Aruna Chakravarti’s latest collection of short stories Through a Looking Glass comes after a series of highly acclaimed novels, the last two of which are Suralakshmi Villa and The Mendicant Prince, writes Antara Datta
Though the age of long fiction continues to gather many readers and laurels, in these days of compulsive distractions, the short story beckons the reader with compressed satisfaction. Aruna Chakravarti is among those greats who are equally consummate as a novelist and a short story writer.
Her latest collection of short stories Through a Looking Glass comes after a series of highly acclaimed novels, the last two of which are Suralakshmi Villa and The Mendicant Prince. The range of her creative interest is staggering, ranging from literary translations to historical fiction to meditations on contemporary life. The common thread running through all her writing is the exploration of lives of women, their stories told with profound tenderness and attention.
Consisting of nine stories, Through the Looking Glass brings together Aruna Chakravarti’s abiding interest in women’s lives and her inimitable ability to raise moral questions. Almost all the stories are about women who transgress conventional norms, often leading to tragic consequences, their energies threatening to incinerate moribund societal customs and expectations that constrict women’s freedoms and desires.
‘Mobile Mataji’, set in a mofussil town in Bengal, evokes the dark world of women desperate for motherhood, their obsession exploited by a demonic god-woman, leading to an indefensible act of cruelty.
Written from the perspective of a writer who chances upon a childhood friend, “Perceptions’, is about women who negotiate the demands of domesticity and suppressed needs, their bodies, and minds marked by burdensome secrets that splinter their lives. At the end of the story, the narrator- the author says- “ …I don’t see them as suffering women. They had suffered, yes, but flashing unquenched defiance to the stars that controlled their fates, they had battled and resisted their destinies…”
Stories like “Satwant Chachi” and the eponymous “Through a Looking Glass” are set in politically turbulent and traumatic historical times. Satwant Chachi, which is one of the best in the collection, unravels, ever so subtly, the life of a young widowed mother who silently fights predatory sexual advances with her steely resolve, and her single-minded determination to ensure a good life for her children. But as time takes a toll on her sanity and frays her moral fiber, her children taken away by ill fortune, the city and country conflagrate into riots and
‘Through a Looking Glass’ revisits the trauma of Partition through the flashes of memory of its protagonist Mrs. Das, now old and fading. Chakravarti brilliantly weaves the story of the nation with the lives of ordinary women- the losses, the memories, the scars, the resilience, and the tragedies.
The collection has a remarkably diverse cast of characters in terms of community, class, and background. “Crooked House” and “Princess Poloumi”, are narrated by women who are conflicted between the demands of old loyalties and friendships and their changed circumstances. The stories examine the moral dilemma of maintaining relationships across classes, the most difficult barrier to overcome in our society.
These stories are too close to the bone, forcing us to confront our own compromised moralities, the corruptions that privilege brings, and the limits of our empathy. Those who get left behind or destroyed by the ravages of time, history, and personal weakness- where do they go? These questions are evoked through the intimacies of female friendship. The narratives reveal the generational entitlements accorded to men by society and how women struggle to imagine their individual destinies, and their courageous attempts to claim their bit of the sky.
Aruna Chakravarti’s creative canvas is vast. She has written large and complex histories of princes and poets, of the best of times and the worst of times, but what makes her writing exceptional is her ability to notice and shine a light on the dark corners of forgotten rooms, the memories tied in knots at the end of saris of remarkable and ordinary women, in the night –time stories told to children, and journals that lay unread and moldy. In her writing, it’s the women, who are the biggest archive of history. Through a Looking Glass is a living, throbbing, and unforgettable testimony of our contemporary.
(Antara Datta teaches English Literature at Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi)