“Primrose Villa, with its little walled garden, its two side entrances, has the quaint air of kept secrets. It is the sort of setting that demands drama. The white and magenta bougainvillea creepers in their lush September bloom. Papaya plants, along the east wall, with their spiralling, umbrella leaves and frail trunks. A coconut tree in its advanced years, its leaves designed to frame the solitary moon at night and play an air-piano in the rain.”
Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful family saga, doesn’t it? Well, as in many an experience, first impression can be deceivingly false. But then, you already know what is coming. A book and an author who has been discussed to death. Her memoir of a marriage that was all of four months long came out two years ago, surrounded by controversies.
A writer, and a ‘feminist’ at that, putting up with an abusive husband, not walking out immediately? How could she, why didn’t she, the accusations are aplenty. But we all know, not a thing in life is as simple as that.
She writes about her search for that ‘one perfect love,’ how she almost found it in a Kerala politician, and married a professor almost twenty years her senior on the rebound. What she thought and dreamed of, from a pre marital distance was strikingly different from the reality of being a ‘married woman.’
The trauma that she went through in four months is so unbelievable that it can only be facts. For reality is always stranger than fiction. The descriptions are graphic. As to the question of why an educated, thinking girl did not walk out, that is what her story answers. And mind you, she had to face this trial by fire even if she did leave him after four months.
“In place of a firing squad, I stare down the barrels of endless interrogation.
Why did she not run away?
Why did she not use the opportunities that she had for escape?
Why did she stay if, indeed, the conditions were as bad as she claims?
How much of this wasn’t really consensual?
Let me tell you a story. Not mine, this time around.
It is the story of a girl we call after the place of her birth, lacking the integrity to even utter her name. The Suryanelli Girl.
Forty-two men rape this girl, over a period of forty days.
She is sixteen years old.
The police do not investigate her case. The high court questions her character. The highest court in the land asks the inevitable. Why did she not run away? Why did she not use the opportunities that she had for escape? Why did she stay if, indeed, the conditions were as bad as she claims? How much of this wasn’t really consensual?
Sometimes the shame is not the beatings, not the rape.
The shaming is in being asked to stand to judgment.”
There are questions aplenty. Would she have walked out if the abuse was not so intensely physical? Would she have continued in hope if it was more subtle and not so visceral? And I guess we all know the answers to that.
You may or may not agree with her choices, her way of life before and after. Maybe she could have handled things differently. There is one thing that remains unquestionable. The beauty of her language, the power of her thoughts and how it seems to flow so effortlessly into words that read like a poem that speaks directly to your heart, catch you by the the throat and shake you to the core.
The life of a ‘feminist,’ a woman who thinks, who dares to have her own opinions, who has the courage to question, is not so easy, you see. As for love, no one seems to believe that even she can yearn for it.
Eating wasps. Haven’t we all? Mistaking it for a honey bee, hoping and dreaming that it’s an eternal pot of honey that we have caught. Only to be stung, the honey turning bitter the moment it enters our mouth.
The story starts with the poet Sreelakshmi killing herself and the bone of her little finger being locked in an old cupboard by her lover Markose. After years, we find the cupboard in a resort “Near the Nila,’ the finger held tight by a little girl who is haunted by the ghosts of an ‘uncle.’
We come across them, one after another. Those that attempted to catch and eat wasps of validation. For Urvashi, it was her desirability after fifty, for Megha, that she was lovable, for Najma, that there was life after a horrible tragedy, for Brinda, that life was all about demolishing her opponents, for Lilliana, a life after a scandal, for Molly, the act of contrition that she is trying to figure out.
There is a little bit of us in each of those women. The never ending attempt to validate ourselves, in someone or something else. As if our very existence will not be justified until someone makes a tick mark. The ever elusive ink of approval. That we are desirable, lovable, worthy, wise, valuable. And we go in search of one chimera after another. That eternal pot of honey at the end of the rainbow. If we cannot get the whole pot, let’s at least get that honey bee. So we run after them, knowing not what they are. And getting stung.
What is endearing in these stories is what happens after the bitter bite. When they realize that it is poison that they consumed. It starts with Radha, I would say. Those of you who have read the author’s ‘Mistress’ would remember her. I did not like how the story ended, honestly. The meekness, they very ordinariness of her decision had enraged me. She stays in the background in this story. But the place is pervaded by her soul, the steely resolve in her can be felt in each stone of that place. And I love this new Radha.
The women make their own honey in spite of, or maybe because of the wasps that consumed them temporarily. Is it because all of them are contemporary, I wonder. The reach of social media, the ready availability of news from across the world makes them aware that they are not alone in this journey. Many have trodden the path that they now embark upon. They were stung too, but they just spit the poison out and continued. Not in the least bothered about their swollen lips and blue faces.
And that makes me wonder whether Sreelakshmi would have a taken a different path had she lived in these times. She made an attempt at going on a road less travelled much before it was built. Only to fall.
The men in these stories seem to have gone scot free, left to live their lives as they wanted. But then, isn’t that too what happens time and again? Slices of life as we know it. Maybe that explains the heavy feeling that hung upon me even days after finishing the book.
The name sounded different. There was something about it, though. It kept coming back, in some article or another. I got to know it was a woman and she was usually referred to along with my new favorite author Sadat Hasan Manto. Then another article mentioned something about controversies, and I love such women. The name was ear marked and stored in one of those soon to be retrieved shelves of my memory.
I could never resist the crinkle in his eyes. And there he was, saying wistfully, “if only we can live half the life she lived..,” fondly referring to her as Ismat Apa. Who is this woman? Curiosity got the better of me, as Naseerudeen Shah talked about meeting her, on her controversial short story ‘Lihaaf’ and how he, his wife Ratna Pathak Shah and daughter Heeba decided to stage their play on her, in Urdu, ‘Ismat Aapke Naam.’ The name was dusted afresh and pushed towards the front of the memory shelf.
Short stories were a genre that I usually kept away from. Maybe the reader in me wanted the stories to go on for ever. With work that never seemed to end, the long form was turning into something that had some hard demands. And I turned towards the ones that took the time of a short break. The stories transformed themselves into an alternative for the banter across the cubicles and long coffee sessions that I were missing, as I worked more and more from home. Pick up one, read a couple of stories. Keep it aside, pick another one, and so it went.
A sleepy mid morning and a dull conference call. The hard bound volume opened at a random page, there was no bookmark to remind where I’d left it last time. The name stared at my face. It was time, to meet the woman and her ‘Lihaaf.’
The protagonist, a young girl has no name , it would be apt to describe her as a tomboy. Rather than leave her to her fights with her brothers and their friends, her mother leaves her with an aunt as she travel s to Agra for a week. The Begum Jan, married to the Nawab Sahib, ‘essentially a decent man who stayed away from the company of whores and dancing girls.’ He had no vices, in fact, he was so virtuous that ‘he had students staying over at his home – fair, young boys with slender waists – whose expenses were borne entirely by Nawab Sahib.’
As can be expected in such cases, Begum Jan withered, devoid of attention from husband and family. Until Rabbo arrived with her oil of secret ingredients and the never ending massages. The girl is obviously enraptured by the sensuous Begum Jan, but is old enough to sense something is not right between the Begum and her trustworthy masseuse. As night falls, the tom boy turns into a timid girl who is scared to sleep alone. Having slept off in a small cot in the Begum’s bed room, she wakes up in the middle of the night to some muffled sounds in the room. In the dim light, the quilt on the Begum’s bed has come to life. To her young mind, it is as if an elephant had got under the silken quilt. The strange noises and the billowing shapes frighten her no end. The story goes on to say how the girl grows up overnight in the Begum’s hands and the animals that she find under the quilt.
And I find myself going back to Naseerudin Shah’s words,
” It’s a story that has given a certain notoriety to Ismat Apa which makes people curious about her. On the one hand Lihaf made her famous; on the other, people read nothing else but Lihaf. It’s not a titillating story, it’s not about lesbians but about child abuse. It’s a disturbing story. She never says a single thing directly, it’s all elliptical. People failed to understand that.”
The real story is between the lines. In the words that are not written, but those you could still read. Of the stereo types that young girls are expected to be. Of marriages that are not. Of vices that are camouflaged as virtues. Of repression, sexual and emotional. The ways in which women escape, and how, at times drag their own down, along with them. Yet, nothing is overt, not a word is out of place, nothing is even remotely sexual.
Remember Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ and the controversaries it created? One cannot but relate Begum Jan to the characters portrayed by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. Women who are forced into marriage and men who find satisfaction elsewhere. And the finding of happiness where they can find it. If ‘Fire’ created so much heat at the beginning of twenty first century, imagine the furore such a story could have created in the Lahore of nineteen forties.
Ismat Chughtai had to face an obscenity trial for this story and was asked to apologize. She promptly refused to do so and defended the case by herself. The prosecution failed miserably in establishing their case, for the story was said from the perspective of a young girl, there was no obscenity whatsoever anywhere, and she had woven the story in a suggestive manner. And she won. Some woman, eh?
As I go in search of her other stories, you can read the ‘Lihaaf’ here:
* Name of the play on Ismat Chughtai, produced by The Motley Theatre Company.
( Naseerudin Shah on Ismat Chughtai – http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/art-culture/naseeruddin-shah-on-ismat-chughtai-if-only-we-can-live-half-the-life-she-did )