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Women, up close and personal

Ratna Raman | Updated on March 30, 2021

Add on: In the title story, the protagonist goes to borrow a spoonful of curd from an elderly neighbour   -  ISTOCK.COM

Bharati Jagannathan’s short stories pull us into the minutiae of life of young women in the late 20th century

* In these stories, love arranges itself when young women meet men under the supervision of family, advisement from siblings, friends at the university or the workplace, and go on to make middling marriages

* Jagannathan’s love for Tamil Nadu and familiarity with its topography are revealed through her vivid descriptions of everyday routines, travel, food, orchards and temples

* The stories reveal strong grandmothers and stoic wives and aspiring daughters who seem to hold their own within the domestic sphere

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Bharati Jagannathan’s collection of 13 stories takes us back in time — to the fag end of the 20th-century in India — and pulls us into the minutiae of the lives of young women of marriageable age. Jagannathan deals with anxieties framing the lives of generations of women; such as their coming of age and the attendant brouhahas in finding suitable husbands, in the context of culturally sanctioned options which limited women’s financial and emotional choices.

Enmeshed in Tamil Brahmin families in a state of flux and stretched kinship ties, manifesting through emerging nuclear units in different cities in independent India and abroad, these stories introduce us to young women who find themselves in difficult situations, and very often pushed into marriages in the category that my English professor at Delhi University, AN Kaul, identified for us as ‘arranged love’; a term describing situations wherein people from the same social group either fell in love, or had it arranged for them.

A Spoonful of Curds /Bharati Jagannathan / HarperCollins / Fiction / ₹399

 

In Jagannathan’s stories, love arranges itself when young women meet men under the supervision of family, advisement from siblings, friends at the university or the workplace, and go on to make middling marriages. Love disarranges itself when couples fall out of love, when the husband has an affair or is rendered impotent after an accident, or when the desired man cannot marry the desiring woman or vice-versa. Jagananthan’s short stories navigate female desire and give us new prototypes; we meet tough women who have surreptitious lovers, women who walk out of hurtful marriages, juggle bad marriages, care-giving and illegitimate babies.

In Lavender Orchids, an unconventional Indian woman moves to the US, marries a rich and handsome Indian man, establishes a comfortable home and gives birth to twins. These traditional markers of success have little meaning for her as she recoils from the discovery that her thoughtful, alpha male spouse is a cross-dresser, obsessed with haute couture women’s wear and accessories. New motherhood heightens her sense of entrapment in an uncomfortable relationship, which she is unable to discuss with anyone.

The Prime of Janaki Ammal features an elderly matriarch who loves life and continues to live it on her own terms after the death of her husband. It explores female bonding and a nascent lesbian relationship between two young women — unknown to the mother, but supported by grandmother Janaki, and reiterates the possibility of quietly forming continuities of sisterhoods.

Stories of long-suffering hierarchical marriages within patriarchal traditions reveal strong grandmothers and stoic wives and aspiring daughters who learn to hold their own within the domestic sphere, despite being dependent on male support. Relationships of love, detailed across different generations, give us bright women who aspire for a little more than domesticity in their lives. They work as lab assistants, schoolteachers, counsellors et al, so Jagannathan cannot be faulted for dense narratives describing the adventures of new female prototypes.

Night Bus to Srivilliputhur traces the emergence of a bond between three women who have never met before. They become friends because of the circumstances of being thrown together in a state transport bus in a country with little access to decent public toilets for women. Jagannathan’s stories of old age and loss poignantly bring back abundant sepia-tinted memories of what is now a nation-wide occurrence. In Memorium deals with the life of an ageing couple in urban India, left alone to live out their twilight years with children having settled far away from home. Jagannathan records through the eyes of a granddaughter the gradual truncation of meaning, breadth and value in the lives of the elderly.

Sensitive and decent men also feature in these stories. The protagonist of The Lord’s Lila chafes at the system he finds himself trapped within and wants to break free, but nevertheless takes time to engage with his grandfather and honour the traditions in which he has been raised.

Jagannathan’s love for Tamil Nadu and familiarity with its topography are revealed through these stories, through her vivid descriptions of everyday routines, travel, food, orchards, and the temples of Srirangam and Chennai. The author demonstrates her familiarity with Alfred Lord Tennyson and Muriel Spark, using titles from their work to frame her stories. In Under the Shadow of Yagnavlkya, Jagannathan explores Akshara’s discomfort when her widowed mother gets a proposal of marriage providing a litmus test to Yagnavlkya’s truth that human love is selfish and transient and has only to do with self-interest.

The title story is about Nagappa who spends all his time guarding fruiting mangoes in his yard. His watch is interrupted by the household requirement for some curd-starter, a cultural practice that continues to this day in India, in homes that still set their daily curd. He goes off to borrow a spoonful from an elderly neighbour with little human contact after the recent death of her husband and she begins to chat garrulously, taking over the conversation. Nagappa returns home forgetting all about the spoonful of curd he had set out to borrow in the first place. Jagannathan’s stories meticulously record the details of everyday life but they could easily be expanded into novellas. There is so much happening in each story that the reader, much like Nagappa, meanders along and while being plunged into long case histories often loses sight of the curd-starter that was the reason for setting out in the first place.

Ratna Raman teaches in the University of Delhi

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Published on March 30, 2021
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