By Neera Kashyap
Out of Print magazine has produced an anthology of short fiction to commemorate ten years of its online existence, a curated selection compiled from work published in the magazine. Set up in September 2010, when there were very few literary platforms devoted to the short story in the subcontinent, the magazine was born of the understanding that this form has a unique place in Indian and sub-continental literature. In creating this anthology, Out of Print – Ten years: An anthology of stories, the editor Indira Chandrasekhar has brought together some of the finest examples of short fiction, a coming together of a diverse variety of geography, style, range, content, skill and translation that makes this a fascinating collection for the reader. As a form emerging from the subcontinent, Chandrasekhar writes in her introduction: “(The anthology) portrays the idea of this united space – a virtual sub-continental geography – as a network of writing that crosses political boundaries, gender divisions and examines prejudices and anxieties, both individual and collective.”
Organised into five sections, each with five to seven stories, the anthology has thirty stories in all. The sections have interesting titles such as ‘Making the myth my own’, ‘Oracles and beating hearts’, ‘Living together’ and ‘Reality Imagine’. Each section has a well-known writer introduce the segment with thought-provoking comments that link the stories through their underlying connectedness. This design itself coheres the book for the reader, giving pause to absorb each segment and each segment as part of the whole.
If one cuts across segments, one sees that a dominant theme of the anthology is sexuality. Sexuality itself has many shades here: sexual abuse and violence; love and sexuality; sexuality and death; the longings of puberty. In the mythology section, commentator Samhita Arni writes: “Rewriting the stories from mythology allows us a means of inserting contemporary contexts and voices into these stories, inviting us to interpret the present through myths of the past, reflecting and observing changing paradigms and unchanging truths.”
In Shashi Deshpande’s “The three princesses of Kashi”, while Ambika from the Mahabharata realises that she is just a helpless pawn in the hands of the powerful, and sees the cause of her own son Dhritarashtra’s obduracy as the weakness of fatherly indulgence, the most interesting scene is the re-creation of her sexual encounter with Vyasa. While she is terrified throughout, there is a curious touch of tenderness in the encounter, as if the ‘night visitor’ is not a mere savage but a detached instrument in the game of destiny, a passer-by who knows he will never return. In between the two sexual acts, he sits with his legs crossed under him, as if meditating. Yet, because she resists, there are shades of violence – “he was like an unbridled horse which had gone out of control”; “I felt I had been trampled upon by an elephant.”
There is a striking contrast in the language and mind-sets of women in two of the stories who respond to sexual violence and abuse in distinct ways. In the traditional well-structured plot of Ajay Navaria’s, “Honour” (translated from the Hindi by Sudarshan Purohit), the story is of Usha, a rural nursing assistant’s remarkable courage against all odds. Everything is stacked against her: disrespect towards women, the power of a government position, the ambivalence of a husband given to jealousy and self-pride, casteism and the uncertainty of even finding refuge with a caste sister, the expedient alliances quickly knit together to commit a horrendous deed with impunity. Finally, in the blurred disorientation of assault, Usha takes recourse to the mythical, even as she decides to stage a fight back: “The villagers, terrified of Usha’s fiery form, scattered. She stepped out of the temple, and crushed the sarpanch, Hira Singh and the five panches underfoot all together. In the panchayat, the women standing to the side began taking off their clothes and throwing them at the men sitting in the panchayat.”
In Zui Kumar-Reddy’s, “Look me in the I”, the protagonist has the advantage of a modern mind-set. Her own schoolgirl experiences of being stalked by an old man are slight compared to her mother’s who, as a child, was fingered repeatedly by her uncle. With one thing leading to another, it was the tuition teacher who then dragged her out and did things that she couldn’t talk about. The important thing here is that the mother has spoken to her daughter about this. While this parental backing allows the protagonist to express anger through lively mental expletives and to be active in public campaigns against sexual abuse, there is a curious helplessness within the larger family structure: “My mother is a goddess…It’s just that everyone keeps calling him Bishi, dear cousin Bishi, the friendly neighbourhood fingerer… ‘Shit fuck would be more appropriate’.”
Another kind of gender abuse – of alternate sexual needs – is seen in “Bed bug” by Vasudhendra (translated from the Kannada by Rashmi Shrikant Terdal). Shankar, as a schoolboy, has strong effeminate tendencies. But with a sweet and generous nature, he has the capacity to laugh with others at himself. To his small-town orthodox and socially powerful family, his womanliness is a bitter pill to swallow. Fear and suppression set in after his father locks him up, whips him black and blue “to try and beat his girlish ways out of him.” A series of subsequent failures in life leads to Shankar finally leaving for Bombay where he castrates himself, returns to his family home to start commercial sex with men, refusing to leave the property as it is his inheritance too. The story demonstrates how a lack of love and family understanding can bring out the underside of a person with a different sexual orientation: malice, revenge, pig-headedness, and a reckless indifference to social norms.
A different need – but powerful nonetheless – is a lightweight and miniscule schoolboy’s coming of age need to belong. In Mohit Parikh’s “Recess”, a natural and sensitive story, the boy doesn’t ask for much: just a moustache, a good height, being worthy of tenth grade and to “blend in and become an indistinguishable part of a miscible mixture.” As readers, we discover his name only at the end – Manan – but note quite early his brilliance, and yet none of this matters. In the middle of rowdy schoolboy prattle, he asks the all-important question, “When does one’s voice change?” His schoolmates’ response: a loss of words and discomfort. It is here that Parikh enables the reader to share in Manan’s tragedy: the astounding recognition that nobody ridicules him; he is not someone their equal who has earned the right to be ridiculed, for “he does not yet belong with them.” The powerful symbol at the end of the school bell’s ringing seen as something eternal and unchanging is also Manan’s despair that this will be his own condition.
A barren sexual unattractiveness also brings its own tragedy. In “The reincarnation of Chamunda” by Annam Manthiram, the goddess’ emaciated form is transposed into the painful rejections experienced by an Indian woman living in America, as she readies herself for her 45th bride viewing. Seema’s grandmother, deserted while pregnant for a fairer woman, had been feminist enough to warn her: “Chamunda’s emaciated form terrifies men who see her…do you know why? Chamunda rode a man because men are weak. Seema, always remember this whenever a man tells you that you cannot do something.” Manthiram uses a sharp acerbic style to show that this warning comes true in Seema’s life, but without the commensurate strength needed to bear it. Instead, Seema resorts to increasingly desperate ploys to acquire a good skin, an attractive body and youthfulness. Manthiram uses powerful metaphors: for trying to feel young, the metaphor is a copious consumption of onions: “When I felt old, I peeled back a layer of an onion and touched the fresh meat inside. And once there was no more skin to peel back, I ate the sugary turnip-shaped heart and felt instantly young again, until it was time to peel another onion.” The death aspect runs through the story, as Seema reads one obituary after another till she is so disoriented that she no longer knows which is which.
Then there is love without sexual fulfilment. In “The year of the Kurinji”, Vidya Ravi uses a flowing mythical lyricism melding tradition with modernity, unrequited love with an intense sexual need. Ravi first builds a skilful foundation for the marriage which is both gentle and romantic, yet unrequited, because Krishna’s husband Jagan is impotent. She has four bachelor brothers-in-law which invokes the myth of Draupadi. Her natural coyness is juxtaposed with her fantasies as she imagines the brothers having sex with modern girls on the beach at night, their kisses and sighs muffled by the high tide. Using poetic imagery to probe her needs, Ravi’s protagonist returns to the hill where the kurinji flower blooms – the site of her honeymoon – and spends the night there, feeling the fulfilment of the married deities, Valli and Murugan “while the blossoms drip like wax from bushes overhead.” It is here that she makes the choice of her sexual partner. Unlike Draupadi, she chooses just one brother to satisfy her needs, even as she will take back the kurinji to her husband to lay on his chest.
There is asexual love too. One of the most beautiful stories is Jayant Kaikini’s “The threshold’ (translated from the Kannada by Pratibha Umashankar Nadiger). Brilliantly translated, it flows as magically as the love it invokes. Kaikini has a rare skill of getting the reader to identify with his characters: we identify with Muchchi Mian’s shop of discarded parts of old houses and furniture beneath an old tree, a space created by placing a piece of plywood across a sewer. The key metaphor in the story is an old wooden dressing table with a full-length mirror in the centre of the shop. In it, he watches with fascination the drama of daily life unfold. The magic begins when he sees an amazing sight: “someone who looked like a celestial being stood running her delicate fingers through her freshly washed hair, engrossed in her own reflection.” He is mesmerized, barely able to breathe. The story builds up to reveal more and more of her presence and his worshipful silences, till the crises of doubt and demolition are resolved through her eyes that finally stare into his, revealing all the suffering, sorrow, and squalor of human existence. As for Mian, for the reader too, the woman assumes form and feeling in the most poignant, taut, and dramatic writing that still leaves much unsaid.
There are stories of love that allow scope for deeper reader interpretation. In “Seven little rooms”, written and translated from the Hindi by Mridula Garg, there is the legend of the seven sisters. All unmarried, they are prevailed upon by the villagers to jump to their death to appease the gods for the prolonged drought that plagues the village. Six sacrifice their lives but the seventh runs away with her lover. Water – both hot and cold – springs up from their fleeing footsteps. This water is dammed and kept locked by the priests for fear of it being polluted by the return of the ‘impure’ one. It is also possible to see this legend as the runaway sister finding true love, hence the springing up of life-giving water from the lovers’ feet, and not from the enforced sacrifice of the other six. But there is a huge price to pay: not only is the water unavailable for use but the phantom sister returns every new moon to wash clothes at the edge of a steep precipice – perhaps to wash away the sins of social orthodoxy.
In Anita Roy’s “Jenna”, there is the strangeness of love that needs unravelling. Two women are locked up together in a ward reserved for those accused of reproductive crimes. The story reveals through surreal images and dreams the protagonist’s transformation from an attitude of strong vexation towards her mute, ugly and huge cellmate to something that reflects love. This is felt in the cellmate’s absence when she is forcibly taken away – perhaps because intense maternal connections are forged subconsciously. Writes commentator Urvashi Butalia in her introduction to this segment, “a prisoner (is) taken away in the night leaving only a sense of a presence, a memory of something shared, ineffable, elusive and precious.”
This discussion on just two themes in the anthology that relate to sexuality and love reveal the range that Chandrasekhar has achieved in her selection, encompassing a diversity of content and style, and shades that reflect a kaleidoscopic whole.
Then there are two delightful stories full of humour and wryness. In Anjum Hasan’s “The big picture”, Mrs Ali transcends both the comfort of finding art as home and the discomfort of unexpected postmenopausal menstruation through the epiphany of sitting alone and ordering a bottle of wine in a European café outside the Museum of Modern Art – a moment of extreme ease shared with other artists, native to the city. Then there is the wry humour that runs through Altaf Tyrewala’s ‘Mischief in Neta Nagar’. The writer uses deliberate exaggeration to portray the extreme indifference of a slum dweller who uses his wife to ignite a conflict simply to entertain himself with its consequences, to break out of the ‘devil’s workshop’ state of inactivity and indolence. Both stories bubble with life.
Inevitably, there are stories of violence too. Annie Zaidi’s story, “Sujata” is best described by commentator, Sharanya Manivannan: “Zaidi’s story has a heartbeat-quickening pace as a protagonist finds herself hunted down by her long-term abuser .…if your life isn’t confined by place, then how can it be changed by leaving a place? You just have to wait it out. And when this time is past, you will see that you have moved on, carrying all your baggage with you.” The denouement is thoroughly engaging for there is no guilt, no relief – just a sense of riddance, unexpected in its fearless indifference. Then there is “Baba Bagloos” by Mustansar Hussain Tarar, beautifully translated from the Urdu by Raza Naeem. Seen through the eyes of an old forgotten jailbird, it is a powerful record of history during the British era, of the latest methods of torture and the spectacle of a public hanging, animatedly viewed by the public. The thought-provoking question that Baba raises is: “What does a man become, after becoming free.”
Twelve out of the thirty stories in this anthology are translations from different Indian languages. Once again this reveals Chandrasekhar’s vision in bringing much-needed diversity, style, and content to the table. The stories also come from countries in the subcontinent – Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka – and one from Nigeria, further afield, and covers even more themes that have not found mention in this review: themes of class, death, loss, hope, grief, and relationships.
Perhaps, it is best to conclude with writer-translator Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s words that appear as praise at the start of the book: “Over a decade of publishing Out of Print, Indira Chandrasekhar and her team has provided a platform to authors, translators and artists across genres that has grown in its importance and influence. The present anthology, commemorating some of the finest writings published in Out of Print over the first decade of its publishing history, is not to be missed.”
Neera Kashyap is a poet, short fiction writer and book reviewer. Her work has appeared in several international journals and poetry anthologies. Her book reviews have appeared in Kitaab and The Bangalore Review.
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