Feminist perspectives
Reviewed by Neel Kamal Puri

The Tale Retold: Selected Stories
By Alka Saraogi. Trans. Vandana R. Singh
Penguin Books.
Pages 168. Rs 199.

ALKA Saraogi’s The Tale Retold (originally in Hindi) is as much about the tale which is waiting to be told as it is about the story grappling with its own narrative structure. The cleverly innovative structure can become an integral part of a story, an additive to its essential flavour. In fact, it can even be the main course, as Orhan Pamuk has shown us in novels like My Name is Red and The Museum of Innocence. But the ploy of featuring a story within a story is the oldest in the book and can seem a trifle belaboured sometimes. It works in some of Saraogi’s stories, doesn’t in others. Many of the 17 stories fall into this genre.

The Tale Retold, the first story in the collection recounts the agony of a mother as she brings up a handicapped child and finally has him standing on his own feet. She tells the reader that she is temporally locating her story in the ninth and not third year of her child. Had she been talking of the third year, she says, she would have had to dwell on so much of that initial pain. And so, she tells the reader of that third year and then doesn’t quite, and thereby manages to rescue the story from becoming maudlin. The technique works to capture the layers of emotion with sensitivity but without dissolving into a surfeit of emotion.

But it doesn’t work in Death of a Tree, for instance, which tells the story of a storyteller. Jagannath Babu tells stories, changes jobs with unfailing regularity until his perspective gets hooked to the tree he can see from his window. The self-conscious metaphor of the tree with the colourful birds (a la W. B. Yeats) is quite overworked (and not just in this story) and suffers from fatigue by the end. There are other stories too where fiction finds its fruition in life, as in the story Confession where Meera’s narrative hangs in limbo until her father completes it for her with a reference to his own life. Or then life finds itself unworthy of a story as in the tale with the prosaic title of In Quest of a Story. There are other scattered observations on creativity in some of the other stories as well.

Most of the stories focus completely on the personal—relationships, choices, dilemmas, and inabilities—with a sympathetic understanding of characters and their motivation. Some, however, tend to pontificate as does A Letter to Mrs D’Souza or then Aak Egarsi. But stories with an overload of angst can become a heavy burden to carry. And a pity that, since the background of the stories is Calcutta and that should be a gold mine for any chronicler. Parveen Akhtar of Ripon Street, however, does foreground the personal but also captures the dynamism of the social milieu in which it is placed and that works a lot better.

Alka Saraogi’s forte is the richness of characterisation. People abound in her stories. The old woman in Hair Dye who has chosen to live by herself is both pitiable and nasty, courageous and oppressive, throwing up a choice between love and freedom in the narrator’s mind. The vivacious girl in An Expensive Book who very nearly falls into the trap of conformity and imitation but rediscovers her own personna is equally well etched. And though there are both male and female protagonists and narrators in these stories, but events are largely seen from a feminist perspective.

The translations by Vandana R. Singh read well, obviously retaining the flavour of the original with considerable ease. And perhaps the biggest compliment to the quality of a translation is that it does not read like one.