Fate’s Game and Other Stories is Deepa Bhasthi’s translation from the Kannada of Kodagina Gouramma’s 21 short stories, written in a span of eight years, marking the promise of a writer invested in and shaped by her social and political context. Born in 1912, Gouramma was married young and, in defiance of the conservative values of her age, refused to be confined to reductive roles. Nationalist, freedom fighter, tennis player, swimmer, and writer, Gouramma published her first story in 1931. Eight years later, she died in a swimming accident and the composite collection of her stories was published only posthumously.

Deepa Bhasthi writes about her discovery of Gouramma’s writing and the decade she spent over her process of translation. Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi, in Post-Colonial Translation (2002), point to how “the act of translation always involves much more than language. Translations are always embedded in cultural and political systems, and in history.” This seems particularly relevant to Bhasthi’s translation, which is an insightful study of women’s roles in the family, in community and in public discourse in colonial India. Written close to a century ago, these stories are a product of the author’s times, but their social commentary remains relevant to the patriarchal culture of contemporary societies in India and elsewhere.

Stories about human relationships

Most of the stories in Fate’s Game are under ten pages long and are told in a linear, conversational style without much mediation from that early staple of fiction, the omniscient narrator. Gouramma’s primary concern seems to be with human relationships. There is much love and loss and heartbreak as well as intense friendships and lurking tragedy in these narratives. There is love at first sight and the edifying transformation of the cynic into the besotted lover. There are the inevitable star-crossed lovers, destined never to meet. There are also coincidences and big reveals. Layered within the seeming simplicity of these love stories are uncomfortable truths about gender relations, class disparity and the disastrous consequences of any attempted subversion of social and cultural taboos.

“Vani’s Puzzle” foregrounds the difficult subject of a woman’s desire, her longing for love and acceptance. Many of Gouramma’s women are orphans, made vulnerable by the lack of protective familial structures around them. Indu in “Vani’s Puzzle” is one such, widowed within six months of being married, and used to a life of complete isolation, finding herself poised between loyalty to her only friend and what is deemed illicit desire for the man who has never seen her face but appreciates all the “wifely” qualities she possesses. “Some Letters” also grapples with the conflict of illicit love while somewhat disingenuously leaving the reader with the glorified abstraction of “pure love”. The social realism of these stories often turns romantic love into another lens of social critique.

While Gouramma often uses her male protagonists as narrators, the stories invariably belong to the women, painting a rather detailed picture of her social milieu and the condition of and choices available to women in a patriarchal world order. Most of the women falling in love or being fallen in love with, or getting married, are young, usually between 15 to 16 years of age, which is only to be expected in the context of the 1930s, but it does accentuate their fragile positioning in their social spaces.

In “Remarriage”, a widower projects himself as a perfectly suitable match for 16-year-old Raji. “I am only thirty-five years old,” he says, assuring himself that the proposed marriage was a blessing for the fatherless girl of an impoverished family. Class is present throughout the text, poverty, the great barrier to the happiness of women. Young Paru, blessed with a beautiful singing voice, beautiful and bright Shanthi, and quiet and kind Nalini, are all denied happy marital lives because of the poverty of their parents.

Gouramma’s censure of dowry is unsparing with at least two of her stories centering on the practice of the bride’s family sponsoring the groom’s foreign education, sometimes falling into terrible debt and consequent ruin. “…Who?” brings to the reader the Oxford educated man who comes back to a professorial job in an Indian university and discards the wife he had married only for the dowry she brought him, exemplifying the normalcy and social sanction of marriages made to privilege ambitious men at the cost of the lives and dignity of women. Gouramma’s women, in much the same way as women in other cultures, other timelines, are assigned value only as objects of exchange between generations of men.

Stories about defiant women

As someone whose own life stood testimony to liberal values and subversion of regressive social norms, Gouramma also writes about defiant women. Rohini in “A Picture”, brought up by a progressive father who privileges the education of his daughter, is almost anachronistic in not settling into the marriage made for her and desiring love, refusing to be soothed by conventional wisdom that tells her to find her happiness in marriage. Seetha in “Kausalyanandana” goes to medical college. There are other references to girls’ education and life at convent schools that do not exactly create gender parity but do point the way forward.

Gouramma’s heroines can be deliciously subversive, like Shyla who breaks out of the convent to set right a wrong, or Raji who lashes out against the injustice of the complete dehumanisation of widows who are blamed for their husband’s deaths, are denied basic rights, and are often forced into servitude. The author’s treatment can be a tad pedantic, but her agenda is clearly that of women’s emancipation, not by male saviours, but by themselves.

The stories in Fate’s Game are often very compact but their brevity does not prevent them from playing with form. Gouramma frequently uses letters in her stories. The epistolary style was possibly already familiar to her contemporary readers. The author uses letters to introduce multiple narrative voices and in “Who is the Sinner?”, a story that tackles religious intolerance, savarna hypocrisy, and gender injustice, to introduce multiple perspectives. The plot of the story is simple, but the form is delightfully experimental.

Every so often, the author inserts a newspaper report, often as indictment of social evils. There is chilling familiarity in a news story that announces: “It has caused the Hindus in the town much grief that the other day, a young Hindu woman has accepted the Muslim faith. To ensure that this does not happen again, a meeting of prominent Hindus took place under the eadership of Shri Nagesh Rao. It was unanimously decided in the meeting that the Hindu faith had to be protected.”

The majority declaring itself in danger from a minority is a pattern that seems to have remained unchanged from Gouramma’s times. Gouramma’s modern day reader will find many resonances in these stories that are set within a very specific social and cultural space, vastly different from our own. This, perhaps, explains Deepa Bhasthi’s long-standing immersion in Gouramma’s world. These are stories that are a window into the past, are obvious social commentary, are often simplistic in the solutions they posit or the resolutions they offer, but as the voice of a young woman negotiating social challenges and living through political flux, they speak both to the present and to the future.

Fate’s Game and Other Stories, Kodagina Gouramma, translated from the Kannada by Deepa Bhasthi, Yoda Press.