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Slices of women’s lives

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Slices of women’s lives

Woman to Woman: Stories

Author : Madhulika Liddle

Publisher : Speaking Tiger, Rs 240

Madhulika Liddle deals with the everyday struggles of women from different parts of society without ever allowing the characters to seem powerless, writes ANUBHAV PRADHAN

Reading short stories is often like having a breakfast of idlis. Idlis are a simple, quick fare, good to gobble when you don’t really have too much time. They set easily, provided you have the right mould, and are fairly difficult to go wrong with: even the most average of cooks can conjure a digestible platter. While they necessarily require accompaniments, sambar and chutney, to make them palatable, they themselves are also readily spiced up with a dash of vegetable or a judicious shift to rava. Nonetheless, through these alterations and additions, they remain a healthy and usually wholesome meal: light, fluffy, not too hard on the system.

Collections of short stories also quite often appear so. They are mostly quick reads, are usually not as provocative as novels, and are perhaps easier to compose. Edited volumes offer more variety than single-authored ones, but both are more or less arranged according to an overarching thematic concern. The form too is broadly similar, and innovations — as and when they do appear — are along set precedents. It is, after all, no idle truism that there is little new which can be written, that everything new is often something familiar presented in a different form or shape. In the short story, the challenge generally seems to be to make old wine appear new even if the bottle remains the same.

Woman to Woman: Stories, Madhulika Liddle’s latest anthology of short stories, inspires such sentiments. It is a motley collection of twelve stories on women’s lives and experiences across the spectrums of class and creed: women poor, women rich, women in the thick of life, and women atomised into isolation and misery by the dint of circumstances in a patriarchal world. Though there is no other theme than this, that all stories are broadly on women, this seems to work overall for the volume. Four of these stories have been published previously, while the remaining eight appear to be original works. Regardless, a variety of plots and motifs are at display through these twelve stories, as is a healthy diversity of narrative techniques.

“Paro”, for instance, experiments with multiple narrative voices to give a surprising twist to what seems to be a heavy tale of oppression and abuse. Similarly, “Poppies in the Snow” works subtly with the cultural specificities of Kashmir to unhinge emergent readerly effects. “Mala”, on the other hand, begins as a tale of love and joy, but turns promptly into a predictable tragedy. If “Two Doors” and “Maplewood” dramatise the stark emotional desolation of women’s lives, the wreckage which societal expectations and pressures bring in their wake, then “The Sari Satyagraha” gives playful agency to women in negotiating with the world on their own terms. “Captive Spirit” is a thrilling family saga, almost gothic with its deeply atavistic bondage to heirloom, while “Wronged” nuances notions of familial faith and fidelity from the difficult perspective of children understanding their parents as adults.

All of these are quick, easy reads, and on the whole the volume offers just the right amount of provocation which moves but does not unsettle. It does verge a little too much to the tragic, with almost all stories showing women as suffering victims of active neglect and real physical and emotional abuse, but readers will be spared from thinking women have little agency to fight back and achieve self-determination by the grit, resolve, and ingenuity at work in “Poppies in the Snow”, “Paro”, and “The Sari Satyagraha” respectively. These three give the required modicum of balance to the volume, rescuing it from becoming an excessive potpourri of pathos. In this sense, Woman to Woman is not an exceptional or exciting departure from the larger tend of not just Indian women’s writing but also Indian writing in English. Interpretation may well be a game which takes two to tango, but authors do work within contexts. With our socio-cultural background being what it is, it is not really surprising that much of our literature is the polar opposite of light, and bright, and sparkling. Woman to Woman seems to mirror faithfully these framing realities of its background. It gives slices of life as they are for women: no more, no less. Short stories, like idlis, may well be difficult to go wrong with, but they look deceptively easy only because they are easily consumed. The energy and effort required for both is far from what appears obvious, and for its careful handling of the difficulties of giving readers a measured glimpse of the everyday, Woman to Woman stands as yet another successful milestone for Liddle.

The reviewer is a Doctoral Candidate with the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia. Views expressed here are his own




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