A recent e-anthology, Behind The Shadows edited by Rohini Chowdhury and Zukiswa Wanner with the objective of bringing together the continents of Africa and Asia bears the theme outcast. It features work from associates of Out of Print, Rumjhum Biswas and Sucharita Dutta-Asane.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane’s story, Absolution was run on the Out of Print blog to accompany the mythology issue of the magazine. The story is preceded by a quote from Arshia Sattar’s, The Ramayana by Valmiki, (Penguin Books, 2000) that reads, ‘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!”’ It opens into a contemporary tale of perceived sin and absolution.
Rumjhum and Out of Print editor, Indira Chandrasekhar got to know each other in the process of releasing Pangea, the anthology that Indira edited with Rebecca Lloyd. Rumjhum conducted a series of interviews of that included both Indira and Rebecca, as well as many of the authors. It was really interesting to hear what the authors had to say about their respective stories, and it was fun for Rebecca and myself to talk about bringing Pangea together. The interviews were featured on the Everyday Fiction blog, Flash Fiction Chronicles.
I asked the following of both Sucharita and Rumjhum:
Tell us a bit about your story in Behind The Shadows: what inspired you to write it and why you saw it as fitting into the anthology.
The story that Sucharita has contributed to Behind The Shadows is called Cast Out and follows the wife of a priest in a temple on a hill and the ramifications of her interpretation of the monthly taboos associated with her bodily cycles.
The politics of ‘taboo’ has a strange effect in our culture; it engenders many things, one of which is rebellion. This is true of all societies; in ours it takes on implications that seep into our daily living. Most of us have lived with and through taboos related to menstruation and felt rebellion in our blood. We have been cast out of various portals, but what happens to the gods we worship? Can they be cast out too? How culpable are they in our beliefs and belief systems?
My story ‘Cast Out’ explores the practice of ‘belief’. It involves, rather sweepingly, gender issues, sexual issues, and the concept of what is taboo and what permissible. It hovers along the edges of the personal and the public, of the mind and body. When I started writing it, I only had an image in my mind, of a dark temple on a hill. Often, when I travelled by train between Pune and my hometown Jamshedpur, I would watch co-passengers fold their hands or throw coins towards temples on distant hills, shadowy in the evening light. As I began to write the story, not knowing where it would lead, I remembered that distant image and wondered what the people knew of the myriad temples to have such faith in their invisible deities. What if the temples were non-functional, devoid of their moortis, or a den of vice? This was the trigger. The menstruating woman and her quiet self assertion came much later. When she did, she had me in her grip. Through Tara, I began to feel the denial of existence that menstruating women still experience across our country. I remember discussing this story, much after I had written it, at a writing workshop. Everybody had a story to tell on the subject, horror stories, funny stories, angry stories.
‘Cast Out’ went through quite a few drafts before it reached this stage. In each draft, I saw it evolve, grow out of my control, spread out, retract, cave in, assert itself. I didn’t know where I would send it or how it would be received. I just knew that this story needed to be told. I’m so glad it has found a warm home for itself.
Rumjhum’s story in the anthology is called The Vanishing Man and is about a clerk in an office who has retired and how he perceives the world as seeing him. The story emerges wonderfully through the everyday activity of the protagonist.
I wrote The Vanishing Man sometime in 2003-2004. The story was first published in The Paumanok Review in 2004 (I think), before the magazine went on hiatus. I believe it re-opened recently, and my story is still archived there.
‘Outcast’ – the theme, concept, its many manifestations, effects and influences – is close to my heart. The Vanishing Man is not the only story around this theme that I’ve written. There have been other stories as well as poems; I seem to be working on something or the other around this theme, every now and then. My novel, which will be published sometime in 2013 by Lifi Publications, also has characters that are outcasts. From an early age I have been able to identify with those that fall under the category of ‘other’ and/or are outcasts. It may have something to do with certain life circumstances, however small. It certainly has to do with me as a person. I remember as a small child, looking at lepers and (mentally) transmigrating into their bodies; for an hour or so I was in my inner world as a leper tackling life. And that was not the only time, and not only with lepers either. This identification with the other naturally seeps into my creative writing.
Regarding the story and its protagonist, I've noticed that sometimes, in our male dominated and male-centric society, it is the man who becomes the victim. It's a curious thing. These men, reared on the belief that man being superior must therefore shoulder all the responsibilities that come with it as husbands, fathers, brothers etc., become helplessly caught in their own notions of duty. And their self esteem and sense of worth are irredeemably tied to it. Men (in our society) go through depression and feel they've lost their masculinity (and I mean masculinity and not merely virility), their idea of themselves as men, once they retire. In our country we have no rehabilitation programme or pre-retirement sessions that can help pre-retirees tackle their superannuated lives better. Family members are not sensitised. Wives and grown-up children in many cases treat such men with derision. Once they've stopped becoming bread winners, they no longer deserve the special treatment meted out to them before, like being served first at the table, their opinions sought etc. Not many men are able to turn philosophical and forgiving at the sudden change in attitude. The man, bewildered and at a loss, has no means of filling up his suddenly empty hours with meaningful activity. I've seen elderly men turn either extremely meek or vicious. The more they lose their physical strength, the more mentally debilitated they seem to become. Sometimes, the man is successfully able to deal with post-retirement issues, mostly due to his own efforts and sometimes thanks to good family support. Our government and society offer little or no help. In my story, my protagonist Satyabrata, comes to terms with his new status, in his own way; at the end when he has nothing, he still has his faculties about him, his mental strength to become free.