Last Sunday I finished reading The Last Song of Dusk by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, a beautiful story about music, memories, desire, love, and longing. The author uses the phrase “alcove of forgetting” to describe the mellifluous singing voice of Mohan, the protagonist Anuradha Gandharva’s two-year-old son.When the boy sang, listeners forgot everything around them and only had his voice ringing in their ears. When reading, I often get so engrossed in a story that other than the characters and the atmosphere, everything else ceases to exist for me. This forgetfulness is not deliberate, but a natural flow that keeps me wrapped in the moment.

Desiring imperfections

The Blue Women, a collection of 12 short stories by Anukrti Upadhyay, has become my new alcove of forgetting. This powerful collection is as much about tenacity, strength, grit, and love as it is about accepting the fact that it is absolutely normal for us to desire the undesired. And that it is perfectly fine to prefer to be only in someone’s arms rather than in their mind and head too.

These stories are also about not allowing ourselves to be infected by our own misunderstanding of how our own minds work, and about taking matters in one’s own hands. They feature everyday women, both provincial and cosmopolitan, who live through contrasting everyday experiences – complete with their flaws – amidst structures and systems made by institutions, and disparate incomes.

Upadhyay’s stories in The Blue Women are uncompromisingly honest and poignant accounts of women who are true to themselves and yet must wear masks in front of judgmental families and society. These spirited women hide their moral weaknesses but refuse to be pushed back, choosing instead to live imperfect lives. The narratives may be fictionalised, but such is the verisimilitude that they appear to be real accounts of lives, of women like you and me. These are women who must conquer themselves and their misgivings before trying to win the ethical battles they are subjected to by society.

Just like one of the author’s earlier works of fiction Bhaunri, The Blue Women is also lush with natural beauty, and love that is rooted in a spiritual connection. They either teach the protagonists life lessons, or lovingly guide them through the vagaries of existence. It is true that some of the women here are high-performing professionals in the corporate world, but in matters of the heart, they are somehow rudderless.

Not that all the stories are spiritually uplifting – some, in fact, are melancholic and heartbreaking. For instance, the story about Sona, the bright-eyed “Golden Girl”, as she is endearingly called by her stepfather. She crushes secretly on him, obsessing about him, and later tries to draw attention to herself by physically and mentally manipulating him. Or the one in which Ujla’s husband discovers startling facts about his wife while she lies in the intensive care unit of a hospital, struggling between life and death.

Unusual women

Upadhyay’s almost surreal imagination can end the marriage of a deeply-in-love architect couple by bringing a dreary army of frogs, real or imaginary, into the couple’s bedroom. The story reflects the abstract, wandering and questioning quality of the author’s mind. In one of the stories, a female taxi driver has visions of her women passengers dying in unexpected circumstances after she drops them to their destinations. After an unsuccessful attempt to save the life of one such passenger, about whom she had visions of death, the woman decides to work night shifts instead, questioning the imposed notion that she should drive only during the day when it is supposed to be safer.

The spirit of these stories also belongs to the dark-skinned Koli fisherwoman who sells fresh catch every morning in front of a housing society, cleans fish innards with practiced hands, while squatting squarely on her haunches, her arms clasped around her knees, her saree drawn tightly between her thighs. She is aware of the glances directed at her voluptuous figure, but she becomes oblivious to this constant gaze because she must focus on the job at hand and take her meagre earnings back to her home in the stinking fishing village where she lives.

The “blue women” of Upadhaya’s stories spark off memories of incendiary women I have encountered in modern and contemporary Indian fiction. In Sunetra Gupta’s A Sin of Colour, Reba and Neharika traverse ill-fated and unrequited love while living in the shadows of their old personalities, but later remould themselves to ward off this weakness without letting go of their roots.

In Saikat Majumdar’s, The Firebird, Garima, a theatre actress, fights the expectations of her family and society by lighting up her life with her passion for acting – to pay a destructive price in the end. Laila, the orphaned daughter of a distinguished Muslim family in Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column does not allow herself to be stymied by the restrictive practice of purdah in her traditional family. She follows her heart and marries the person of her choice, daring to live the life she has always dreamt of.

We are all full of the philosophy of uncertainty – our imperfections are deliciously flawed. We do not anxiously depend on one person or on the future for our happiness, but we chart our own jagged lives. The Blue Women has forged an intimacy with me that is hard to break long after I have turned the last page.