This is a striking book. Both in appearance and content. But holding this very interesting book – an anthology of writing by women young and old – in your hand, what strikes you first is the title – Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts with the title also in Urdu (though in Roman) Khushk Zubaan, Bebaak Jigar and one wonders what the two editors, Reema Ahmad and Semeen Ali think of in this context.

Being a translator myself, I wondered if the English title is the translation of the Urdu one or vice versa. Maybe, I don’t want to know the answer and would like to go with my gut feeling that they thought of the Urdu and then translated it into English. But who knows…and, does it even matter?

One opens the books and realises the potential and beauty it holds together. The introduction by Reema Ahmad is the same poem in English and in Urdu titled, “Meeting” and “Mulaqaat” – how a woman meets herself amidst all the domestic chores and maternal responsibilities:

So close to the brink of
Everyday madness
Hemmed in by
Babies and wash loads
Tea times and lunches
And endless stirring
Of spoons in gravies

The opening pages set the book in motion. This isn’t one of those books that will only stir you, it will also make you sit up and go back to it again and again. The book, along with poems, includes fiction and non-fiction pieces, along with some splendid artwork. What more can one ask for?

The contributors in this edited volume are from all age groups and all walks of life. Sonali Pattnaik, an academic, writes:

I remember when
I used to smoke
the slim line of the cigarette
drew a boundary
between me and the world
it was a statement at first
a habit soon, a weapon, a think tool

To complement her, we have Vasundhara Singh and Mehnaz Hussain, who are students. Vasundhara writes:

I am a mother
Without a child
(A determined wanderer.)
A preacher
Without belief
(A godless fanatic)
A galaxy
Without starts
(A hopeless haven)
A planet
Without rivers
(A quiet nothingness)
A casualty
Without a crime
(A falsity of terror)
I am a mother
Without a child

And Mehnaz claims:

I am the flower
Pressed in between pages,
The smell, vile.
My skin, dried
On which flaky lesions have built a home.

One notices the anguish buried in the leaves of this book. If the poets have used words, guarded and coded – and at times explicit too – the fiction pieces bring out similar stories, yet differently. A very engaging story by Aashna Jamal depicts the journey of the protagonist Zareen in her effort to be allowed by her father to join the family business of butchery. The explicit detailing of the meat cuts seem to be symbolic of the struggle for the acceptance of a young girl to inherit the profession.

The idea of “home” and “belongingness” that Amrita Singh explores in her story “If You Haven’t Been There, You Haven’t Lived” takes one through a trip of nostalgia. “Mommy Dearest” by Smruti focuses on the emotional roller coaster of a mother of a child with autism. And Aisha Shafi’s “What Colour is It?” revolves around the choice of a woman to wear a hijab, and being regularly questioned by her women colleagues.

In fact, all the stories cover a myriad issues that touch ordinary women leading ordinary lives. Prachi Shama’s “Two Parts Woman” opens with these pertinent questions:

“Is a woman only someone who reproduce? What am I without my womb, my ability to reproduce? Do I stop being a woman because I’m not playing one of the most important roles society attributes to me?”

The artworks are illustrations as well as poignant photographs, again reflecting the myriad aspects of womanhood, women with dry tongues and brave hearts. Sneha Biswas’s illustration depicting fantasies coming to reality as a nightmare, or Reetuparna Dey’s graphic art, a take on marriage and motherhood, or Upasana Chakraborty’s artwork on face-wash leading to face loss all reflect ideas and romanticised perceptions of women’s bodies, anxieties and traumas around body politics.

Zeba Rizvi’s “Witches” is the depiction of a scene from a Women’s Day march for safe abortion, opposing the interference of the state in a woman’s right over her body. If Ima Faisal’s mystery woman hides and reveals, Shikha Thakur’s “Love & Fear” depicts the two prominent emotions that go deep.

Along with the illustrations, the photographs also symbolise the pain with celebrating the feminine self, desire and women’s bodies side by side. While BN Neelima’s “Veiled Women” has layers and depict visible emotions, Neha Chaturvedi’s collage “Sleeper Class” is a window into the lives of many women.

If the book highlights rejection of many norms, it also celebrates an array of practices. Semeen Ali’s closing note sums it up:

There is always an invisible line that women or those who identify as women have to live with and within. But there are always exits that one can create – not necessarily taken but at least can be created.

It is this line, this liminal line, that runs through the book.

This book left my tongue dry.

This book left my brave heart weak.

Saba Mahmood Bashir is an author, poet and translator, and Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia.

Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts: Khushk Zubaan, Bebaak Jigar

Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts: Khushk Zubaan, Bebaak Jigar, edited by Reema Ahmad and Semeen Ali, Red River.