Saturday, November 3, 2012

Book Review: Another Man's Wife

Manjul Bajaj's collection of nine short stories is a worthy successor to her debut novel, Come, Before Evening Falls. She takes you across the country, from Bengal, to Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Uttar Pradesh, Kashmir, Chennai and Gujarat. Each story is peopled with wholly believable characters, reflecting aspects of contemporary Indian life, as well as some eternal truths.
As always, her wealth of knowledge of topics as varied as the technicalities of Kathak, varieties of mangoes, jazz , agriculture, chikan embroidery, self-help groups, and tribal culture and traditions,  adds immensely to the richness of the narrative tapestry she weaves.

The first story, Ripe Mangoes, tells a tale of betrayals of love and relationships, as well as the acceptance of these betrayals. A married woman, much to the chagrin of her adoloescent daughter, sleeps with her children's resident tutor. The truth of their relationship, and that of the narrator and her husband, is an eye-opener.

Crossed Borders tells the familiar story of a household servant murdering his employer and his family, for a reason that is wholly plausible. It seems like a trivial reason, but he is realistic enough to know that nothing will remain the same, and he has to take the  salary owing to him, a huge sum for him, and leave. Things go horribly wrong, and he has four deaths on his hands. The story of his escape and subsequent redemption is grippingly told.

The Birthmark underscores the tragedy of sex determination in the state of Punjab, and how a stray 'birthmark' changes the course of events for Bhushan's family, particularly for his wife, their erstwhile servant, Ulsha Minj, who has been 'imported' from her native Jharkhand.
Where had Bhushan got her? From the cattle market in neighbouring Haryana. He had bought her outright, he said, with the money they got from the sale of the buffaloes. They needed a woman around the house desperately.  Bhushan's mother tries to ensure that Ulsha Minj aborts her female foetus, but fate has other plans. The story ends on a positive, heart-warming note.

Me and Sammy Fernandez is a tragic story of a love soured by suspicion, violence, and bloodshed. The narrator, Cory Dinshaw, has been an ardent fan of Amethyst Fernandez, a famous Goan singer, and is shocked by her suicide. Her son, Sammy, is also a singer, and Cory falls in love with him. It is a difficult situation, as her parents, particularly her father, are loath to have her mary a non-Parsi. Marriage, however, changes things between them. There should be a rule against letting lovers marry. It's like allowing the blind to walk the tightrope. Or taking fish out of water and asking them to swim. Or asking HIV positive men to donate sperm. Reckless. Irresponsible. Doomed from the word go. The very first night of their married life, Cory sees Sammy's brutal, paranoid behaviour. Cory finds it hard to leave this marriage, though. First there were my parents.......Before I could apologize and tell them I had been wrong in marrying Sammy, they apologized and told me they had been wrong is opposing my marriage......Then there was Sammy's dad. I felt responsible for him.......But most of all there was Sammy and me- the glorious mess of us....... The final truth is I never left because, though I was eventually cured of my love for the son, I never quite got over the mother.

Marrying Nusrat tells the story of a the impact an outsider has on the life of a sleepy UP village, and the fascination the narrator, an adolescent boy, feels for her. Nusrat's interaction with Yakhni Begum, the 'official' sarpanch of the village, begins with the old lady aiming a slipper at her.
Nusrat had caught it deftly and stood there gazing at it, appraising it from all angles, insouciantly humming a tune all the while. Then she shook her head and sighed. 'I really don't know what the angel would have made of this offering of yours, badi ammi.'  The old lady throws a second slipper at Nusrat. And Nusrat had caught it deftly yet again and grinned happily. 'Ahha! Now this is much better. Two slippers I know what to do with.'  Nusrat charms the old lady with her story of the angel and the gift of  "chakeen", and before she leaves that afternoon sets up a meeting of all the women in the village the following week, in order to establish a chikan-work cooperative. There is, of course, much resistance from the menfolk, especially from Yakhni Begum's son, Jameel, the de facto sarpanch, but the old lady gets her own way. How Nusrat helps establish the cooperative is told in fascinating detail, including what the narrator thinks is a 'pyaare', which turns out to be a PRA, a Participatory Rural Appraisal!  The author is poetic in her description of chikan work: Chikan had a whole language of its own-of butis, motifs of elephants, fishes, birds and lotuses, and bels, creeper patterns named after jasmine and roses and other vines and jallis, trellises of various kinds created with a delicate parting of the warp and weft of the muslin to reveal a finely patterned mesh. Nusrat's marriage to a Stockholm based groom leads to her leaving her job. However, fate has other plans............

The Deepavali Gift narrates how wealth and its appurtenances can shackle the lives of its owners.
What was it about this house? The whitewashed exteriors, the large high-ceilinged rooms, the spacious verandahs on all four sides, the neat, well-appointed lawns, the vast stretches of kitchen gardens and fruit trees, its boundary wall located too far away to see with the naked eye- all spoke of a cool detachment. Yet it clung heatedly to its daughters like a jealous mother. The protagonist, Jujube, finds herself trapped by the often trivial decisions she is forced to make: The sensation of being trapped inside a pettiness not of my own making overwhelmed me. Those mugs, these cups, how did any of it matter? Surely I deserved bigger battles than this? Her trusted major domo, Jugal, asks her to make the Diwali list Each year every member of the staff and their families got a Diwali gift, handpicked by me. Jugal, Pratap Singh, Maya. These were the inner circle. Then the head gardener. Plus Sarita's driver...... Munni. The new girl who came in to help Munni with the dusting and beds. The younger mali and his family........The outside sweeper..........The woman who cleaned the inside of the house. And the other woman who came to do the dishes...........I had mastered the complex socio-political realities of the minefield called the servant quarters, and gave the task the careful attention it required. Jujube wonders about what to get for her orphaned niece, Sarita, who lives with her. Her gift is a shocker, but is ultimately a wonderful gift indeed!!!!!

 'Under a Moonlit Sky' is the name of a houseboat on the Dal Lake, where the honeymooners Rohini and Venkat are well taken care of by Bakhtiar and Mehjabeen., who run the houseboat together. On learning that Rohini and Venkat have had a love marriage, Mehjabeen is enchanted, and feels that this is a bond between the couples, for she and Bakhtiar have also had a love marriage. For the next five days the two couples gravitated towards each other. Every night the discussion inevitably veered to Love........Bakhtiar brought to the love stories such an urgency that it did not seem as if they were long-gone legendary lovers that they were talking about.........Back in the real world after the brief honeymoon, Rohini found out that in more routine circumstances love didn't blossom and flower as naturally as it did in Srinagar in springtime.........It needed careful tending and constant watering to be kept alive. Although they live in their own company apartment, and not with Venkat's parents, coping with Venkat's mother turned out to be tougher than anything Rohini could have envisaged.......The harder Rohini tried to adapt, the less she seemed to measure up in his parents' eyes, his mother vocal in her criticism, his father remote in his coldness. Venkat does his best to keep her happy, and they do have happy times, but Rohini's inability to conceive adds greatly to their stress. Rohini does send Mehjebeen a photograph on every anniversary, of something beautiful in her life. In the meantime, the turmoil in Kashmir has greatly affected normal life there, and Bakhtiar finds himself estranged from Mehjabeen owing to a newly adopted, highly unethical business practice. Although they have two beautiful children, Mehjabeen is heartsick.......The shared memories of the two couples, however, lead to an unusual denouement.

Lottery Ticket talks of the aspirations and the reality of a middle-class family in Delhi, in the North Campus/ Kamla Nagar region.The needs of the younger generation here are opposed to  the needs of the older generation,  and this turmoil is perceived differntly by different members of the same family. Ravinder and his wife Sukrita both teach in the university, while his mother has been running a dhaba from her home in Kamla Nagar ever since she was widowed, several years ago. That property is now extremely valuable, and selling it would help finance their brilliant daughter Shreya's higher education abroad. Sukrita has seen some retirement homes that she feels would be suitable for her mother-in-law.  Manjul brings poetry even to the description of a domestic spat: He had managed to get hold of the stale toast brittleness in his voice and spread a layer of sour sarcasm over it. Sukrita knows that she and her mother-in-law have totally different views on something as basic as food: In Biji's universe food was a cultural construct, a measure of civilization; a deeply moral and complex ethics underlay the preparing and sharing of it. For Sukrita food was fuel, something to keep the body going- nothing else. Two value systems as disparate as hers and Biji's could not share one kitchen without bloodshed and grief. Shreya's brother Ronish is one of the most interesting and appealing young characters I have come across in recent times.The flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil could cause a tsunami in China. Ravinder had spent an entire weekend talking to Ronish about the butterfly effect after the Class 10 boards, hoping to enthuse him about chaos theory and the possibility of a career in the sciences.........Ronish didn't want to study the effects of the flapping of a butterfly's wings. He wanted to be the weather changer. A beautiful story of love, relationships, and the tensions within a family.

I'm not at all sure of how to bring to you the essence of the title story in this collection, Another Man's Wife. It begins with a beautiful narration of tribal life, wherein Kuheli, who has recently come to the village after her grandfather's death, marks Devji, the most eligible young man of the community, as her own.  His friend Goku's cousin, she was a newcomer  to the village, sent here to her mother's relatives when her grandfather died and there was no one to look after her. The grandfather was an old badava, a tribal medicine man and a famous diviner of water. The girl and her grandfather had lived together, all by themselves, in the depths of the reserve forest flanked by the Sahyadri mountains on one side and the Amnbika river on the other, emerging only when summoned by villagers for important feasts and consultations. Manjul's descriptions of tribal life and customs are lyrical. The seasons come and go, impacting their lives greatly. Hunger was a habit they could all begin to unlearn now, if the rains continued to live up to their early promise. In the last few months even the game and fruit from the forests had begun to decline as the monsoon failed for the third year in a row.
A major disaster strikes when the government decides to evacuate the village, along with several others, to facilitate the construction of a dam. Compensation for the proposed displacement had been distributed a few years ago, when the land was surveyed. No one had told Devji's father or the other villagers that the electricity and irrigation water from the dam wasn't meant for them. Or that their lands were going to be submerged by it. The sufferings of the displaced were immense. The only work available for them is manual labour. The children suffered terribly, for both Kuheli and Devji had to work at the canal site, where they were engaged in digging out the earth on the canals which were being relined. Their five-year old, Nanlo had to fetch the day's drinking water, feed Babla and himself the food Kuheli cooked and left behind for them, tend to their three remaining hens, safeguard their belongings and protect himself and Babla from bullying and attacks by older boys and no-good drunken perverts. After Nanlo falls seriously ill, Kuheli goes back to their old home to seek a solution to their problems, and is utterly distraught at seeing the destruction of their beloved forests. But her grandfather's words come back to her: There is always a way through the darkest forest, train your eyes so they can see.  The solution, however, brings an even more devastating situation in its wake. One of the local contractors, Dhansukh Bhai, decides that he has to have her............. How does the disempowered family deal with this, when their very survival is at stake? Kuheli's courage and her ability to keep her family's welfare as her sole priority make for a riveting story.

The Amrita Sher-Gil painting on the cover adds to the elegance of this remarkable collection, which is totally contemporary and often subversive. The elegance of her writing and the strength of the narration makes this a book to dip into time and again.

Another Man's Wife, by Manjul Bajaj, 2012
Publisher: Hachette India


gouri dange said...

thank you DT - will go out and get this book

dipali said...

@Gouri: Flipkart can send it to you:)

Subhashree said...

What a beautiful review! Now I want to read the book :D

dipali said...

@Subhashree: Thank you! Do read the book.

yasmeen sait said...

Reading it.....picked it up at the airport

dipali said...

@yasmeen: I'd love to have your feedback!

devapriyaroy said...

Now it's on the list!

Orange Jammies said...

I must get this! Thank you for reviewing this book. :) Happy birthday, Dipali!

dipali said...

@devapriya: Let me know how you like it!
@OJ: Thank you, OJ!