Monday, July 30, 2018

Premise: 'A Season of Premature Twilight' by Fehmida Zakeer reviewed by Neera Kashyap

Reviewed by Neera Kashyap

Early in her story, ‘A season of premature twilight’, Fehmida Zakeer sets an impersonal and ironic tone for the reader. With this, she deftly minimizes the impact of the serious issues involved in the narrative: an impoverished fatherless childhood with three other sisters; life in an orphanage; autocracy, fraudulence and sexual abuse in adolescence itself; public attention through a media that fluctuates between two extreme situations of vilification and fulsome praise. But the protagonist Zeenat is bright, very bright. This, too, is established early in the story.

Zakeer’s concession to emotion in the first part of the story is reflected in Zeenat’s observation of the rapidly deteriorating condition of the orphanage where she lives – ‘a gap-toothed roof that creaks and groans in the wind’, the floor mat a ‘green skin….a breeding ground for the insect world’, broken glass, still hanging in window panes, ‘covered with cardboard, torn out from our notebooks, fearing an invasion of snakes and scorpions’, ‘the roof, covered with ancient tiles, resting on a rotting wooden frame’.

This intelligent use of imagery to depict the protagonist’s own denudation of mind and soul culminates in a situation when a torrent of monsoon rain breaks into the building and forty girls are shifted into two storerooms. It is here that the writer prepares the reader for the crisis to come: “To the mosquitoes buzzing at night, our sleeping bodies might as well be one giant creature with several arms spread out over the floor. Not that it matters to them, they just want our blood.’ When the marauders do come, they come in the form of ‘four, no, five black cars, black and long, parked all around the building, like crows clustered around a carcass.’

It is this minimalist style that hooks the reader. When the writer can take the tragic turn of events in her stride, so can the reader. A fraudulent marriage of a girl from an impoverished family results in sexual abuse for a week not only by the ‘husband’ but by a ‘different husband each night’, in a resort in the backwaters overlooking a picture postcard view.

Then comes a delicious sardonic touch: Zeenat is dumped back home; her mother faints, then pleads with the school, and then with the child welfare committee. The media swings negative on this occasion, vilifying Zeenat and her family. Zeenat’s words are terrifyingly matter-of-fact: ‘I am famous…..Every day I learn more about myself from the newspapers and television’. Equally stunning is the media swing when Zeenat tops her exams in the entire district. At a press conference at the collectorate, the media demands justice for Zeenat. The cacophony is again reflected in Zeenat’s mind in images of barking dogs, raucous crows and wailing cuckoos. It is here at the story’s end that there could have been greater comic exaggeration, so far the story having been so evenly toned by the writer with its use of reflective imagery and impersonal observation.

One was reminded of a story, ‘The divine pregnancy in a twelve-year old woman,’ the 2018 Commonwealth short story prize-winner from Asia by Sagnik Datta. In this, God visits the villagers of a particular village in a dream, bestowing one woman among them with ‘His honour’. So a 12-year old orphan girl is believed to have the honour of carrying God’s child, the story building up through layers of possessiveness and anticipation to the climax of the child’s birth. There is, of course, a very sneakily alluded-to lover in the background. The child born, to great all-round shock is a girl, and the 12-year old girl’s end is described with such an exaggerated impunity that it becomes humorous: “Usha continued bleeding even after the baby was delivered. In fact, she bled so much that the blood soon flowed outside her room and down the steps into the courtyard. It would have reached the pond had we not started mopping it up; men with their lungis and shirts, women with their saris. But there seemed to be no end of it, and we wondered how her little body could have held so much blood. After an hour we were tired, and had to call for shovels to dig a moat.’

Reviewer Neera Kashyap's stories 'Supplication' appeared in Out of Print June 2017 and 'Dual Awakenings' in Out of Print June 2018.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Premise: 'A Gift for the Goddess' by Murli Melwani, a response by Kusum Choppra

A Gift for the Goddess by Murli Melwani
A Response by Kusum Choppra

‘Gift for the Goddess’ published in Issue 10, March 2013 of Out of Print, narrates a horrifying occurrence that should not belong to the 21st century.

When modern engineering and superstition collide in rural areas, who wins? You guessed it: superstition. 

What I wonder is that when men think of evil, why do they ALWAYS  attribute it to a goddess/ a ma?

Is it not time that  these 'Unspokens'  are now brought into light and questioned? 

Reviewer Kusum Choppra is a writer.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Premise: 'Supplication' and 'Dual Awakenings' by Neera Kashyap reviewed by Vandana Devi

Dual Awakenings and Supplication by Neera Kashyap
Reviewed by Vandana Devi

Neera Kashyap tugs at our heartstrings when she encompasses her whole stories with the theme of faith. Her belief in a higher power and her appeals to female goddesses and female saints are quite melancholic in nature. So are her stories ‘Dual Awakenings’ and ‘Supplication’.

Both her stories contain historical sites and myths that makes it seem like there is a story within a story. When her characters search for these goddesses and saints, she leaves a trail of description of these religious sites that are quite extensive, leaving us with the feeling that we too have taken a trip alongside these characters to these beautiful places of worship.

In ‘Supplication’, the narrator goes in search of the dargah of a woman saint. She takes the readers along, as she smells the fragrance, feels the silence and sees the dimly lit place. In the prayer room of Mai Sahiba, the reason for her exhaustion is finally revealed and the desperation can be understood deeply when she says ‘I don’t want the courage to cope’. The story is not just about acceptance of fate. It is also about the realisation that faith can give us the strength to accept our fate.

In ‘Dual Awakenings’, the narrator goes on a similar trip to find the idol of a goddess of fertility. Neera Kashyap too evolves as a writer and her prose seems similar, but better. This slightly longer story has beautiful descriptions of caves and seas. The goddess Hariti’s power seems to pour through the writing into the reader as well. She spells out the pain of motherhood and loss with hauntingly beautiful prose.

Neera Kashyap writes strong female characters who are independent in their search for meaning. They have support mechanisms as friends and partners, but they also have a sense of inherent loneliness in them which makes the contexts of the stories more believable.

As a reader, I enjoyed both of Neera Kashyap’s stories because in this day and age, most people especially in urban settings, tend to forget the comfort of faith and this is what these stories remind us.

Reviewer Vandana Devi is an intern at Out of Print.

Premise: 'The Good Wife' by Pavithra Srinivasan reviewed by Deeksha Balaji

The Good Wife, A Retelling by Pavitra Srinivasan
Reviewed by Deeksha Balaji

Featured in Out of Print’s March 2015 journal, Srinivasan’s retelling of a Tamilian folk tale is hauntingly enamouring and leaves the reader with a buzzing mind. It is a beautiful story dating the perpetration of violence against women back to the BC Era, showing the inherent oppression of the woman in marriage and family.

The story tells the tale of a young woman, Neeli appearing before the council of elders (a bit like the modern Panchayat) in the Tamil village of Pazhaiyanur. She expresses her grievances- that her husband Bhuvanapathi refused to recognize her and their daughter- and seeks justice from the elders. It is revealed in the story that Neeli’s husband and her in-laws had ousted her from the family after arranging a second marriage for Bhuvanapathi with a more affluent family. While Neeli herself had no objection to this marriage, the family was stubborn and forcefully ostracized her.

A woman at the time was compelled to present herself as a dharampatni or a ‘good wife’ in order to be given justice, though ideally, it should have been given to her regardless. The same is the case with Neeli who presents herself as an immaculate follower of the scriptures and a blind adherent to the Laws of Manu. It is thus that she is able to convince the elders to sympathise with her and grant her requests. However, despite being built as a meek character throughout the story, a shocking twist in the end, reveals a more feminist streak in her character.

More importantly, the story leads the reader to question several beliefs held dearly even in modern Indian society. What does it mean to be a good wife? To be ‘seen and not heard’? To be obedient and exist for the sole purpose of pleasing those around her? To be so immensely dependent that she cannot survive without her husband? To have no identity of her own? Srinivasan’s stroke of genius forces us to consider the ramifications of the ‘trophy wife’ stereotype contextualize it. How much has really changed in the status of wives since the reign of the Pandyas in 300BCE?

In a very poignant way, the story nullifies the traditional and stereotypical essentials of a ‘good wife’. The idea of the dharampatni is a mere justification for the age old trends of domestic violence. In an eerily beautiful manner, Srinivasan’s masterpiece sheds light on this injustice.

Reviewer Deeksha Balaji is an intern at Out of Print and helped develop the project 'Premise'.