There’s an old Godrej almirah rusting in that one room in an Indian household. In the same room of rotting immateriality that our parents, and the parents before them, refuse to let go, sits a question. It’s a jump scare. You’re all too familiar with it. If not, what will people say? Log kya kahenge? Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s Dirty Women counters the question with a more pertinent one: How does it matter?
Although primarily a crime-thriller, the novel straddles genres. And its legs don’t quake in the process. “What happens when we lose a child?” asks Aahana, a female journalist (and I specify a gender for a reason Bhattacharyya untangles in this story) in the “true crime book-within-the-book”. Bhattacharyya unfurls the story across two timelines – through 2002, and in an unspecified future where “the most unlikely of sources” asks Aahana to write about 2002. In the Prologue, Aahana admits that “the case”, easily interchangeable with “the novel”, “had all the ingredients of a hit: tragedy, love, sex, money.”
The kidnapped child, Tara, is a four-year-old girl. But more importantly, she’s the daughter of a single mother singer, Drishti, who “was never short on friends, or lovers”. On a night in 2002, the media hoisted a circus tent in Calcutta. It forced a mother who committed no crime but resisted norms to walk on a fraying tightrope.
The opening show was Tara’s kidnapping from an “upmarket neighbourhood in a secure apartment complex”. This event followed a series of acts by clowns who play tricks while feigning concern, dancers who sway to the rumours about a “bitch” at restaurant tables, and ventriloquists like Ranadeep Mukherjee, “the anchor of the most popular evening show” milking Drishti like she’s a “person of clout”.
Bhattacharyya doesn’t tell a story about people; she bottles culture. Her characters can be anyone. The female gaze of the story magnifies the distorted understanding of womanhood in India, and Tara’s kidnapping isn’t the only tragedy in the book. It’s the red herring.
Aahana, an independent woman with a “tiny apartment,” was getting married to a boy with whom she “never really spent” time. “How would that look?” asks her father when she says she doesn’t want to buy jewellery for her engagement ceremony.
“There are only three weeks left to the engagement. We have to go shopping,” said her mother.
“I am not sure when I will have time now, Ma.”
“Then what will we do? You need a sari. It is an engagement after all. We’ll need at least a week to get the blouse made. Ten days would be better.”
“I’ll try. If I can’t make it, just go ahead and buy something. Anyway, you have my blouse sample.”
“I told you not to buy anything.”
“Don’t be absurd,” said her father. “How would that look?”
Aahana doesn’t play the role of the quintessential Indian bride. And some might say she “fails to” play this role because it’s sacrosanct. But that’s the expectation that Bhattacharyya’s characters do not satisfy. They don’t want to get married, they don’t need to, and it’s a tragedy they “have” to tie the knot (around their autonomous limbs).
Aahana’s parents’ concern for her indifference to marriage doesn’t stem from any anxiety that she might not be happy. It roots itself in the apprehension that “others”, an undefined but growing sample of people, will recognise her indifference.
Bhattacharyya’s effortless dialogue and carefully orchestrated tonal shifts illustrate these intricacies of family life. And they frame the conditionality that accompanies love. Drishti “never wanted a father for her child,” and her parents threatened to cut off contact.
To them, and those around her, her identity as a single mother is less respectful than that of a divorced or widowed woman, with the only difference being fornication. (Some aunty will argue that it’s a misuse of language to associate “only” with fornication unless it’s about marrying the “one and only”). And okay, she made a “mistake,” but why does she need to raise the child?
Drishti’s parents and friends offer a “hopelessly predictable” list of alternatives to giving birth to an illegitimate daughter. The list includes items for the situation where she keeps the baby too. The only love her parents and friends can comprehend is that of society. It’s another kind of contingent love that renews itself as long as one of the items on the checklist is satisfied. Norms are foreplay, and if you want that izzat, you need to work hard for it. (And avoid playing hard).
So is Drishti’s love for Tara conditional? It’s a question that Bhattacharya doesn’t answer. But Tara’s selfish too, and Bhattacharya ensures all her characters are real – and, therefore, flawed. They’re tangible, even on paper. Drishti doesn’t inform Tara’s father of her existence. And the novel conveniently avoids the questions about a father’s rights.
However, Bhattacharya constantly reminds the reader of the father’s existence through a persistent question: “Who is Tara Sengupta’s father?” So while Drishti strips him of a (plausible) right, Bhattacharya protects his presence in the narrative.
“The child’s father?”
“I am a single mother.”
“No. Not married.”
Often (wrongly) acknowledged as a weapon administered by women, sex is a death warrant in the hands of the wrong but skilled archer. It forces women to say, “please?” and not in bed, but to friends to borrow their apartment because living with parents makes “privacy impossible”. Although Bhattacharya uses the word a total of six times in the novel, it’s safe to say that sex is the most prominent feature of her novel’s premise.
Bhattacharya’s choice of making Aahana, a female character, write the story about a misunderstood woman reveals a MacGuffin, a device necessary to the plot and character motivations, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself: solidarity. Wouldn’t this story be different if Aahana had been a man?
Dirty Women, Madhumita Bhattacharyya, Roli Books.