Niharika’s Bookshelf: “Small Remedies”

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Small Remedies by Shashi Deshpande

First published in Viking by Penguin India in 2000

Published by Penguin- 2001

“We see our lives through memory and memories are fractured, fragmented, almost always cutting across time.”(1) This line forms the central core of ‘Small Remedies’. More often than not, life is not shaped by a chronological set of events, represented by a straight line. It is the memories, happy and sad, that define life in entirety.

This Metafictional novel by Shashi Deshpande explores the lives of two great women- Savitribai Indorekar and Leela, who, by breaking conventional norms and ideas create a niche for themselves in a rather hostile society. These events, looked upon as controversial, occur at a time when the world at large is still apprehensive about women taking to professions such as music (Bai) and politics (Leela). Madhu, Leela’s niece now attempts to make sense of the lives of these two women and at the same time, come to terms with the trauma (losing her son) looming over her own life. The identity that these women choose for themselves is very different from Madhu’s choice of full time motherhood. It is the most revolutionising emotion of her life. But has this got to do with her own insecurity of being motherless and losing her father at a young age? Some identities are imposed, some are gained, some just form sub-consciously. Towards the end, what really matters? Did Leela, despite her commitment and love for both her work and the people in her life deserve to die such a painful death? Did Bai’s single-minded determination directed towards her music invite hatred and abandonment from her own daughter? Despite her achievements, who is truly with her in her last days? Is this abandonment an answer to her selfishness?  The story of the novel itself becomes secondary when placed in comparison with the complex philosophical questions it chooses to ask.  By making situations bigger than characters, the book attempts to find answers to the purpose of life, the small remedies that it offers against the backdrop of death, illness and forged relationships.

Deshpande offers a plausible narrative that is placed in perfect sync with the theme. What appears to be rather ill-structured and isolated at the beginning comes together like the small pieces of a jigsaw puzzle— like memories which when put together create a whole new world.  The author also places some very relevant questions about motherhood, marriage as an institution, unrecognised social relationships that still form a part of contemporary lives. The journey of women towards selfhood in a patriarchal society does not necessarily call for binary oppositions. Rather than coming to  judgemental conclusions or offering solutions(despite the backdrop), the writer draws a graphic picture of their existence, leaving all else open to interpretation. The beauty of the novel however will lie not, in that proposition. Ultimately, it is these small remedies that provide a reason for survival. It is survival that takes priority over all human endeavours; an instinct that every human possesses, irrespective of how bleak the situation may seem. It is these memories, that we sometimes wish to run away from, that sometimes make us want to freeze time, that live with us and give us the hope, the courage and strength to keep going. “As long as there is memory, there’s always the possibility of retrieval, as long as there is memory, loss is never total.” (2)

1-Small Remedies, Shashi Deshpande: Page 165

2- Small Remedies, Shashi Deshpande: Page 324

Niharika’s Bookshelf: “AMEN: The Autobiography of a Nun”

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Penguin Books India 2009

The discretion to be made either while reading or writing about the autobiography of marginalised women is almost negligible. Most of these, coming from a relative or an absolute subaltern, are a revolt against society, institutions, systems and most of all people, who choose to carry the legacy of unjust social prejudices and meaningless subjugation, violence and oppression. After all, politics, religion, caste, class and social thought work together; they collaboratively or individually influence the other.

These autobiographies, thus, need to be judged at two levels, perhaps three: as a cathartic process for the sufferer, as a rebellion on the systems or institutions that victimise them and at the larger level: a desperate call for a renaissance.  Sister Jesme’s autobiography is an interesting read from many dimensions, given the chastity, sacredness and numerous other moralistic ideals we associate with religious life. That is the standard that unfortunately, we are conditioned to believe- renunciation is the sole path to salvation. To brand this book from an extremely commercial sense- it is scandalous, yet the honesty with which life inside the four walls that preach sanctity has been depicted, cannot be treated lightly. What we now complain as factors that are detrimental to the nation’s development and progress are strife and rampant at the less publicised religious level. Corruption, power games, homosexual relationships between nuns, class distinctions, sexual abuse by nuns and priests, mental torture – these are what Sr Jesme describes as frequent and natural happenings at the convent. At each crucial juncture of entering religious life, right from the Pre-Novitiate, Jesme has severe hurdles to overcome- those raised by her colleagues, counterparts and fellow sisters. She rises above them, despite many bruises and wounds, with faith intact. That seems to be one of the more positive aspects of this account. Irrespective of those who claim themselves to be the messengers of God and misuse that power, faith in that higher power will remain unblemished.

As far as a story line is concerned there is nothing much to look into. It is a series of incidents that exemplify the hypocrisy and the double standards of the church. The book simply achieves what it is meant to. What makes this one an important landmark is the strength to come beyond repressed silence and bare open to the world- the condescending truth. It completely demolishes our naïve idea of religious institutions and the life that comes with it. However, it does nothing to shake our belief in higher power; in fact, it reiterates the existence of one. Sister Jesme’s vision stands clear-‘I would like to give you as much freedom as you want, provided you are also that responsible. “Freedom with Responsibility” – that is my policy. I am going to open wide the portals of this college. Men and women may interact in the auditorium and the campus. You live in a society comprising both. Learn from now on how to treat the opposite sex. A lack of responsibility will lead to this freedom being curtailed. That is, please don’t misuse the freedom given to you.’

If only such an ideology that combines liberty with responsibility is nourished with an unconventional outlook, surely our notions will have a more prudent change.

Niharika’s Bookshelf: Autobiography of a Sex Worker

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Nalini Jameela, Autobiography of  a Sex Worker, Westland Publishers, Paperback Edition, 2008.

One of the more beautiful qualities of a subaltern autobiography is that it comes straight from the heart, devoid of superficialities. However, it has its own limitations as well- one being that it cannot often be judged with the regular standard of a novel. I have tried to see it at both levels.

The Autobiography of a Sex Worker by Nalini Jameela falls in this category. It seems like a series of unfortunate events put together, to make a tale. The tone carries forth the writer’s aim of wanting to simply tell her story, rather than arousing the sympathy of the reader.  But she definitely wants to keep the readers in the know-how. Starting from the huge ancestral house that Nalini’s first few years were spent in, the financial difficulties that followed, to the problems of belonging to an upper caste and working as a laborer and finally resorting to sex work for survival, this story draws upon society’s prejudices and well nested shallow establishments. It could be classified a bildungsroman novel, with only a few relevant and pertinent questions asked at the end. (After Nalini becomes a significant part of the organizations spreading awareness and calling for dignity of sex workers) The narration becomes rather bland and inconsequential after a while, if looked at from one angle. The adventures, the struggle for survival, the going back on forth on decisions to make money, the protective instincts- all these are almost an essential part of subaltern diaries. They are alien to the upper class who most often read them and slightly familiar to the middle class who are the passive observers. That is exactly what the book seeks to change; to familiarize and change attitudes and perceptions. If that’s how the book is read into, the bigger message from a one person experience, then the world could be a much bettewant to ask these people whether they have ever tried to find out about sex workers’ family ties, social ties. Is it possible to build afresh their domestic ties and social ties through rehabilitation? Won’t this merely leave the sex worker all the more isolated and helpless?

We demand that sex work be decriminalized. … By ‘decriminalizing’, what we mean is this: if two people want to have sex by common consent, if this is in no way a nuisance to others, then it should not be questioned’ says Jameela.

It is almost impossible to deconstruct what is deeply construed in the society’s collective conscious. But the way this question has been constructed by the writer leaves hope. Most often, the need for sex work arises out of poverty, crime and insufficiency. But if those involved are there voluntarily, then do we have the right to judge them? But again, would this lead to nourishment of a patriarchal society? Does our prejudice of commercial sex work stem from our secretive attitude towards sex? She then goes onto say-‘ …In general feminists are reluctant to accept sex workers. I think that’s because they cannot see that sex is a woman’s need as well.’

It is difficult to see how such an ideology will fit into present day society. But, with more such, a renaissance in good time will help the cause of modern day “taboos.”

Niharika’s Bookshelf:”Body Maps:Stories by South Asian Women”

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Body Maps: Stories by South Asian Women, Zubaan Publications, Edited by Radha Chakravarty, 2007-12-01, Delhi

Confronting issues that are considered taboo in an exhaustively conscious and judgemental society, this collection of short stories explore women in the background of culture, tradition, maternity, sexuality, identity, desire, lust and love. It seeks to find answers to questions and in turn question the integrity and the relevance of the constricted answers. It is a bold attempt by the South Asian writers and the central emphasis in each of the stories has not been lost in translation, it seems.

Most of them also have abstract story lines, attempting to deal with the subject in contention with less explanation and more with vivid, gory descriptions. “The Sandal Trees” by Kamala Das would be an exception in this regard; it traces the long journey of two friends whose love for each other eventually tears them apart. It is a convincing look at lesbianism and inescapable compromise to fit within the expectations of a community. Quite contradictory to this is the story of a Bangladeshi woman whose ambition to fight for her country leads her to break all norms, and abscond to serve her motherland.  The plight of a woman is highlighted — oppression, subjugation, abuse. Instead of a sympathetic tone, however, the writer adopts a rather “matter of fact” approach to her story exuding a feel of justification ambition once realised cannot hold one behind the veil.

The marvels of science that have upgraded our lives cannot be undervalued. “The Flower Vase” and “Unfaithful Servants” have encompassed the aspect of scientific dependence in life. Though one accepts this notion, the other highlights the manipulation of science for human greed and revenge.

The much debated teenage pregnancies and abortion are discussed in Ambai’s “Once Again” and Indira Goswami’s “Off Spring” respectively. Refusing to carry the child of the man of a lower caste, the main protagonist in Ambai’s story is portrayed as a strong yet prejudiced woman who proves that tables can be turned and it is not always the women who can be doubly oppressed.

“The Photographs” is a refreshing change from the otherwise heavy collection, with its simple tale devoid of conflict and trauma. It holds a lot of sub text in its simplicity and is filled with the moments one recollects on  bright, sunny mornings.

All in all, this edition is the new age feminist’s paradise.

Niharika’s Bookshelf: “In Other Words,” an anthology

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In Other Words- New Writing by Indian Women, Edited by Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon, Kali for Women.

First published in 1992, Second impression-1995, New Delhi

The knowledge that this anthology was first published over a decade ago, calls for a significant change in the way I should perceive it.  (The after effect- wanting to take a pen, a nice smelling book and put down in ink, the review.) It would do great for us, if we observe what revolutionary progress the genre of short fiction writing by women has undergone over time; taking this one as the relative foundation for the present. The collection would definitely not fall under the bracket of “novel writing”. Nor can it be considered the centrifuge of some intriguing story telling. However, it can definitely be construed as the best initiative taken, the perfect start to inspire, motivate and initiate women to look into their seemingly dull worlds with refreshing new mindsets and paint them to their choice of colour.

Short fiction is a personalised way of story telling. Hence the variety produced differs notably. It looks like the editors have, consciously made this one a compilation of versatile writings. Women writing about women has been a sign calling for empowerment, a plea to the rigid society to look at things in the same background, with a different vision, from the point of the “other”. What touched me most were these stories- “Sara” by Manorama Mathai, “Mallika Farida” by Shalini Saran, “The Smothering” by Ritu Bhatia and “Rites of Passage” by Bulbul Sharma. They possessed a certain substance, a specific criticism of unquestioned faiths, and a keen observation of the blind rituals of society. The monotony of Shashi’s life in “The Smothering” is portrayed with such realism that it feels like one might easily drift into that presence of gloom, the thoughts of which are often instantly blocked to sustain the meaning of living. Her insecurities, her building adjustment, compromise and acceptance of the lonely life abroad with a foreign husband is perhaps the story of many. The child’s naive view of being a ‘manglik’ in “Rites of Passage” and the subsequent treatment that follows this identity is the standard of an impressive narrative- it speaks without elaborate telling. Many of the subtle criticisms made, of culture and people will go unnoticed, unless you look for them. Hence, look for the cryptic poignancy.

Most others are endearing tales of companionship, love and respect. Highly individuate and serving as wonderful reminiscences, they capture the instinctive compassion and empathy that are considered essence of a woman’s nature. This beauty reflects in the writing, and the first person account adds to the charm. You can associate these with your own experiences in the past, the utopia, the small disappointments, the simplicity of emotions and life. It’d be fair to say that it is this kind of writing that seems to have vanished in the last many years; and you can’t blame me for wanting to write down in ink, the review, as I had mentioned! “Thanks, anyway” by Achala Bansal, “Portrait of a Childhood” by Shama Futehally and “The Remains of the Feast” by Githa Hariharan have explored the personal ties and human connection that make periods of life near absolute happiness. Sure, there is an attraction and intelligence in cynicism but I’d say, there is something beyond that too. These stories make up for that connection, the world view, we have almost lost.

The review of Body Maps (A recent collection of short stories by South Asian women), will highlight the difference or progress made in this genre.

Niharika’s Bookshelf: “A Life Less Ordinary”

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A Life Less Ordinary by Baby Halder

Translated by- Urvashi Butalia

Originally published in Bengali as- Aalo Aandhari

Publisher- Zubaan

http://www.zubaanbooks.com/zubaan_books_details.asp?BookID=51

Sometimes, extraordinary lives make ordinary stories. Sometimes, it perhaps happens the other way round. Baby Halder’s memoir is a gut wrenching tale of struggle, violence, repression, suppression and exploitation-these, often synonymous with the subaltern voice. What stands out in this one however is the tone adapted, the rationality with which an untrained, uneducated writer weaves her story. It makes you wonder if education clouds the thinking process so much, that we, the educated often feel impaired when it comes to grasping the powerful tools of clarity and objectivity. That’s how Baby chooses to tell her story- simple yet deep; questioning some of life’s primary turns and coming to a mature understanding of it over a period of time. The earthiness is felt, the subtlety and the beauty of the emotions experienced.

Abandoned by her mother as a young child, often neglected and ill-treated by a father who was coming to terms with his own frustrations, Baby’s childhood fades like an elusive dream. She tries to describe the strong child’s instincts as the young bride but feels hesitant to take the step because of her married status and the laughter this elicits from the neighbours. That defines the real personality of this child-woman who, if not for the ill-fate that marred her early life, would have been a cheerful soul spreading joy in her environment. Facing intermittent pregnancies devoid of healthcare, nothing seemed even a lone star in this young woman’s life. The image painted of her family is inconsistent, as if they were trying to show love and affection but eventually choosing their own comfort and well-being over hers. To add to this early childhood trauma and marriage, she is forced to face incessant physical and emotional abuse from her husband, who seems the only real “monster” in the book and is consistently animal-like. He is perhaps a little softened by his children, but refuses to take the responsibility of their lives. After going through multiple exploitative employers, struggling to feed her three children, family losses and several relocations, hope finally comes in her magnanimous employer Tatush (Prabodh Kumar). His concern, kindness and encouragement propel Baby to take up both reading and writing seriously. And what we have today, as a result of those candle light burning sessions is a wonderful life story of courage and resistance.

This story definitely does not necessitate a critical analysis or judgement. It goes way beyond that kind of dissection. It must be remembered for some of its unique yet endearing lines, its aim; of liberating more women caught up in the strangles of this hazardous endurance by putting to use basic education, and finally, realising passion and pursuing it with all determination.