A warm humanism marks this collection of stories by Rajee Seth, some of which are vibrantly Feminist. Woman suffers, and man too, and Seth tries to dissect the reasons why. A clinical detachment is tempered by empathy and understanding.
The protagonist in 'Amma's Gold', who lost a son in earlier war, and wants to sell her ornaments to donate to the National Defence Fund during the Kargil battle, cannot be deterred by her grasping other son. Partition forms the background of 'Wait Intezaar Hussain ': on Independence Day, a man, while reading a book about that watershed in history, is assailed by the memory of his beloved who perished in the Lahore riots forty years ago. In 'Yatra', an old man getting reconciled to his son after long Servitude at his master's mansion discovers that being fettered is demeaning to the human spirit. The title story is about childlessness where the man , himself the cause , stigmatizes his wife, who gets wind of her mother-in-law's plans to seek another bride and decides to leave. 'Morass' lends itself to paraphrasing Ivy Compton-Burnett's words: pride goes before a fall, but male pride may continue after.
In Raji Narasimahan's precise and vivid translations from their Hindi originals, the stories truly come alive.
Apart from the general reader, Not without Reason and other stories will appeal to students of gender studies and comparative literature.
Rajee Seth is an acclaimed Hindi writer of fiction, poetry and criticism. Her works have been translated into almost all Indian languages as well as English. Among her most celebrated works is her translation into Hindi of Rilke's letters. She has received several awards, among them the First Tagore Literature Awards (2010), Hindi Academy Samman (1987), Bharatiya Bhasha Puraskar (1985), Rashtra Bhasha Gaurav Samman (2007). She was a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Seth lives and works in Delhi.
Raji Narasimhan writes fiction and criticism in English, and is also a well-known translator. Her novel, 'Forever Free', was on the English Literature course of IIT, Delhi, and was shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Award (1979-80). 'Sensibility Under Stress: Aspects of Indo-English Fiction' was recommended reading in English departments in Aligarh Muslim University and Utkal University, and was also shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Award (1976-77). Her translation of Maitreyi Pushpa's novel, 'Alma Kabutari' was shortlisted for the Crossword Translation Award in 2006-7. Narasimhan lives and works in Delhi.
To call Rajee Seth a feminist writer would not be wrong. But it would be a half-truth. Many stories in this collection are stories about human failings, and human problems not centred on man-woman schisms or dichotomies, 'Wait, Intezaar Hussain', 'Yatra', 'My Option', for instance. Her aliveness to pain in human relations goes beyond gender-based perceptions to apprehending it as incumbent in life. There is no escape from pain, she says. And, more importantly, that pain is not always a synonym for unhappiness.
Stories such as the ones mentioned above are, however, obvious evidences of her trans-feminist disposition. The characters in them are men. It is so even in 'My Option', where Nilima, the narrator's sister, with her very feminine-seeming opposition to her husband's crude India-bashings, is not the initiating force of the story; it is her brother, the narrator, who performs that function. The interesting thing is that Seth's trans-feminism emerges from her woman-centred stories too. And this makes the latter more challenging, more connected to the basic proposition I make about her writing-that without damage to the feminist cause, her espousals mellow and expand to a philosophic awareness of pain as an intrinsic component of life, human or non-human.
There's no mincing of words, no soft-pedalling, in portraying the male atrocities dealt with in the story 'Not Without Reason' ('Akaaran to Nahee'). It is an open narration of the face-saving devices easily available to Sudhakar for making his wife the scapegoat for his sexual deficiency. The wife's rising sense of rebellion against these machinations of her husband is the parallel strand in the narrative. The parallel snaps, which is the point of climax in the story. The wife decides not to come back from her parents' where she is set to go.
She cuts loose, in other words. It seems like a classic, tit-for-tat, combative feminist ending.
But read the concluding lines again, and you sense what the author is saying without stating. 'With absolute clarity Deepali was seeing that like her sudden decision to go, the decision not to come back was also forming in her with swift, sure strides'.
That paragraph has a solid, concrete feel to it. Phrases like 'absolute clarity', and 'swift, sure strides', and Deepali's seeing the formation within her of her sudden decision to go make for an overall image composed of positives. And into this composition of positives is inserted the phrase, 'the decision not to come back'. It is terse and decisive enough of tone even if it is a negative. But it is without the firm, defined borders of the positive phrases. It brings in its wake the question of what next, raises the cloud of uncertainties that surround women taking decisions like Deepali's. And these uncertainties are voiced in the narrative all through. We see them in the monologues of Deepali, that, as said before, parallel the unfolding of the theme of the story, namely, the husband's impotence. From the backdrop of uncertainties a basic fact emerges: that Deepali is friendless, will probably remain so. There is no one speaking for her, no one taking her side. Her periodic visits to her parents' home are made only to 'unwind, be herself ... away from Hire's (mother-in- law) nagging'. But will this relief her parents afford her stretch to their taking responsibility for her once more? Will her parents see her through the difficult transition period she will have to undergo to cope with single living? These issues are not taken up directly. But they loom over the body of the narrative.
The reality of intrinsic friendlessness emerges as an undercurrent in the dialogue between Deepali and Nisha, a neighbour. The whole scene is a cameo of the coded underhandedness of traditional behaviour that the parties concerned can decode at the slightest hint. The hint here is in three short sentences that Nisha speaks: 'Just came over to meet you. Who knows when we'll meet again. If we will at all'.
We can hear the words.They speak.They have a sound track away and apart from the voice of the speaker. We hear the heavy droop in the sentence, 'Who knows when we'll meet again'. We hear the conclusive helplessness and dead finality of the words, 'If we will at all'. The droop, helplessness and finality speak a language we know. And in a reflex action we move back to the source of the familiar inflections, till the English casing of the words dissolves and we hear the Hindi stored in the heart of the English. 'Jaane kab milen: mil bhi payenge kya pataa'.
Deepali catches on at once, what Nisha had caught on already, as soon as she heard that Deepali was going to her parents'. 'Going', Nisha had seen at once, meant 'being got rid of', that in Deepali's absence Hiro will marry off Sudhakar to someone else. Deepali is shaken but is sure Sudhakar will not abandon her. Didn't he have his laboriously constructed image of virility to keep up?
But Sudhakar is not, has never been, a straight 'yes' or 'no' man. Deepali sees it all over again. Subterfuge and trickery for saving face are his natural devices for coping with problems. Whoever succeeds her would be somehow squeezed into the same position as her own. The bonds of wifehood fall off Deepali once and for all. This is where 'with absolute clarity' she sees her decision not to come back 'forming in her with swift, sure strides'.
This intense inner gaze of Deepali is one of those spells of mimesis that recur in Seth's narratives, reinforcing their statements. From the frozen body postures, speech filters in an abhinaya of the story by the mime player, and the implications of the excesses suffered by the player.
We join Deepali in her contemplation of her basic state of friendlessness, in a spontaneous arousal of human, not necessarily feminist, feelings intended and achieved by the narrative.
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