They may not have been the protagonists, but they’ve set trends, introduced new perspectives for understanding women, and, most important, empowered their women readers in every possible way. Here are eight such women, from eight such books.
But we’re not telling you which books just yet. Try naming the character, the novel and, of course, the author, from the excerpt. Answers at the bottom. No cheating.
It had been after tutoring one day that _____’s mother had met her at the door, told her to go straight to the bedroom and prepare herself; a man was waiting to see her. He was the third in as many months. The first had been a widower with four children. The second, a newspaper cartoonist who knew her father, had been hit by a bus in Esplanade and lost his left arm. To her great relief they had both rejected her. She was nineteen, in the middle of her studies, in no rush to be a bride. And so, obediently but without expectation, she had untangled and rebraided her hair, wiped away the kohl that had smudged below her eyes, patted some Cuticura powder from a velvet puff onto her skin. The sheer parrot green sari she pleated and tucked in her petticoat had been laid out for her on the bed by her mother. Before entering the sitting room, _____ had paused in the corridor. She could hear her mother saying, “She is fond of cooking, and she can knit extremely well. Within a week she finished this cardigan I am wearing.”
Perhaps the reason Krishna and I got along so well was that we were both severely dark-skinned. In a society that looked down its patrician nose on anything except milk-and-almond hues, this was considered more unfortunate, especially for a girl. I paid for it by spending hour upon excruciating hour being slathered in skin-whitening unguents and scrubbed with numerous exfoliants by my industrious nurse. But finally she’d given up in despair. I, too, might have despaired if it hadn’t been for Krishna.
_____. She was as dark as Begum Jaan was fair, as purple as the other was white. She seemed to glow like heated iron. Her face was scarred by smallpox. She was short, stocky and had a small paunch. Her hands were small but agile, and her large, swollen lips were always wet. A strange sickening stench exuded from her body. And her tiny, puffy hands moved dexterously over Begum Jaan’s body – now at her waist, now at her thighs, and now dashing to her ankles. Whenever I sat by Begum Jaan, my eyes would remain glued to those roving hands.
Occasionally, when ____ listened to songs that she loved on the radio, something stirred inside her. A liquid ache spread under her skin, and she walked out of the world like a witch, to a better, happier place. On days like this, there was something restless and untamed about her. As though she had temporarily set aside the morality of motherhood and divorceehood. Even her walk changed from a safe mother-walk to another wilder sort of walk. She wore flowers in her hair and carried magic secrets in her eyes. She spoke to no one. She spent hours on the riverbank with her little plastic transistor shaped like a tangerine. She smoked cigarettes and had midnight swims.
With a formal, faintly ironic little bow ___ invited me to amuse myself by looking through her bookshelf while she made our dinner. Glancing through her collection of Russian novels in paperback, miniature music scores and illustrated health books, I came upon an old photograph. It was pinned, on to one of those large boards that I had seen hanging over many student desks in London. It was a picture of her, taken a long time ago.
While I was looking at it she darted out of her cupboard-like kitchenette to fetch something from the refrigerator. She noticed me standing in front of her board and came and stood beside me. When she saw what I was looking at she gave me a quick glance and opened her mouth to say something. But then, changing her mind, she whipped around again and went back to the kitchenette. Curious now, I followed her there and stood leaning against the wall, watching her as she bent down to look under the grill. I remarked that the picture must have been taken a long time ago: that was exactly how she had looked, if my memory served me right, when she had stayed with us in Calcutta.
She was always __ to us. There may have been a time when we called her something ordinary like Mummy, or Ma, but I don’t remember… On certain days we called her Doogles, or The Horse, or other such names that sprang from some subterranean source and vanished equally quickly. Otherwise, she was __, and most of the time she was __ with an exclamation mark.
_____ remembered Rashida’s words: “You have no place in that home now.” But what about her fiancé, Ram Chand? What was the difference between being engaged and being married? Why had he not bothered to come to her help? There was one hope for her: escape in death.
_____ got up and went out of the door. Neither her mother nor her father tried to stop her. When she had come this way earlier, she believed she was returning to life; she wanted to live again, to be with her mother and father. She had come full of hope. Now she had no hope, nor any fear. What more could anyone take from her than life? The thought dried up all her tears.
On the opposite bank of the river, in the dark, the lady stood far away – yet Mahendra could see her clearly. She was timeless and ageless, the eternal lover of Krishna and yet, Mahendra recognised her – she was none other than ________! She had begun her journey from beyond time with all her anguish, the pangs of separation and the full burden of her youth; her tryst had finally brought her to this river bank today through many melodies and many rhythms – today, the skies above the remote river reverberated with her voice, “Oh please, ferry me across.” For how many more ages would she stand there thus, waiting for the boatman to ferry her across?
ONE: Ashima, The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
TWO: Panchaali, The Palace of Illusions, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
THREE: Rabbu, The Quilt, Ismat Chughtai
FOUR: Ammu, The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
FIVE: May, The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh
SIX: Em, Em and the Big Hoom, Jerry Pinto
SEVEN: Pooro, Pinjar, Amrita Pritam
EIGHT: Binodini, A Grain of Sand, Rabindranath Tagore