Friday, December 16, 2011

Out of Print 6

This December, Out of Print features 6 stories that explore the complex, multi-layered aspects of the region in ways that rise beyond the cultural context. Altaf Tyrewala’s Mischief in Netanagar is a chilling commentary on urban ennui, where the protagonist feels so disempowered that he comments, ‘To belong to the community, to the land or to the nation, a man must first be in possession of himself.’ Lucinda Nelson Dhavan’s Boys And Girls Together leads us through what happens when a refuge for battered women and a lodge for young men are next door to each other in a ‘middle-sized, middle-class, sleepy city’ in India. Dipika Mukherjee’s Patriots Of The Will, is a fictional rendition of the Indian National Army’s presence in what was then Malaya: a Bengali woman, a sweet maker, makes mishti and much more for Bose. Meenakshi Jauhari Chawla's tale reveals the fallibility of Lakhi Parshad, Member of Parliament and the wiliness of the human mind in negotiating survival. Drawing on her scientific background, and her theoretical perspective on the ways in which molecules interact, our editor, Indira Chandrasekhar, examines the thought processes of a girl who struggles to make sense of her family and her relationships in Lennard-Jones Potentials. In Tashan Mehta’s Erasure, which begins, ‘When I left home, I came back to find they had erased me,’ a young woman, desperate to find herself searches among her family and friends but learns that they no longer see her.  

A commissioned cover from Out of Print writer and friend, Vinayak Varma is a hand-drawn re-purposing of a frame from Amitabh Bachchan's 'MereAngane Mein' song. Read more about Vinayak's thoughts on this in our Editor’s Note.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Out of Print alive and active

We have been silent on our blog - the unexpected turns of life - for a bit.

But much has been happening with us:

- Samhita is lecturing on Sita, conducting workshops in Delhi, and in the wake of the NY Times best-seller listing for Sita's Ramayana, is being sought after in many places
- Mira is reading and writing more than can be imagined possible
- Indira has a publication The Perfect Shot out in fellow online journal, Pratilipi

And, we are gathering forces for a great new issue of Out of Print.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Annalemma Magazine runs an India theme

The New York based literary and arts magazine Annalemma likes a good story and an intense aesthetic. Appearing both in print and online form, their upcoming issue is themed around India.
Here is what they say about Out of Print.

Annalemma Issue Nine: IndiaCall to Submit

As America and Europe begin to recede into the background of global superpowers, new forces are stepping up as the leaders of the democratic world. Among these powers, is India. With the die of globalization now cast, the geopolitical, economic, technological & environmental landscape is more connected than ever. It is important for people in the West, young people especially, to claim an understanding of how their world intersects and effects Indian culture, and vice versa.

But how can you expect to cover an entire country in one go? And in 104 pages of a literary magazine no less? Agreed, that's somewhat impossible. The purpose of this issue is to allow a point of entry for Western readers and writers, to forge a new mental pathway to understanding.

What we are humbly asking of Indian writers is this: show us your country. Show us the micro and the macro, show us the beauty and the horror, the power, the corruption, the injustice, the triumph, the enduring beauty, the infinite feedback loop of suffering, all the wonder and terror your country brings to bear.

A lot of American/Western writers might be upset about this, maybe feel left out. So we offer this appeal: If you are a writer who has some connection to India or can offer some informed opinion of your experience as it pertains to the topic, we'd love to read it.

We'll accepting creative nonfiction, fiction, personal essay and interviews. No poetry, please. Simultaneous submissions are allowed. Please keep submissions under 5000 words. Any submissions over 5000 words, please submit a query letter. Please send only one submission at a time. We're finding creative nonfiction more compelling these days, so the more of that you send, the more likely you'll get published.

Deadline is January 13th.

Click here to submit:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Book Review: Samhita Arni on Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues
Esi Edugyan
Reviewed by Out of Print editor, Samhita Arni

It’s ironic that during the ‘Jazz Age’, many Jazz musicians, most of them of African-American origin, faced racial discrimination and had difficulties playing in their own country, and so came to perform in Europe. In Half Blood Blues, two such musicians hailing from Baltimore, Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, find themselves in Berlin at the tail-end of the Weimar Era — the strange cultural renaissance in Germany in the interlude between the wars that gave us (among other things) Brecht, Cabaret, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich.
Half Blood Blues, in Esi Edugyan’s eponymous novel, is also the title of a song, a subversive jazz parody of the popular Nazi anthem, the ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’, recorded in Paris by a rag-tag bunch of musicians that include Chip, Sid and Hieronymous Falk (Hiero), three musicians who are able to escape Nazi Germany, but get stuck in Vichy France during World War II. They are all black and mischlings — half-bloods.
Sid Griffiths is ‘high-yaller’, light-skinned enough to ‘pass’ as white. German Hiero is born of a German mother and an African father [troops from French African colonies were stationed in the Rhineland during the French occupation after the Great War and fathered children (the ‘Rhineland Bastards’) with German women]. Under the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, not only Jews but the few hundred mixed-race Germans like Hiero were also condemned to concentration camps and forcible sterilisation. As Paris falls to Nazis, Hiero is picked up in a cafe and disappears.
The song captures their sense of frustration, doom, desperation and melancholy — but it’s also a ‘finger’ or riposte to Nazism. But Half Blood Blues isn’t just about Sid, Chip or Hiero; there’s also Delilah, the African-American singer who is pale enough to pass , and strives to smuggle them out of Paris. The song is also a eulogy to the band’s original saxophonist, Paul, who looks like a ‘blond Aryan God’, but, ironically, is Jewish and a mischling under the Nuremberg laws. And of course, the term mischling also applies to Jazz, a hybrid music form born from the mixing of African and European music traditions.
The language in the novel reflects this theme of mixing. Characters talk like “mongrels — half-German, half-Baltimore bar slang.” Edugyan’s prose, too, is a richly textured mix of ‘bar slang’, black speech, and quaint, period terms like ‘fob.’ The result is strangely stark, pure, yet guttural. “Oh the silence,” Sidney, the narrator, observes, “A jack could grind his teeth on it.” Elsewhere, “He had that massive sound, wild and unexpected, like a thicket of flowers in a bone-dry field.”
In “Speaking in Tongues”, a wonderful essay that examines language, biracial author Zadie Smith writes about the space between voices, cultures, races and ideas. She brings up the “spectre of the traffic mulatto, tragically split…between worlds, ideas, culture and voices,” and the “horror of the middling split, the interim place.” Like Smith, Edugyan is concerned with the idea of mixing and syncretism, and suggests that categories or ideas of race and culture are problematic and complicated. But Edugyan is also concerned with history, and her novel interweaves two journeys at two crucial moments in history, 1939 and 1992. Sid, Hiero and Chip journey east as WWII breaks out, and over fifty years later, after the Berlin Wall comes down and the USSR falls, in 1992, Sid and Chip travel eastwards, into places that once lay under the iron curtain. Edugyan reminds us through this journey how, during the Cold War era, the world was divided and so much was unknown and unknowable. Hiero, Sid and Chip, are characters who slip through the cracks and, by their mischling nature, embody the problems of divided identities.
Half Blood Blues is not only a historical novel, and a story about race, but also a meditation on art and genius. It resurrects the idea of fatalism, an unpopular notion in our capitalist age that perceives fate as self-determined and believes success can be achieved through hard work. Delilah asks an important question, “Do you still call it talent, if it blooms without any kind of nurturing?”

Art becomes even more important in a fatalistic worldview. As Chip says, towards the end of the book, “The world’s damn beautiful, but it’s an accidental beauty. What we do, it’s deliberate.” Edugyan seems to suggest that the beauty we can make, when we can’t make our fate, becomes our only means of resistance, protest and sustenance. With this novel, Edugyan herself has created a thing of beauty; one of those rare novels that offer 
more on a second read.

This review first appeared in DNA

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Out of Print Author Series: Annie Zaidi

Out of Print talks to ANNIE ZAIDI
Featured publication: The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl, or The Good Indian Girl’s Guide to Living, Loving and Having Fun Zubaan, 2011

Thank you, Annie, for agreeing to be part of our blog series that honours the work of Out of Print Authors. We most appreciated featuring your story, Sujata in our last issue of Out of Print. Terrifying, how much I empathised with the progression and logic of the protagonist – questions the limits that hold society on an even keel.  

Well, we have many questions for you on your writing process and on the making of ‘The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl’.

Collection 1: Your collection is a collaborative effort between yourself and Smriti Ravindran.  So the most crashingly obvious question we have is – how did the collaboration work? We are curious both in the conceptual and the practical perspective. Whose idea was it? Did you talk through the plot of every story? And how did you actually execute? Did you write and Smriti review or vice versa. Or was every story a collaboration? Did you communicate on a regular basis, and how long did the writing take? Do just tell us about the process.   

A: Smriti and I studied together at a fairly strict undergraduate ‘convent’ college in Rajasthan. We also shared a hostel room for a year. The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl comes from the stories we saw unfolding all around us. Girls were constantly slipping between the cracks of a moral code that was very hard to negotiate. You could break rules, but getting caught was not an option. There was too much at stake. After college, we discovered new rules at work, at home, on the streets. I was staying with Smriti around 2003 and that’s when we talked about what was going on. We could understand the forces at work. We could also laugh at everything. So we talked about doing a book together around the start of 2004. Work began in fits and starts, from 2006 to 2008, with a few rounds of edits. The book was finished towards the end of 2010.

First, we just chatted a lot about what we are trying to do with this book. We drew up lists – of good/bad, labels and markers – and compared notes. Then we began to write stories relevant to these themes.

The stories (fiction) were written as individuals. But we were responding to each other’s stories with comments, coming up with another story to build on a theme. The ‘interludes’ (non-fiction bits that appear in italics), were intended as bridges between the short stories. Those were written by both of us. We have been in different time zones (me in India; Smriti in the USA) since 2004, so the book has been written over email and chat for the most part.

Collection 2: You have admirably captured the tone, the voice of your good girls, the simultaneous innocence and duplicity, the naivety and the exploitativeness. And the bewildering wake they leave behind them. How did you do this? Was it through specific questions in your interviews with young women, or was it simply through the many layers of observation that a writer employs?

A: Thank you. It is mostly just observation. We did some interviews, informal chats with friends, or friends of friends. The only question I asked was: What makes for a Good Indian Girl (or a Not-Good girl)? Some scrap of memory would be volunteered.

For instance, the bit about a girl sticking together two pages in her scrapbook to hide a photo of a film star posing sexily – a friend actually did that. Someone else told me about family friends who’d sneak out from a second-floor window in their Delhi bungalow using a rope ladder; they actually had a fixed phone line that their dad knew nothing about. Yet another friend told me about how a group of girls broke some rules in school, but the prettiest girl got off lightly, while the girl with the biggest breats was ostracised.

The stories were constructed by combining various memories, with a lot of embellishment on our part, of course. Besides, we all have been both na├»ve and duplicitous. Haven’t we?

Collection 3: The stories provide an interesting reflection on Indian society. In a time that appears to allow for a somewhat jaded isolationism, this collection reminds one of the societal constraints that continue to frame us.

In most of your stories, your heroines reveal an admirable wiliness, a cunning that allows them to strike their individual paths while working within the system – the Singh girls with their rope ladders and satyagrahas are great examples. Did you ever get a sense that any of your good Indian girls were driven to shatter the constraints, to stretch the framework to point of no return like Sujata.

A:    If you look at Padma’s story in this collection, she is driven to shatter constraints. She does so with a kind of innocence, but she edges closer to a point of no return.

But then, this collection was written to address a specific aspect of young women’s lives – the ‘goodness’ factor, with specific reference to south Asia. A story like Sujata does not qualify. Sujata might frighten us, but her morals/virtue are not being questioned (except by Kulin and he’s such a sadist that his accusations are easily overlooked). That’s the funny thing about our culture. It accepts, even condones murder if a woman is trying to save her body, but it doesn’t accept a young woman wanting to have some fun, using her body the way she likes. 

Writing and Editing 1: Do you go back and read your stories after they’ve been published. If yes, do you itch to revise them one more time? And what do you do about it, do you ignore the itch? Or create a newer version of every story?
If, in fact, you don’t go back to your stories after publication, why don’t you? Are you embarrassed, frightened, anxious about them, or have you simply just moved on?

A: I read and re-read and re-re-read. I do itch to revise, particularly if there have been proofing errors. Or clunky language. Mostly I ignore the itch because it is impractical to expect publishers to keep making changes. But if something is up on my website – a story, or a poem, or essay – then I make changes again and again.

I’m not frightened of my older work, but I am a bit embarrassed by some of it. I try not to re-read that stuff.

Writing and Editing 2: Are you a systematic writer, that is do you invoke your muse routinely, for fixed periods, or do you immerse yourself, blocking out all else when the muse deigns to visit?

 A:  I’m erratic. I write whenever. I tend to be deadline-driven, so I focus on whatever needs my attention first. But if I am restless and want to write, then I ignore other things.

Writing and Editing 3: Was there a particular event that prompted you to start writing or have you always done so? And what convinced you to keep going? What was your first success, your first sense that the world was aware of your creative effort?

 A:  I wrote essays in school and my own debate speeches. But I never thought of that as ‘writing’. As an undergraduate, I began to participate in poetry contests. When I actually won a prize, I began to write more often. I also wrote for the college magazine. Girls who didn’t know me would stop me as I walked past, just to tell me they liked a particular piece. I think that’s when I became dimly aware that what I was writing held some value. Reader feedback is what has kept me going, mostly.

Writing and Editing 4: Are you a reader or are you one of those who doesn’t read when he/she writes? Do you engage in other literary process – review, criticism, journalism, blogging? And, how does that affect your fiction writing?

A: I read nearly everyday, regardless of whether I’m writing or not. I write in most spaces I can squeeze into – journalism, blogging, tweeting, reviews, the whole online hog... I suppose I put in less energy into fiction. My default reaction is to explore an idea through non-fiction. Or even poetry. I end up writing short stories only when I am fairly certain that other formats are not suitable for what I want to accomplish.

Writing and Editing 5: What are you working on now?

A:  More stories. A script. Some translation work.

Writing and Editing 6: Finally, do you have any words of advice to our readers and writers?

Read, read, read, read, read. Absorb other forms of art. Watch dance and drama performances. Listen to music. Go to art exhibits. Don’t be in such a rush to publish. Most importantly, don’t get bitter about rejections. It is possible the editors are myopic and unable to see how brilliant you are. It is also possible that your work needs to improve. Just work harder and keep sending your work out. If you are truly brilliant, someone will notice.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Out of Print Author Series: Murzban F Shroff

Out of Print talks to MURZBAN F SHROFF

Featured publication: Breathless in Bombay, St. Martin’s Press NY, 2008, Picador India, 2008.

Thank you, Murzban, for agreeing to be part of our blog series that honours the work of Out of Print Authors. We loved featuring your story Mind Over Matter in Out of Print, and are curious to know more about your collection, 'Breathless in Bombay' and its writing.

We are writers and editors; so before we get to talking about your collection, we have questions about the way you approach writing and revising.

Writing and Editing 1: Do you ever go back and read your stories after they’ve been published. If yes, do you itch to revise them one more time? And what do you do about it, do you ignore the itch? Or create a newer version of every story?
If, in fact, you don’t go back to your stories after publication, why don’t you? Are you embarrassed, frightened, anxious about them, or have you simply just moved on?

Murzban Shroff: I publish extensively with journals in the U.S., where editors tend to be picky. So pre-publication, I do, on an average, anywhere between 20 to 30 edits, or should I say reconstructions where I flesh out the stories on various counts: character-development, setting, narrative pace, narrative tension, irony, and most important, premise. In this manner, I work on two to three projects simultaneously to keep myself stimulated. Post-publication, yes, I do get tempted to change things a bit. But that is more in terms of (a) fine-tuning the flow and making certain mechanical tweaks, for smoothness (b) ensuring that the ending comes through as a revelation, as much for the main character as for my readers. It’s all about strengthening the work, really, so that when I return to it – especially for readings – I enjoy the story and don’t have regrets.  

Writing and Editing 2: Are you a systematic writer, that is do you invoke your muse routinely, lighting the proverbial lamps and incense sticks at fixed times, for fixed periods, or do you immerse yourself, blocking out all else when the muse deigns to visit?
Murzban Shroff: I am not a disciplined writer in that I don’t work to a fixed routine daily. But I do find myself diligent. I research my subjects thoroughly, giving myself more information than I need to work with; I look out for details and am not afraid to discard chunks if they are, in the least, not doing anything for the character or the plot. I manage to write at least four days in a week – except during the period when I went through my litigation on ‘Breathless’ – and I don’t let go until I have laid out the structure, the flesh and bones of the story. And, yes, I do tend to get obsessive, living in the heads of the characters I create, belonging entirely to their lives. I work in slabs of intense commitment, then need two three days to recover from such phases.  

Writing and Editing 3: Was there a particular event that prompted you to start writing or have you always done so? And what convinced you to keep going? What was your first success, your first sense that the world was aware of your creative effort?

Murzban Shroff: I knew even as a boy that I was going to be a writer. I wanted to be nothing more. I wrote for my school magazine, edited my college magazine, then gave up to join advertising. There came a time when I tired of corporate life; I felt all the pressures were self-created and would only lead to self-deception. You know, this feeling of importance that sets in once you are successful. So I whittled down what I was doing, which was running my own creative consultancy service, and I committed to writing, to simply learning the nuts and bolts. My clients thought I was nuts. One of them actually came home to appeal to my family to drum sense into me. A couple of them wanted to invest in my company. They thought that would bring me around.

My first success was when I made it to the pages of a journal that had two Nobel Prize winners on its board, and the editor – a very successful, acclaimed writer – said some flattering things about my work. But this took me two years to achieve. Then, in my third year of writing, I won an award – the John Gilgun Fiction Award – for the best submission of the year. By then I was on a conveyor belt, not because of the success, but the failures that came with these: those poignantly sweet rejection letters, after months of waiting.   

Writing and Editing 4: Are you a reader or are you one of those who doesn’t read other people’s work when writing? Do you engage in other literary process – review, criticism, journalism, blogging? And, how does that affect your writing?

Murzban Shroff: You can’t be a serious writer if you don’t read. I read voraciously: four to five hours a day. I socialise mostly at book stores. And I don’t dabble in any other form of writing. There are enough people doing that anyway, and reviewing – especially – is a highly specialised art.  

Writing and Editing 5: The juxtaposition of the stories is something we think about a little in Out of Print, the flow of one to the other, similar stories together or apart. We do this even though certainly the sequence matters less in an online format. So before we get to the stories in your collection, ‘Breathless in Bombay’ we were curious about the order of stories in your book, particularly as your title story is the last one in the book (as in Alice Munroe’s Too Much Happiness). Did you spend a lot of time on the order – did you consult with editors or decide on your own?

Murzban Shroff: I let my editor at St. Martin’s decide the sequence, and I had a couple of suggestions that she took into account.

Collection 1: You are candid in your introduction that this collection is driven by striving to make sense of the great, complexities of Mumbai, a city which you both love and hate. The stories are ripe with characters in different strata of society, different levels of privilege, of different genders and persuasions. When you were writing, did you feel as if you were entering your principal character’s persona, or did you feel a distance, were you an observer?

Murzban Shroff: I totally lived my characters, to the extent that I would need days off to unwind from their lives and problems. In the more researched stories like ‘Dhobi Ghat’ and ‘The Queen Guards Her Own,’ I had to return to the milieu many times over, just to corroborate my facts, to sensitise myself and get it right. I made to make sure that what I was portraying was true not just of one kind of person but of the entire subset. Often what started as research went on to become a friendship pact with the people I was interviewing. So it was important, no critical, that I get them and their issues right. 

Collection 2: Did you think consciously about veering away from the sentimental – a trap that is easy to fall into when exploring the kind of complexities that you do – or did your story drive your writing?
I think of the paragraph in The Queen Guards Her Own where Simran, who earlier has had things done to her that ‘tore at heart, mind, body, youth’ begins to feel the ‘cracking of a hard layer of topsoil’ below which she feels ‘a tributary stir’ when she discovers she is expecting a child.

Murzban Shroff: My kind of writing is character-led, issue-based fiction; so it is the character and premise that drives the work and sets the tone and tenor and, of course, the moral obligation to be true to the kind of person I am trying to depict. The premise could well emerge as a denouement later, as part of my own journey of realisation, or sometimes it is the starting point, emerging from an issue I want to address and that I feel keenly about.

Collection 3: You have a subtle humour in your writing that doesn’t shy away from hitting deep. Your story, Mind Over Matter ( ) in Out of Print 5 is one such. In ‘Breathless in Bombay’ there are of course many examples: in Dhobi Ghat, your first story in ‘Breathless in Bombay’, I love the line when Mataprasad Mahadev thinks ‘...damn those washing machines: front loading, top loading, tumble wash, bungle wash, ...’. Also, when the wonderful Angelina in This House of Mine talking of her upcoming 40th birthday says, ‘He (her yoga instructor) feels I have awoken some kind of inner energy from the base of my spine, which is going to keep me from aging.’ Could you tell us about this aspect of your writing?  

Murzban Shroff: It’s certainly an externalisation of my sense of observation, which sees me on the fringe of any social interaction/event. This helps me to flesh out my characters and give them nuances and traits that would go with their persona. What you see in characters like Lulu Aranha (Mind over Matter) or Mataprasad in his interaction with the fisherwoman (Dhobi Ghat) or in the wannabe actions of the socialites in the title story are just examples of ironic play, of light, bemused character shading. At some level my writing must also entertain me; it’s too much hard work otherwise.  

Collection 4: When writing, do you feel bound to a place? ‘Breathless in Bombay‘, is obviously centred in the fine city of Mumbai. But in your other writings, does location play an important role?

Murzban Shroff: Yes, a sense of place is very important for me. It’s the terra firma on which I write.

Collection 6: What are you working on now?

Murzban Shroff: An India collection and a novel.

Collection 7: Finally, do you have any words of advice to our readers and writers?

Murzban Shroff: I am afraid I can’t take myself so seriously. I am only one book old and would rather lean on my readers for views and advice.

Murzban F Shroff is a Bombay-born writer. His fiction has appeared in over thirty journals in the U.S. and UK. He is a recipient of the John Gilgun Fiction Award and has three Pushcart Prize nominations. His debut collection, Breathless in Bombay (St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2008, Picador India, 2008), was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the best first book category. He may be reached at or on facebook.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Out of Print 5

Out of Print has been around for a full year, which we think is quite phenomenal.

The issue features writing by U R Ananthamurthy (translation by Deepa Ganesh), Chandrahas Choudhury, Firdaus Haider (translation by Out of Print author, Nighat Gandhi), Roshna Kapadia, Sharanya Mannivanan, Murzban Shroff and Annie Zaidi. Artwork is by Jan Banning from his Bureaucratics series.

We thank all our contributors.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Out of Print in Social Mantra

Out of Print editor, Indira Chandrasekhar talks to Biswajit Dey of Social Mantra about the magazine and the underlying drive behind its mandate, and about her transition from scientist to writer, editor, and publisher.   

Monday, September 5, 2011

Out of Print Author Series: Annam Manthiram

In the coming months we will run a series honouring the publication achievements of our Out of Print authors.

Annam Manthiram, whose powerful Reincarnation of Chamunda featured in the mythology issue of Out of Print releases her debut novel, After the Tsunami at the end of September:

After the Tsunami follows Siddhartha, an Indian man who appears to have it all: a successful career as a schoolteacher in the United States, a perceptive wife, and a son and daughter who respect him as much as they adore him.  But inside he struggles to find purpose in the brutality that continues to haunt him - the terror he faced as a child during his time spent in an orphanage in India.  Cutting in its clarity and profoundly insightful,After the Tsunami will haunt and move readers everywhere. 
·    “...a deeply imagined, wholly engrossing world of an Indian orphanage for boys...” -- Mel Freilicher, author of The Unmaking of Americans: 7 Lives
·    “...well within the believable, so it gets to you emotionally like no other work can...” -- Professor Emeritus Hugh Fox, founding member of the Pushcart Prize and one of the most widely published poets in America
·    “...a poignant tale of endurance,” and a “stark and chilling tale of a betrayed childhood...” -- Sita Bhaskar, author of Shielding Her Modesty
·    “...dominated by a brutal and complex interplay of power and corruption..." --Dr. Indira Chandrasekhar, founder and editor of Out of Print


Friday, August 12, 2011

Absolution by Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Sucharita Dutta-Asane

’Then Gautama cursed his wife. “You shall be invisible to all creatures as you do penance in this hermitage! You shall be purified only when Rama, the invincible son of Dasaratha, comes to this forest. Wicked woman, when you offer hospitality to Rama, you shall be freed of your lust and passion. You shall regain your earlier form in my presence!” Gautama left the hermitage ...’*

The Act
When he had finished with what he came for, I lay back and let him sate himself on my beauty. I heard the milkman ring the bell twice. I let the cats slurp on the milk they had clawed out of the bag. Let them gorge too, I thought.

He sat up in bed scratching his handsome cheek still besmeared with the redness of my lips. He turned away from my limp arms.

‘What about your husband?’

My husband?

What sort of a question was that? Hadn’t he come into the house using my husband’s voice, with his ardour, and with his own unquenchable thirst for what he had lost when my husband whisked me away with his wizardry? Oh come on! Did I know when I opened the door that it was he and not my husband who stood at the threshold? I was in my bathrobe, just out of my bath, expecting my beloved at the door, waiting to ensnare him all over again with my long tresses and fragrant arms. And whom do I find but this man wrapped in charm and long withheld hunger! Did I know then that he would step in through the door as I gaped at him, and take me in his arms? Did he know I was alone? Of course! He had left nothing to chance, but I didn’t know it then.

And yet, having seen through the ploy, I gave in.


Here are some reasons.

He swept me off my feet.

It was preordained. I had to, perhaps to tell this story.

I was helpless.

But wait! Do you think I am justifying my actions? No. I waited for what was to come, gauged the extent of my involvement. Could I prove how he, the desired of a million hearts, simply picked me up and placed me on the bed? Could I explain how I could not bring myself to say no to this man who ruled over the multitude? I? A mere mortal before him? I could not even open my eyes to look at him, hold his gaze. And I swooned before the ardour he offered at my feet. I couldn’t look at him directly but the mirror showed it all. His famous charm wrapped itself around my senses and I saw him come to me in a manner unimaginable for the countless whose hearts throb only for him.

I saw my beauty blaze in the mirror and burn in his eyes. I was helpless before his impatient, awesome craving.

The Retribution
Aditya returned on Saturday, jubilant with the new project he had wrested for his partners. He always knew how to wrest a win from under the opponent’s nose.

I waited. He would know. He could see through me.

In my mind I was inviolate.

But how could he not see the violation of my body?

At night, with the curtains drawn around us, the sheets crisp over our bodies, the lamplight muted, he quietly turned towards me.

‘I wish you would tell me yourself.’

I had nobody to speak on my behalf, no divine amanuensis to record my words. I told him how I was duped by the voice that pretended to be his; how I did not smell his adversary standing at the door. I did not tell him that I smelt his passion.

‘You welcomed him with open arms.’

‘Oh no! No! My arms were pinned to my side, dangling from where his arms held me in their grip.’

‘Why didn’t you prevent him?’

‘How could I?’

‘You didn’t want to.’

‘I didn’t want to ...’ A world of equivalence crouches in that admission.

‘Was it rape?’

How would I answer this? Does one shut one’s eyes during rape? Does rape make one feel satiated with an unexpected thrill? How could I answer this question?

‘You are better off without me. And he, the son of a bitch! I will see to him.’

He got out of bed and switched on the television. I was discarded.

‘What am I to do?’

‘Whatever.’ He did not turn to look at me.

‘Are you putting me out of your life?’

‘That’s what you have chosen to do.’

‘What choice did I have?’

‘The choice to say no.’ In the flickering light of the television, his grin was sombre, mirthless. ‘Stay if you want to. I cannot take you back. For me, you have ceased to exist.’

I turned to stone with my outraged modesty, with the remnants of my dignity, with the unwillingness to clarify, or to confirm.

I turned to stone, not out of calculated coquetry to win him back. My petrifaction was my protest against my perceived arousal, my husband’s demand for purity at all costs, at his acceptance of possible rape but not my shocked compliance.

‘If he can stand up to say you were unwilling, I could consider taking you back.’

I’d rather be a stone.

The Salvation
Aaliya visited me when I was packing some bags.

‘What’s this? Where are you going?’

‘Cleaning up, not going.’

‘Did you say sorry to Aditya?’

I had to look at her for this. I had to see the question in the depths of her eyes. She had to see the answer in my words.

‘Sorry? For being imposed upon?’

‘How could you give in?’

I pushed the open rucksack with my left foot. ‘You mean I welcomed him with open arms?’

‘, but if it was rape, you could have said no.’

I smiled. I had to. ‘Tell me, Aaliya. How does one demarcate? Where does the line of rape end and consent begin when one has no choice? I took the scars on my mind instead of on my body. Is that what you want to see? The scars of my torment? The proof?’

‘Why didn’t you report it?’

‘And then? Take this private inquisition to the public fora? Who would believe me? Do you believe? Does Aditya believe? Come on, Aali. You know better than that. He is God himself, the invincible, irrepressible heartthrob of this nation and he enters my home and violates me. Is this what I tell the world?’

‘Why he?’

My laughter rings in my ears. ‘I did not advertise the post of rapist, if that’s what you mean.’ Poor girl, I didn’t mean to humiliate her.  After all, we go back a long way, school, college and then theatre. ‘Why he? Ask Adi. He will tell you. That’s what’s gnawing at him.  Adi cocked a snook at him when he won me. I was the prize and the prize has been desecrated.’

Aaliya stood by the window, a picture frozen in time. Like Aditya later that night. He too stood by the window, as if that aperture would give him respite.

‘What do you plan to do now?’

‘Nothing, Adi.’

‘I thought you were leaving.’

‘Where should I go? Will my going away make me unreal, render me null and void? To whom?’

‘At least I won’t have to see you before my eyes every day. Spare me that torment. When I see you I see the other too, the one you brought into my room, my bed, and claim to be innocent about.’

‘Would you have had me violated on the street rather than on your bed? Does the setting determine whether the act is acceptable or despicable?’

‘This is not an intellectual discussion and it does not absolve you of your guilt.’

‘Guilt. Yes, guilt indeed. I gave in knowing I had no way out.’

‘People won’t think so.’

‘The walls around me have pre-existing niches, Adi, and your ‘people’ are waiting to fill them with pre-existing goodies according to each one’s taste. Only I know what fits. I could say he raped me and go on to admire your brawn as you bash up his handsome face. I could, if I wanted to, prove the rape. I choose not to prove anything. It’s my word against your ideas. The choice is yours Adi, not mine.’

‘Leave me alone! I wish you would disappear.’
I did not disappear; I stayed in our home, slept in our bedroom. Sometime after this, I do not remember the exact date, he returned from office and took cognizance of my presence.

‘Want to discuss something. Are you free for a minute?’

I wasn’t, but I made myself available.

‘I have to leave for France for six months. Tomorrow.’

I waited. Aditya looked at me in the mirror.

‘What are your plans?’

‘Are you running away, Adi?’ I didn’t await his answer. ‘No, I have no plans. Have a play scheduled for next week and am busy with that.’

‘So when I return, will you still be here?’

I stood before him now, between him and the mirror.

‘I’ll be here. Not waiting, not pining, not penitent, not imperceptible to all creatures, intangible, unseen, veiled; not for me the penance for a sin I am not guilty of. I have absolved myself of all perceived guilt. I will be here as I am.’
Arshia Sattar, The Ramayana by Valmiki, Penguin Books, 2000, p. 74
Sucharita Dutta-Asane is a writer based in Pune. Her work has appeared this year in Vanilla Desires, Unisun Publications and Ripples, Short Stories by Indian Women Writers, APK Pulishers. Her retelling of Sita's story has been selected for Zubaan's forthcoming anthology, The Speculative Ramayana. Her collection of short stories titled The Jungle Stories won an award at Oxford Bookstores' e-author contest in 2008. Besides this, she freelances as an editor with a Literary Agency in India.