist’s wife?’
‘It’s the most sensible thing to do. We’ve both being wronged. As soon as you see we’re both his victims, you’ll see what I mean.’
And the story picks up from here. A conversation follows with no descriptions of the two characters involved in a conversation. The reader has to pick up the personalities of the two women through the exchange and that is the intent. There is no ready face that has been given—no fixed identity markers to distinguish which is which. It is the fluidity of the two characters that by the end of the story, one does not know who is who. The damage is not one woman’s to bear—it spreads like a plague:
‘How can you be sure we won’t be stepping into another nightmare worse than the one we’re walking out of?’
If the fluidity of identity is delved into then it also brings up the questioning of the choices one makes or what one was born into but is not one’s choice. The ambiguities that lie within have been given vent to in this book. And then the fact of life—ageing. A distancing from one’s former self can be seen as well as the social invisibility that it brings with it—can at times be lonely and at times empowering. Like Philip Larkin in his poem ‘The Old Fools’ describes old age as a ‘hideous inverted childhood’. In the last story, the protagonist realizes, ‘I’m a museum housing relics of an ancient civilization. I’m visiting this museum for the first time, even though I’ve been living in it for half a century.’
The book demands your attention and it must be given. Given not because you hold a book in your hands but for the sheer expanse of identities that have been explored and opened up for a reader. It is not just one kind of a personality that has been explored but different ones that reside outside and within. For don’t we all have faces for the world and the ones we keep hidden? And as one of the characters in the book asks and maybe indirectly turns to her reader for help: ‘Tell me about real life which I don’t know how to inhabit?’
Semeen Ali is currently pursuing PhD in English Literature from University of Delhi, Delhi.