A delay of a mere five minutes in reaching a ferry that would have carried her across the Brahmaputra alters Sana’s life in a way only she knows. She, the daughter of a paddy farmer in Assam. When floods ravage her village that night, Sana, it appears, pays the highest price, being sold to a man the next day for Rs 5,000. Deposited far away in a village near Delhi, she becomes Paro, a trafficked bride, who will have her revenge, but not the kind one would imagine. The author notes, at the end of the story, that an estimated 10 lakh trafficked brides live in the states surrounding Delhi, their stories mirroring Sana’s.
“Paro” is one of 13 short stories in Madhulika Liddle’s new book, Woman to Woman. In this slim collection, Liddle takes the reader closer to the lives of several women, young and old, within the folds of complex and urgent themes – gender violence, bride trafficking, choice and consent, isolation, childlessness, privilege, loss, and more. With arcs that are disarmingly simple and consistently accessible, Liddle keeps a hold on you.
The time is right
Now is as good a time as any to wrap ourselves in layer upon layer of women’s stories, to leave them floating around the universe, making a point. Stories about women have always been written, but somehow they seem to acquire – and require – more currency today, taking on a particularly poignant and relevant sheen. A winter ago, I remember warming up similarly to Mitra Phukan’s striking collection of stories that focused largely on the ordinary woman in A Full Night’s Thievery. These were women at odds with their roles in and outside their homes, often despairing, and Phukan drew out a range of psychological conflicts chillingly.
More recently, Ambai’s gentler collection of stories on women, newly translated in A Night With a Black Spider, presented a familiar landscape of the roles we adorn and the journeys we make. In the title story, a woman travels to a desolate guesthouse deep in a forest on a stormy night, and as she looks back at her life in a moment of great loneliness and pain, her turmoil increasingly matching the weather outside her window, the company of a black spider found in the bathroom reaps unexpected results.
Death becomes her
I was reminded of this story as I read “Maplewood” in Liddle’s Woman to Woman. In an entirely different context, another woman finds herself alone, literally and metaphorically, on a stormy night in a colonial bungalow in a rural area where she lives, but that doesn’t feel anything like home. “This house reeks of viciousness. It hates me. I can tell. It wants me out of here. For Maplewood, I am an interloper. It hems me in, trying to suffocate me with its closeness. A malevolent closeness, not a loving embrace. As if it wanted to squeeze the life out of me.” The widow “memsahib” with grown children living far away is privileged nonetheless, but ironically finds herself feeling strangely envious of a poor woman who takes shelter at Maplewood for the night. The poor woman is worthy of envy because she is richer by her folk, those who look out for her. Would the memsahib, utterly alone in this dark, gloomy bungalow be less lonely in death, surrounded by the ghosts that roam its grounds?
Death revisits the reader in “Mala”, where Liddle expertly steers a hushed-up affair between a maid and the charming son of her employers – a little boy its only witness – taking us to a grim but unpredictable climax worthy of a Roald Dahl twist in the tale. In “Poppies in the Snow”, we are in the snowfields of Kashmir, amidst a village caught between demands of insurgents and the Indian army, where a widow avenges the death of her husband. It’s a different kind of death with see in “Captive Spirit”, which has amusing references to the Bengali novel Goynar Baksho. In Liddle’s reimagining, a dying woman refuses to depart till her sandook full of beloved jewels are placed upon her chest.
What works for Woman to Woman is its cast of wildly varying characters. From the quaintly lovely housemaid Mala, who falls in love with the wrong man, through the prostitute who finds an unexpected friendship with a nun in the title story, to the housewife who wages her own quiet battle against her husband’s autocratic ways in the backdrop of India’s struggle against the British Raj in “The Sari Satyagraha”, it is easy to empathise with them all. To grieve with them their loss and loneliness. To shake your head at life’s weird ways. To delight in their various quirks that make them whole. To find joy in a woman taking control of a situation that seems to have left her behind.
The worlds Liddle creates feel lived in, doused liberally in reality, in spaces that feel authentic. Many of the stories come armed with a dramatic finish, which at times can feel satisfying, even surreal, lifting the narrative a few notes. But these twists do not always feel organic, and do, in a handful of stories, come across as contrived and quite unnecessary. Some stories do not need endings.
Woman To Woman, Madhulika Liddle, Speaking Tiger.