The Curse, from its very title, seems to come with a warning. The titles of the stories too inspire a sense of foreboding: “On the Edge,” “The Trap,” “The Orbit of Confusion,” and the eponymous story, “The Curse.” If one were to identify Salma, the author of this short story collection, with a particular literary concern, it would be this: women and domestic spaces that are transformed into suffocating epicentres of conflict. After all, The Hour Past Midnight (in Lakshmi Holmstrom’s translation) had gained recognition for the way in which it delved into the mundane darkness of the lives of its protagonists and the domestic spaces they inhabit.
The stories in The Curse, curated and translated by N Kalyan Raman, follow this genealogy. Take, for example, the setting of “Toilets”. Shamim, the protagonist, takes her aunt to the hospital because she has pains in the lower abdomen. The cause, we find out, is because the aunt held in her pee for a long period of time.
As Shamim and her aunt make their way back home, we are introduced to the toilet from Shamim’s youth, or rather, to its inaccessibility. The toilet, set apart from the house, becomes the seat of the women’s strife. They can’t use it when there are people in the backyard, because “how can a girl make noise while peeing?” Peeing, periods, pregnancy, and every other womanly function becomes policed through the space of the toilet.
The bathroom space makes another appearance in “On the Edge”: here it gives expression to Nanni’s compulsive washing. The woman cannot help but scrub everything she owns, again and again, obsessively. This kind of repetitive behaviour also morphs into strong-arming her preferences on others.
Nanni, along with the unnamed narrator and Raadhi, are on their way to the hospital because of Raadhi’s ill-health. So displeased is Nanni by the circumstances of their travel that the entire journey becomes an attempt at damage control. Along with the narrator, we too feel a sense of exhaustion: the air is tense and the space becomes stuffy. We can only sit in disbelief as the most mundane things like playing music in the car, or turning on the AC become points of contention that require extraordinary manoeuvring to maintain the peace.
Cordoned off spaces
Each protagonist is caught in such a space, physically and mentally – closed off and suffocating – with knots that grow increasingly difficult to detangle.
Mehrunnisa from “Childhood” is stuck between the kitchen and her bedroom when her childhood lover comes to visit; Jameela in “Atonement” is stuck in her bedroom with the ghost of her dead husband; Zakiramma from “Black Beads and Television” is stuck to the TV in Mahmuda’s house and filled with the desire to own one of her own; the unnamed narrator from “Trap” is stuck inside her dark bedroom paralysed by fear of what news (any news) that may come; Shamim from “The Curse” is stuck being the sole, unmarried carer of a household where a family curse renders women mad after marriage.
Each of these spaces become homes for ghosts of lives past and future – women trapped within these walls become more and more agitated, they become anxious and high-strung and teeter over the tipping point into madness.
There is probably no better time to understand the psychic disturbances that cordoned off spaces encourage, as we too sit within our own atomised boxes. Each of these spaces become hotspots of discontentment; encompassing, as they do, entire universes of thwarted desire.
Some of these women reckon with their disappointments out loud: Shamim envies her cousin’s attached bathroom, a daughter writes a letter to her patriarchal mother. Some others route it through different compulsive behaviours: Nanni beats her saree precisely two hundred times, Rashida wanders around asking for buttermilk from every household. Regardless of their mode of engagement, a sense of hopelessness pervades these desires, as if they are to remain discontent without any scope for fulfilment.
Restricted but restrictive
What is interesting is the way in which women-women spaces of sociality – the kitchen, the living room, the backyard – become especially fraught with these discontents. When resentment builds, it is women who become scapegoats to their own wrath: Amma from “On the Edge” cannot clap back at her husband’s impatience and turns her anger towards Raadhi instead; another Amma from “The Orbit of Confusion” turns her resentment towards her daughter in law, Rashida. It is not like the scapegoated women are guiltless either: Rashida actively taunts her mother-in-law about her affair; Raadhi incites the husband to throw away his food when his wife hasn’t finished preparing the food. The women not only suffer from their own restrictions, but also actively perpetuate them – mother to daughter, mother-in-law to daughter-in-law, neighbour to neighbour, and a variety of configurations.
Moments of solidarity are muted: Nanni holds back her nagging when she perceives something is wrong with Raadhi’s health; Mehrunnisa’s mother, seeing her daughter sunk to the floor, steps in to take care of the guests in her stead; a daughter finds out about her mother’s unhappy marriage and adultery, and muses about how they have never hugged each other.
But these moments don’t carry their poignancy full term. There is a general sense of curbed potential within the narrative. The sense of suffocation, too, becomes symptomatic of narrative style – the long, drawn out stories become monotonous after a point.
“The Orbit of Confusion” is written as a letter from a daughter to her mother. Through the course of the letter, the daughter lists out her grievances against her patriarchal mother, pointing out instances of her hypocrisy and immaturity. But the letter goes on and on, event after event is narrated and the reader wonders where it is leading. But the ending disappoints with a hasty reveal and reconciliation. “Toilets” also faces similar treatment: memory after memory adds to the narrative without going anywhere.
If the women in the stories are restricted by their positions and only reinforce them, the narratives too restrict them within those roles. Raman’s translation is perceptive: Tamil idioms are translated with a keen eye for affect; moments of vulnerability and anxiety are rendered empathetically; the language flows effortlessly. But the translation can only offer so much. The characters never completely embody their own complexities, even within the limits of the short story. All this leads to a slightly deflated experience of reading – interesting moments pipe up from the pages, but the feeling of contentment evades us.
The Curse, Salma, translated from Tamil by N Kalyan Raman, Speaking Tiger.