Book ReviewHer stories: Mapping feminist moments [Archives:2004/703/Education]

January 15 2004
Sanjukta Dasgupta
Sanjukta Dasgupta
By Dr. Murari Prasad
Sana'a University

Sanjukta Dasgupta's Her Stories, unlike Dan Jacobson's Her Story (Andre Deutsch, 1987), is not about the fate of anonymous, taken-for-granted women. Her selection of the eight short stories by contemporary women writers of Bengal for English translation is informed by their representative salience, in that they signpost “women's resistance to, reconciliation with and rejection of patriarchal ideology”. To be sure, these writers are not feisty feminists but the crucial motivations for their stories come from their perception of systemic relations of inequality, involving the relations between men and women. Notably, their narratology is dotted with scintillating insights into women's psyche as well as into inchoate longings of their heart. The constitutive sites of contestation are the given institutions of the state, community, the family and society at large.
The volume opens with Ashapurna Devi's “Opium” (Afing) written in the 1950's. We notice an empathetic representation of a finely nuanced character: Sumita is a talented girl hemmed in by conservative family norms in a traditional household. Her husband Sudhiranjan is considered impudent for choosing a woman flautist as his wife. As it happens, Sudhiranjan capitulates to patriarchal values. With a muffled complaining cry Sumita, eventually, retreats to complaisant femininity. We do discern a shift from tradition to modernity in the narrative, but the protagonist is too diffident to strike out on her own. In “Chinta”, Mahasweta Devi foregrounds an invisible woman engaged in the toughest battle for survival in absolute impoverishment. The narrator's focus on the exploitation and oppression of the vulnerable subalterned gender feeds into her activist role, and prioritises economic themes to arrest the marginalisation of disadvantaged women. Unlike Chinta, Nabanita Deb Sen.'s Sarama in “Surrogate” (Porobrit), educated and economically self-supporting as she is, gives off the self-affirming flame of freedom. She longs for genuine motherhood by way of having a child of her own, and refuses to be a mere receptacle of her husband's lust. When she discovers the latter's deception, she aborts and upturns the given assumptions of woman's passivity and self-effacement.
With a change of gears in the feminist dynamic, Bani Basu underlines the bonds of sorority in her short story “Quintuplets” (Panchojonyo). She is a prolific and gifted writer of amazing range and versatility. The story in this collection examines a different world and imagines an unconventional project. Five women forge and fortify their ties to look ahead, rather than getting weighed down by heterosexual trauma, misery and privations in their frustrating family life. Like Virginia Woolf's portrayal of a satisfying woman-to-woman relationship in A Room of One's Own (1929), or Lakshmi Kannan's presentation of supportive relationships between women in Going Home (1998) for that matter, Bani Basu imagines some kind of a woman's collective as a symbol of feminine strength and independence.A similar portrayal of friendship between women in 'Friendship' , a short story by Telugu woman writer Volga, reveals important terms of political consciousness among women writers. Unlike Krishna in Panchojonyo, Jaya in Volga's story doesn't emerge a winner. Her friendship with Mariyamma, Suguna, Sarita and Malati comes to an end because of an external interference unleashed by patriarchy .Contrapuntally, Joya Mitra's “From the Heart of Darkness” (Andhakarere Utsho Theke) dramatises the tense turnaround in a tolerant wife pushed to the brink of humiliation and hurt. Shantobala Kuila, unlike her mother, understands the advantages of education and dreams of an unshackled future for her daughter, even by going to the extent of killing her hidebound and obdurate husband.
By far the best story in the collection, in my view, is “Good Woman, Bad Woman” (Bhalo Meye, Kharap Meye) by Suchitra Bhattacharya. As the plot unfolds, we notice ramifying dimensions of patriarchy which underpin society as a hypocritical institution. Urmi is a woman of social conscience and discernment. She can map the moral geography of Simran, her husband, and register her disapproval of his double standards. Her empathy with Ria, a bar singer and so a 'bad woman', problematises the issue of sexual freedom and foregrounds the lacunae in the conceptual definition of marital rape within the confines of ever-enduring family. Quite legitimately, in this variegated assortment of subjectivities Minakshi Sen's “Face” (Mookh) and Anita Agnihotri's “The Drowned Man” (Doba Manush) underscore the brutalized State apparatus and exploitation of women's religion and caste in a male-dominated dispensation, respectively. Altogether the situation portrayed in these stories is profusely sad but unbelievably vibrant.
These twice-born tales have a flow and felicity. Sanjukta tackles the problem of complex cultural negotiations in the target language with ease and expertise. In her intelligible and equipollent rendition of the culturally rooted texts she maintains a fine balance between 'domestication' and 'foreignization' (to use Lawrence Venuti's translation categories) with her range of stylistic repertoire to capture, normalize and render varied dialects and registers in the source text. Barring occasional syntactical slips and lapses in punctuation, she overcomes the conundrums of translation by retaining the resonance of the original text as well as by sustaining the grammatical sub-text of the host language. The book offers a succinct blurb and jacket flier with stimulating support material in the form of comprehensive editorial input. Notably in addition, each story is preceded by a brief bio-critical introduction and interview with the author of the selected story (as Ashapurna Devi died in 1995, her son and daughter-in-law comment on her work) to facilitate a fuller perspective on the concerns configured in these narratives. My only quibble is that the token inclusion of Minakshi Sen from Tripura makes no point in view of exclusion of Bengali writers based elsewhere in India, or across the world. Nevertheless, the volume does provide readers outside Bengal with a rewarding overview of women-centred writing in Bengali in post-independent India.