Tales of unspent emotions
Aruti Nayar

Inner Line: The Zubaan Anthology of Stories by Indian Women
Ed Urvashi Butalia. Pages 243. Rs 295.

A reading of this anthology suggests that it would be na`EFve to slot all women’s writing in a single category. The sheer range and variety is amazing, as the 16 short stories in this book with their nuanced experiences reveal. Veterans like Mahashveta Devi, Ambai, Shashi Deshpande, and Nayantara Sahgal rub shoulders with relative newcomers Tensula Aao, Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Anjana Appachana.

The narratives map the inner landscape of the protagonists and the dynamics of their world as most of them negotiate the minefield of relationships.

The subject matter varies from a critique of socio-cultural stereotypes that oppress a woman and unleash violence within her to the price she has to pay for insurgency, political strife and war.

If Incantations by Appachana, a multi-layered narrative, explains the oppression experienced by women within the confines of the Indian family, even driving them to death, then B. Chandrika’s The Story of A Poem depicts how Sushma, the main character is forced to suppress her creative flow and is denied her right to self-expression. She constructs a dual identity, giving vent to her dreams and desires on the sly, while fulfilling her role and responsibilities as a sedate housewife. The scattered pieces of her shredded poem symbolise her fractured identity as it were.

Mayadevi’s London Yatra by Bulbul Sharma combines humour with pathos. A steely matriarch, who rules the household in an autocratic manner, is so caught up in the image that neither she nor her family realise that she has a softer, "feminine" side to her. Fear and authority have always defined her relationship with her family, and it takes a gift from her British daughter-in-law (the first-ever gift she has received) to melt her and make her emotional. Sharma’s story is written with a delicate touch that is both amusing and ironical.

Menaka Tells Her Story by Chabria is a tale of trials and tribulations of the apsara Menaka. Written as an allegory, decontextualising Menaka and placing her in a postmodern world, Chabria makes the heavenly nymph a prototype of all women. It explains, with dexterous use of humour, how the curse on Menaka is being visited upon all women until today.

A Kitchen In the Corner of The House by Ambai is an evocative comment on how it is only the role of a nurturer that gives a woman her identity and place in the household. She can never quite rid herself and discover her relationship with the external world without all this baggage, as a comment in this story says it all: "If all this clutter had not filled up your mind then perhaps you too might have seen the apple fall; the steam gathering at the kettle’s spout; might have discovered new continents; written a poem sitting upon Mount Kailasam. Might have painted upon the walls of caves. Might have flown. Might have made a world without wars, prisons, gallows, chemical warfare."

From roles to relationships, especially the grey zone of undefined relationships, it is tricky terrain for most women. Be it in Sahgal’s Martand or Anita Agnihotri’s Life Sublime, which shows Malini and Arunabha’s delicate bond. How does one categorise relationships that are intense and deep and yet defy any slotting as far as social parameters are concerned?

Perhaps the stories, dealing, as they are with dilemmas and conflicts raging inside a woman, do not depict women in relation to the external world. It is a world where no winds from the changing socio-political reality filter in. In one way or another, a woman’s body becomes the site for many battles, be they for control, power, progeny or for just stamping ownership.

While veterans remain consummate storytellers and with a few deft strokes and practiced ease etch out characters and situations that are graphic. The younger lot like Vandana Singh and Sharma show surprising promise.

One wishes there were more stories with a varying tone and mood because many in this anthology have a brooding quality as though a blanket of despair has settled over them. Perhaps that is what a woman’s inner landscape is — seething with unspent emotions.