Snatches of inner strife
Aruti Nayar

To Each Her Own
An Anthology of Contemporary Hindi Short Stories
Compiled and Translated
by Vandana R. Singh National Book Trust, India.
Pages 216. Rs 95.

The anthology comprises 22 short stories, originally written in Hindi by women writers but not necessarily about women. They encapsulate the contemporary urban experience. Singh makes available an entire realm of creative expression not only of the ‘pillars’of Hindi literature such as Krishna Sobti, Mannu Bhandari, Mridula Garg, Manjul Bhagat, Mamta Kalia and Chitra Mudgal but also the second-generation voices like Alka Saraogi, Geetanjali Shree, Nasira Sharma, Rajee Seth and Rekha.

The double bind of being a woman in a conservative society and the effort required to negotiate a space for oneself while trying to offer resistance to practices that seek to shackle is evocatively brought out in many of these stories. Sona in The Pale Girl by Mamta Kalia and Rama in A New Job by Mannu Bhandari are examples of women trying to break the mould but pushed into role playing. It is Geetanjali Shree’s Private Life that shocks one into an awareness of how in an ostensible effort to ‘protect’ a woman, whatever her age, the family encroaches upon her right to live on her terms. The protagonist, who ironically is nameless and referred to as She, (every woman or a stereotypical prototype), is humiliated because she has chosen to live alone in a flat. The perception of her uncle, aunt and the landlord is that she can’t be left alone because ‘a private life’ is a depraved life. Manjul Bhagat’s A Tattered Doll portrays the double standards of society as Neha is forced to take a divorce because she is in a sexless marriage. Nasira Sharma’s A Third Front, an elegy to the violence in Kashmir which has reduced people to pawns, is moving. The hounded woman encountered by Rahul and Rahim says: ‘I am a woman and a woman’s identity is neither Hindu nor Muslim... I am a mother. I have to bury my children. I am a wife. I will have to wait for my husband. I’m a woman so I have to survive in the face of injustice. I can’t run or hide. I have to continue living’.

It is the time-tested veterans who win hands down. The simplicity of a narrative is its strength and the layers that make for a story well told with effortless ease is exemplified by Mannu Bhandari’s Spectacles and Krishna Sobti’s Lama. Alka Saraogi’s Aak Egars is surreal and a critique of society. ‘Aa’ stands for aane wala, ‘K’ for kal and ‘Egarsi’ for 11 or the eleventh generation to which the boy called Aak Egarsi belongs. His dialogue with the writer reveals the complex social reality as brought out by this futuristic tale. Saraogi uses the same technique, that is using an incident to make a broad social critique in Addressed To Mrs D’ Souza. To Each His Own by Chitra Mudgal is an eloquent comment on wife-swapping as a game. Rajee Seth’s Beyond The Blind Turn, a story of how a woman can become a captive of her desires and Rekha Sharma’s Beauty Parlour, a narrative that skilfully brings out the vacuum and lonely inner landscape of a man who helps women present a beautiful face to the outside world, are stories that convey a multiplicity of emotions simultaneously.

The quality of translation is uneven and, sometimes, large tracts of prose leave the reader cold, as in On Being An Editor’s Wife ...And A Writer. The nuances that make a story and keep the reader hooked to the book are few and far between. Perhaps the long sentence structure is to blame. An effort should have been made to pare the sentences and hone the finished product to make the translated work stand on its own.

The anthology lacks a focus. When one is engrossed in a story about finding space and negotiating a relationship(s), suddenly one comes across a story of an NRI’s marginalisation as in Alias Sam by Mridula Garg. What is commendable is Singh’s sincere effort to make available stories in Hindi to a wider audience.