Woman to woman is the first book I read by Madhulika Liddle. She’s written more, of which I had been aware, since I read her blog where she had mentioned them, but for some reason I had relented until now. It’s a quickly read collection of 12 short stories, which pulls you along by sheer brilliance and skill. The result is that one passes from one story to the next, thrilled by the just-finished story but half disappointed that it’s already over. Madhu’s command of the language makes it also a literary feat and the careful attention to this dimension will surely please the reader as much as the innovative techniques, of which more in a while. It’s a feminist collection, of course, with stories focusing on women’s issues in India, but it’s also a humanist manifesto, denouncing social and political ills and prejudices, infusing complexity where all-too-simple practices are taken for granted and unquestioned, examining the moral and human realities with the woman’s eye coming from a sense of injustice which has fine-tuned it.
Indeed women have probably suffered more, in world history; they have more systematically been victims of violence, abuse and neglect and so this sense of injustice has prepared them for a greater understanding of the ways to end or at least reduce it. It is this perceptiveness which lies at the root of the stories’ logic. Having finished them, you are led to address each one of the issues (the assumed naturalness of men’s rights over women; men’s taken for granted sexual objectification of women; the irrepressibility of their sexual needs; the commonly accepted criticism of women’s responsibility in not bringing forth children… among other examples) and you examine how the stories oblige you to reestablish priorities, and perhaps (if you’re a male), how much you might have functioned in the ways which cause misery, suffering and injustice. So the book is a silence-breaker, and the question is: will its Word resonate where it isn’t otherwise heard? Because of course among prepared ears and compassionate hearts, it can and will be heard, but what about those social circles where books aren’t read, those schools or universities led by old-fashioned teachers who don’t believe teaching girls how to think is important, and who anyway would uphold the old values…
In Woman to woman, there is a narrative trick of which I would like to speak ; it isn’t systematically used, but it concerns directly four stories (Mala, Ambika Mother goddess, The collector of junk, Captive spirit) and indirectly at least two more (in The letter, and Wronged, some of the practice is present). I’m referring to the use of a child’s perspective as first person narrator or main viewpoint. What we are told is screened through the child’s eyes – or the youth’s eyes – and lack of experience, and the result is that there are elements of the story which cannot be given all at a time because of this limited viewpoint. The interest of this trick is that we must follow the events from this point of view, and this enables the author to do things otherwise impossible: get apprised of a perspective which grown-ups cannot have because of social givens, or discover realities more slowly and perhaps more softly if they are very violent. In Mala, which tells the loutish abuse of a house-maid by the family son, leading to the all too common drama which naivety brings about, the child’s point of view does two things: it enables us readers to be in the know of the forbidden events which are hidden to some adults by hypocritical other adults, and it deflects the sordid nature of these events by having them passed through the limited understanding of a child.
What’s interesting in this trick is that the child’s perception serves as a standard against which moral shifts are measured. It indirectly (but severely) blames hypocritical grownups for hiding what they do and risking the infection of innocent souls by doing so. The blasé moral conscience of adults would not serve the purpose as well, if adults served as the standard, so the use of a child’s perspective is a good choice. But a child, in spite of its limited moral understanding, paradoxically, does it a hundred times better, because it sees the facts and doesn’t judge. The facts judge by themselves, without the interference of the perhaps impure and nonchalant moral sense which grownups often use. So the child does not judge, yet it is in a way the best judge: its conscience corresponds to the conscience which we as adults have blunted through life’s shifty experiences: a pure and simple conscience with which things would be denounced with a horror which would stop us from doing bad, but which we have sometimes lost, or lost in some specific moral areas. We know that crime and sin not only consist of evils in their own right, but perversely attack the morality of the person itself. A man who has committed offenses too often becomes used to them, and doesn’t reproach himself any more, or only confusedly so and weakly so.
I think that Madhulika Liddle uses this narrative strategy to increase the effectiveness of her denunciation, but it also helps the reader to enter a story with a believer’s mind, because as story-readers that’s what we do, we decide to believe! We decide to trust the writer for the duration of the tale, and if she takes us by the hand we feel the bond and its warmth. Naturally we wouldn’t want to lose our adult sense of appreciation, but to be won over is a very important thing for a reader. It means we’ll want to share the experience and get more readers involved. This trust is the one which some characters naturally display, for example Inimai from the very short story The letter, whose narrative is that of a mother happily preparing everything for the return of her son, of which she’s been recently informed by letter, but not realizing that the said letter is three years old, and has been sent to its address by a zealous postal clerk. We follow her motherly pleasure and anticipation, then her wait, then her anxiety and finally her symbolical loneliness as she walks back from the station that night. I think this little tale points towards an important intuition: women’s love is always ready, always available, and often thwarted by reality. It’s a facet of their positivity, a gift which humanity possesses, but doesn’t always recognize.
The volume is full of womanly despair, womanly frustration and womanly solitude, sadly. But I’d like to make you taste what Madhulika knows about women’s treasures, if we know how to pay attention to them. It’s simply dizzying. Here’s a passage from Mala where the young maid is offering as much sweetness and delight as anyone could wish for, and everything comes from the author’s gifted prose : “And what would you like to have, my little prince?” she murmured, her dimple twinkling in her cheek like a star. Ashu watched her intently from beside his mother, one fist clenched around a fold of Vandana’s sari, then reached forward to touch the girl’s plait. She laughed, and in one fluid movement, gathered him up in her arms and stood up, resting him easily on her hip. “Do you like juice, my little prince? Mausambi juice? Yes? Come on then we’ll go and get you some.” Ashu favoured her with a small, shy smile and she giggled throatily at him as she carried him off into her domain” (…) Then she treats him to her tasty dishes, and the way they are described makes you simply saliva in wonder: “There was, for instance, Mala’s delicious phirni, ground rice simmered very slowly and very long in creamy milk (“full cream!” gasped Vandana, in horror; “not skimmed, let alone double-toned like we buy in Delhi!”) There were fat, satisfying parathas, stuffed with gently spiced potatoes and smeared with ghee; and tall glasses of thick yoghurt whisked with sugar into a froth that left a neat white moustache on Ahu’s upper lip…” (p.26-27)
Such luscious and gorgeous wonders, filled with such heavenly intimacy, are nevertheless rare in Woman to woman, and the example I will now take will end this review on a somber note. The trusting beloved children that we readers would like to continue to be, have also got to grow up, and leave the nestling warmth of a motherly presence in order to face the whip of the outside gales. I won’t talk about that glorious last story entitled Poppies in the snow, which would need a whole article on its own, nor about the stunning first one in the collection, Paro, a gruesome yet all too common portrait of a trafficked bride, sold and resold to beastly “husbands” like as much cattle. I’ll focus instead on Wronged, in which the violence isn’t physical, but emotional, and demonstrates the necessity of leaving childhood, of growing up, which I mentioned. What’s great about it is that the double-meaning of the title introduces us to a suspenseful ignorance about the real wrong that has been going on.
The beginning confronts us to a brother and a sister meeting at the airport where she has just landed because their father has died and the funeral is taking place shortly. At first we don’t understand exactly what has also happened, and which is going to be the subject of the conversation during the car trip. Notice the reader is again in this ignorant, symbolically childlike position of not knowing and discovering the somber truth that will mar his innocence. I don’t want to spoil the story, so all I’ll tell is that the revelation will concern not so much the dead father, as one might be led to expect, but the living mother, and that the figure she represents for her two grownup children will have to be deeply modified, reconfigured and matured in such a way that it will be their own transformation as much as their mother’s image, which will take place. Madhulika makes the slow-moving, inevitable revelation hurtle through the ups and downs of the brittle conversation, where the two throw at one another their frustrations, their anguish and their illusions, until much later, a sort of peace will quiet them, and reconcile them with who they now have to be.
So needless to say this little book makes a very powerful read, not only because the collection deals with sensitive, and still burning issues, not only because its method enables us to gather and rebuild some of our own understanding of themes such as virility, motherhood, conjugality, in-law family values, etc.; but Madhu has a very keen and subtle way of referring to what could be done to right these wrongs, a sense of humanity which might serve as a standard instead of the patriarchal and often brutal privileges of a society steeped in injustice; and finally she masterfully uses the language to evoke a fullness of life and an intelligence of values both much needed and much to be admired. Here’s the link to the book on Dusted off.