Incisive trilogy
Shalini Rawat

The Complete Fiction of Jaya Varma
Writers’ Workshop. Rs 950.

THE first volume Children and Other Stories that I picked up began on a refreshing note. It is a short story about two children who get lost in the big bad city and are rescued in the end (but with a twist in the tail). The rescuer’s husband decides to pick up a ransom by holding them hostage. What ends in high drama for the adults is simulated ‘play’ for the kids. It has insightful instances of adult role socialisation by the children when they actually behave as ‘mama’ and ‘papa’.

Jaya Varma
Jaya Varma

The second story Love is about the return of a woman to her husband’s home after being treated for a non-contagious form of leprosy and her forced segregation for a year and a half. Her disappointment at her return and the stigmatisation and alienation by the husband is a story that is being repeated in many an Indian home when the wife is diagnosed with an STD or tests HIV+. The realisation that the husband himself infected her doesn’t bring any personal or social acceptance.

The Chase is a story of love and fantasy woven into the warp and weft of history and the present. With a touch of magic realism, it talks of the passion of unrequited love over the centuries. If hits hard at the male propensity to fantasise regardless of age. It also takes a sneak peek at the double standards of society. The Backyard takes up the issue of wife-swapping, the protagonist’s fall into degeneration as she uses her body as a device for retribution and her somewhat improbable ascent to the road to salvation. There is no such scope in Confrontation, where a ‘respectable’ but depraved officer turns out to be a ‘client’ of his own daughter. The penultimate story Children of War is about the difficulties that a disabled couple faces and their apprehensions as parents to a normal child—as also the havoc a war wrecks upon many lives.

The second volume, Till Death do us Part, begins on an ominous note. It talks of an aged woman’s humiliation at the hands of domineering children—something that a lot of women undergo when they outlive their husbands and have no social security. The gender and the end are thankfully reversed in The Last Wish. You and I and Mother talk of the sensitivity of human bonding between twin sisters as well as of a mother for her son accidentally exchanged at birth. The last few stories deal with the dilemma of woman in today’s world and are surprisingly modern in their treatment of characters.

Mail is about a passionate meeting between a middle-aged couple who have only chatted over the Net so far. The Other Woman tries to make the private issue of abuse, especially the ‘harmless’ verbal variety, public and political. White Lies is about the discovery of a husband’s infidelity after his death. The Contact is a curious case of a spirit who cheats a woman of her property and her life.

What is most intriguing in the late Jaya Varma’s work is the common theme of betrayal that runs through almost all of her short stories and sets the tone of this novel as well. The protagonist’s betrayal by an adulterous husband and the same in the lives of friends she meets at a marriage explores the multi-hued nature of the word in the third volume Made in Heaven. Interestingly, it is always the women who are betrayed while the men carry on with their lives seemingly indifferent to what the women go through. Almost in every case, the betrayal is accompanied by economic exploitation as well. The irony of the titles of the last two works becomes abundantly evident. It is the double ignominy of being a victim and that too one who is not permitted a voice which the writer sketches so well.

The author has used a wide canvass to script the situation of Indian women in post-Independence era torn from their natal homes. The transitional society offered them little support and no independent identity, while refusing to rein in its men. The collection maps, quintessentially, lives lived in muffled grief and extreme loneliness with little hope of a dignified way out. However, it is this making public of the private, this disruption of silence of the women characters that paves the way for the evolution of a tomorrow with viable alternatives.