These stories written in three regional languages are about concern, commitment, sensitization and negotiation. The narratives enshrine that inimitable nuance that women writers instill into their gendered scripting of their views and vision of the micro and macro spaces of their experiences. I have selected eight short stories by some of the well-known women writers of the Eastern region. The four Bangla, two Assamese, one Khasi and one Oriya short story included here fairly represent contemporary women’s fiction of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Orissa. The translators have very diligently attended to the original texts and their meticulous endeavour has resulted in these excellent English translations. All six translators have been successful in re-creating in the target language the nuances of the original, while retaining as far as possible the regional flavour. Indira Goswami has translated her story herself, proving her skill as a very competent translator as well. The Khasi story is written in English.
Inter-personal relationships seem to be a recurrent theme in all the eight short stories, though the mode and attitude is quite distinct in each case. This sense of sameness and difference is borne out particularly well in the two Bengali short stories included here. These are “The Son” and “Twilight”. Both stories deal with kinship, old age, attitudinal shifts of adult offspring and blood relations towards aging parents and vice versa. These stories by Suchitra Bhattacharya and Kana Basu Mishra respectively, underscore the guilt complex and the psychic trauma and turmoil that generations of blood relations experience. Twilight is the tale of the twilight years of Amarnath, a retired professor. Also of central interest is his armchair, the one piece of furniture that he sticks to. Though his family wants him to throw it away, Amarnath refuses to part with his chair. The armchair remains with him, while his children drift away, absorbed in their lives and interests. The inevitability of old age and its loneliness is presented with sensitivity in this tale of “the light of other days”.
In “The Son” the promise of the arresting and dramatic opening lines is kept by the tale of the death of the mother after two long years of suffering. The heavy burden of expenses and that of loans, weigh on the son. The story is a sensitive analysis of the trauma of the care giver torn between love, duty, drudgery and boredom. The mother’s love and concern while she was healthy and the burden of illness that made her dependant and mute are both remembered by the son on her death. The house that was considered a prison was empty on her death. The tale concludes on a surrealistic note…
“Promita and I” by Bani Basu strikes a distinct note, for in this story the male narrator, the husband of Promita underscores the patriarchal traditional mindset about how a well meaning man feels frustrated and threatened by an intelligent and creative wife. He regrets her non-participation in the regular conventional chores of domestic life such as cooking, cleaning, entertaining guests, among other such stereotypical expectations of a married woman’s role in a family. Promita’s creativity drives a wedge between them from the very beginning of their marriage. Kanchan is understanding and patient but even patience runs out, when, on the day of their first wedding anniversary, all Kanchan’s careful planning is disrupted by the film director and actor who visit them. The stampede that follows turns to dust all that Kanchan had sought to salvage of the marriage. What haunts the reader is Kanchan’s consideration for Promita and his great love for her, while she, writer though she is, is insensitive.
“Battlefield” by Anita Agnihotri is an ambitious short story. It links history, myth and the present through a sophisticated codification, by bringing together the Battle of Plassey of 1757 with the micropolitics of personal experiences in independent India. Set against the backdrop of the battlefield of Plassey, the tale telescopes the present, private history of Abhiram, his wife Banani and family, especially his mother and his sister, who carry on a running feud with his wife and the historical events that led to the defeat of the Indians. As Geography teacher of a local school, Abhiram’s perception of history gives him an insight into the ranabhoomi of his private life and like the mango tree struck by the canon ball in the battle of Plassey, he could contain in himself the wounds of his private battlefield.
The two Assamese short stories “The Student of Nalanda University” and “The Offspring” included here are by Sahitya Akademi award winner Nirupama Bargohain and Gyan Pith award winner Indira Goswami, respectively. Nirupama Bargohain uses the very sensitive metaphor of the heritage hallmark of culture ‘Nalanda university’ in order to address the issues of economic class, education, adolescence and cultural decadence in her short story. Ironically, it is the servant boy, Hareshwar, sent to a night school, who triumphs over the children of the Barua household in sense, taste and higher moral standards. The exploitation, the poverty and the burden that children are made to bear is highlighted as a contrast to the easy going, yet empty and frustrating life style of their richer counterparts. The language of the tale with its regional flavor is faithfully preserved by the translator.
Indira Goswami’s story “The Offspring” reiterates with disturbing impact the deep rooted prejudices and patriarchal norms that make a woman destroy a newborn offspring fathered by a low caste male and a man trapped in a maniacal frenzy in his desire for a male heir of his own blood. This story has been personally selected and sent by the author for Samyukta’s fiction issue with permission to reprint it. “The Offspring” is the tale of Pitambar Mahajan, who longs for an heir, but it is also the tale of Damayanthi, the voluptuous Brahmin widow who is the object of Mahajan’s lust. The bed-ridden second wife of Mahajan, who sees everything and the first wife who is spoken of by the characters are shadowy presences in the tale. The slow building up of tension, the long and painful waiting of both the second wife for death and of Mahajan for life and the startling finale that is both tragic and horrific are well brought out by Goswami, the master craftsman.
The Khasi short story from Meghalaya, “The Girl in the Blue Jainsem” ushers in the refreshingly distinct socio-cultural environment of Meghalaya. The story is written in English by Bijoya Sawian who belongs to the North East and is a freelance writer. The story awakens awareness about the political high tension borders of the North East, and the military stationed in those parts all throughout the year. The references to the Presbyterian church alongside the worship of the Khasi God U Blei, Khasi traditional dance, the khasi traditional dress jainsem instead of the traditional sari, the sense of tri-generational family bondings, tell us about the exciting diversity in our pluralistic, multi lingual, multi religious country. It also tells us that love flowers inexplicably between two people who might not have any recognizable social and cultural links. Sawian’s tale, unlike numerous boy-meets-girl storylines is redeemed by the language that it is couched in. The surprise ending of the tale is indicated, in an O. Henry like fashion, by a clue that the writer places in the first half of the tale.
The final short story in this selection is from Orissa.This Oriya short story “The Untouchable God” is by Sahitya Akademi award winner Pratibha Ray. It is a very complex story translated with great skill and care by Sachidananda Mohanty. “The Untouchable God” is the tale of a beggar woman who freezes to death outside the temple of a famous deity. The thousands of worshippers who throng the temple do not spare a thought for the nude beggar woman who is considered crazy. They inundate the deity with gifts but do not spare a piece of cloth for the beggars. The child who begs for food is supposed to have “contaminated” the temple and made the deity “impure”. God too is made untouchable for a time. The tale points an accusing finger at the warped norms of society. The language of social protest is richly metaphoric and is successfully preserved in the translation.
These eight short stories from the Eastern region of India are like multi-colored hues of a rainbow, that etch an archway tantalizing the reader to visit the exciting sites to explore how the familiar becomes iconic, exuding both freedom and the power of pluralism, while the unfamiliar engenders dreams and visions through well known cultural territories and unexplored road maps.
The one significant fact that emerges out of such a selection is that though the stories have been written in different regional languages that represent very distinct cultural practices, customs and beliefs, that is, despite the overt differences that characterize the narratives, the overall impression that is registered is the crucial message that these are unmistakably Indian stories by Indian women. Quite inexplicably or maybe expectedly, without any conscious agenda of the sort, the stories underscore the Indianness of the textual representations that is deeply rooted within the Bengali, Assamese, Khasi and Oriya psyche and social conditioning
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