I have always enjoyed reading Madhulika Liddle's work, so much so that when her new book was released recently, I didn't have the patience to wait for a physical copy, and immediately got it on my Kindle! Whether it be her fabulous Mughal era detective series, featuring MuzaffarJang and allies, or her short stories (My Lawfully Wedded Husband and Other Stories) or her blog, Dusted Off, in which she writes mostly about classic Hindi cinema, she is always good to read.
Woman to Woman is her darkest work till now, yet never so dark that the reader is engulfed in gloom.
Nemesis takes unusual forms in these stories. However oppressed they may be, the protagonists ultimately find some form of justice. The stories cover a wide swathe of history and geography, with the stories set in fascinating locales and time periods.
In the story 'Paro', Sana is sold as a bride owing to the particular circumstance of a cow going into labour, delaying her journey to a wedding with her aunt. Floods wreak havoc that night. Their farm is destroyed. Sana's father sells her to Usman, who promises to get her married in far off Delhi. She is first married off to Basheer, a man older than her father, who is brutal, demanding, and unwilling to give her time to adjust to her new life, far from her home in the North East. A week later, he sells her to Sajid who takes her to his village, a few hours away from the capital. Neither her husband nor his family are good to her, but Sana learns to accept her lot for the sake of her children.
In 'Ambika', her father sends her out for his after dinner paan on a cold winter night. She is raped before she reaches the shop. That she can name her rapist convinces her father that she must have brought it upon herself, and the shame is too much for him to bear. Ambika, however, finds a reason to live.
'Mala' works as a domestic help in a prosperous household. Ashu, the three year old visiting grandson, is totally enchanted by this attractive young woman, as she feeds him good food and looks after him, along with her other chores. She entertains him with her stories, and calls him her little prince. Much of this story reflects a small child's innocent perspective. Things take a dramatic turn when the younger son of the family comes home.
In 'Woman to Woman', a prostitute and a nun share the back seat of a bus and a conversation about the paths their lives have taken, and what choices they had in leading the lives they did. The ending is particularly poignant.
'Collector of Junk' is one of the most moving stories I've ever read. The protagonist Munni speaks of her Amma, who had a food stall outside a flour mill. While mother and daughter worked, preparing the food, there would inevitably be someone beside Amma, talking to her. Munni finds it strange that so many people come to moan about their lives to Amma, who always gives them a patient, sympathetic and often confidential hearing, among them a woman called Sughra. An encounter with Sughra leaves Amma deeply upset, but she refuses to share anything with Munni. What is the worst thing that can happen to a human being? Amma's answer to her own question is the very heart of this profoundly moving, compassionate story.
'The Letter' tells the story of Inimai's eager anticipation of a visit from her son and his family: "she smiled a bright toothless smile to herself as she thought of her grandchildren running in the coconut grove, splashing along the stream, sitting in enraptured silence, listening to her stories." You can almost taste the various delicacies she prepares for her family!
'Two Doors' is a heartbreaking account of a marriage, and a young wife, Kamini's response to the expectations that surround her in this role: "Years of careful upbringing had taught her that you did not argue with your elders. You could argue with the establishment, you could question the government, you could stand up for your rights- but anybody a generation older, and known to you, was to be respected." There is pressure on her to bear a child. Her husband, Vishal, is not particularly keen on having a child, but a sudden tragedy changes his outlook. "In a matter of days, they went from near-abstinence to near-orgies. If something that lacked either love or lust could be called an orgy." Doctors are consulted, fertility procedures are followed. Kamini's anguish is expressed with great authenticity.
'Maplewood' is a story set in an old, colonial bungalow in rural Madhya Pradesh occupied by a lone woman, whose late husband had inherited it from an old bachelor uncle. She can no longer afford to stay in a rented flat in Mumbai. Her son lives and works there, but his halfhearted offer that she stay with him does not encourage her to do so. Adjusting to life in an entirely different terrain is not easy. She rarely steps out, most household necessities being purchased by the local woman who works for her. An encounter on a dark and stormy night has unforeseen consequences.
An old haveli in Old Delhi, belonging to a wealthy family. A long period of childlessness. The arrival of a beautiful daughter, Laxmi. On each birthday Laxmi's father bestows upon her some precious jewellery: the little sandook given to her on her first birthday is filled with various precious trinkets over the years. The prospect of marriage at age fifteen becomes Laxmi's reason for no longer going to school. Laxmi was married to an ancestor of the narrator of this story, who is fascinated to find an old photograph of a highly bejewelled woman at the back of her parents' wedding album. Laxmi's major interest in her trousseau was in the jewellery she was getting from her parents and the bridegroom's family. Her love for jewellery remains an obsession throughout her life. How it figures towards the end of her life is intriguing. 'Captive Spirit' is truly macabre.
'The Sari Satyagraha' is one of the lighter stories in this collection. It is about an overly controlling husband and his wife, during the time of the Non Cooperation Movement. He does not allow her to wear expensive sarees at home, despite being well off and well able to afford good clothes. In the spirit of nationalism, Mr.Chaturvedi decides to boycott all British-made goods. Sulakshana's sister-in-law, Devaki, visits her and disapproves of her shabby clothing, as well as her brother's attitude in general: "He may be my brother, Sulakshana, but I am under no delusions......Let him concern himself with trade and politics and other such matters. Where the household is concerned - and most importantly , where you are concerned - he cannot tell you what you should do and what you shouldn't." How does Sulakshana heed her sister-in-law's advice without overt rebellion against her husband?
'Wronged' is a story of relationships within a family, of the perception of who is wronged within a marriage, the shifting points of view of the grown up children of the couple concerned. Set in contemporary Delhi, the locales are familiar, and the conversations between the siblings form the narrative of this eloquent, fascinating story.
The final story in this collection, Poppies in the Snow, was longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. It is a painful, intricate story set in Kashmir, with insurgents and counter-insurgency, love, brutality. betrayal and revenge. Beautifully and evocatively descriptive, it brings the Valley alive on the page. A truly searing story.
Woman to Woman is a wonderful addition to Madhulika Liddle's oeuvre.