#DesiBooksReview 2: Vaasanthi on What Makes Us Real

#DesiBooksReview Issue 2

Ganga’s Choice and Other Stories by Vaasanthi | Translated from the Tamil into English by Sukanya Venkataraman, Gomathi Narayan, Vaasanthi | Niyogi Books, India | December 1, 2021
Reviewer: SUHASINI PATNI

The author begins with a dedication to her grandson. He asks her: “Are we real?” She tells him: “We are. Because we feel.” Known for writing about social injustice, feminist issues, and communal disharmony, Vaasanthi transcribes this realness throughout the collection with compassionate and fierce characters who navigate their relationships with tradition and modernity. The stories portray generational changes, especially toward gender roles, and the enduring empathy of ordinary people across the subcontinent. 

Translated by Sukanya Venkataraman, Gomathi Narayan, and the author herself, these fifteen stories span Vaasanthi’s long career in gender, politics, and literature. She has published thirty novels and six collections of stories in Tamil over the last forty years and is most well-known for The Silent Storm, a novel borne out of her experience of being in Delhi during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Her works have been translated into several languages and adapted into Malayalam films. She is also the recipient of the Punjab Sahitya Akademi award. In this book, she examines the deepening inequalities of the state, the fight to emancipate women from traditional childbearing and homemaking roles, and the fears that govern the lives of minorities. In an interview with The Kolkata Mail, she said: “This collection, translated into English, is fifteen chosen stories that I consider to be among the best [. . .] These are characters you encounter in everyday life and yet fail to notice.” A Muslim man steps out of prison after twenty years of being wrongfully convicted of the September bomb blasts in Mumbai, a woman refuses to get married because she does not want to stop singing, and laborers experience the devastating migrant exodus resulting from the draconian lockdown measures imposed by the Modi government in the first wave of COVID-19. The book encompasses such a wide variety of themes that, depending on a reader’s preferences, this can be both its strength and its weakness. If there is a thread running all the way through, it is that hope can be found even in adversity.

In that aforementioned interview, Vaasanthi also spoke of the growing political pressure on journalists who can no longer fearlessly critique the government. The stories here serve as reminders of her own fearlessness. Yet, as she writes of female infanticide, caste privilege, the unfair treatment of Muslims, and many other issues, this critique sometimes comes across as stilted. Born into a Tamil Brahmin family, Vaasanthi occupies a position of privilege in India. Sometimes, her stories, narrated from the viewpoints of characters with relatively more disadvantages, run the risk of appearing reductionist or tokenistic.

‘Gap’ is narrated by Ayub Khan, a man Muslim man wrongly accused of bomb blasts in Mumbai and sentenced to twenty years of imprisonment. “Al Qaeda or Indian Mujahudeen? Who are you? Tell us!” he’s asked repeatedly during his interrogations. At a time where calls for Muslim genocide, ethnic cleansing, and wrongful incarceration are normalized by the rightwing Hindutva government, a story like Ayub Khan’s is important. When he’s released from jail, he goes into the bustling city, buys himself breakfast and a fresh set of clothes, and sets off to his hometown to reunite with his family and an old lover. In trying to give due justice to his past life, the trauma of incarcerated life, youthful romance, communalism, and many other themes, the story becomes overwhelming. The myriad references to culture and politics, and two cities (Mumbai and Mysore, which also appear as characters), adds an excessive amount of detail to the story. Ayub’s identity becomes one-dimensional, marked primarily by his religion, and the story follows a predictable plot rather than giving a fresh voice to a character being forcefully invisibilized by the state. 

In another story, ‘Steering Wheel’, churchgoing Margarita starts taking care of Lara, who has suffered from brain damage because of a school shooting. Lara’s parents, Dorothy and John, don’t know that it is Margarita’s son, Tom, who shot their daughter. They accept her plea to babysit without payment because they assume she is pained by the incident and, being a dutiful religious woman, wants to help. Margarita, overwrought by her guilt, has only her car nicknamed ‘Dolly’ for companionship. As the only story set in the US with western characters, ‘Steering Wheel’ is inconsistent with the rest of the collection. While most of the other stories are populated by women barely allowed to go out of their homes, unable to speak English, and working tirelessly in low-income positions, this story has a woman who lives by herself and drives her own car. Even the central plot of a school shooting is typically American.

Directly after the American story, we get the titular story about Ganga, a working-class woman who saves up enough money to buy her own apartment and refuses to give it up for dowry. Ganga’s story begins as she admires her Rajnikanth poster and recalls when a man asked her to remove it from her wall if she hoped for  marriage into a good family. Because Ganga is unable to have biological children, she is seen as unworthy and the only suitors who want her are either divorced, elderly, or  seeking her hard-earned money. The choice Ganga makes is thus presented: personal autonomy over social acceptance and filial duty.

The incongruous juxtaposition of Ganga’s story with that of Margarita’s raises a larger question about how story collections are ordered and assembled. Here, the endeavor is to reflect the “range and depth” of the author, as indicated by the book jacket. The emphasis, however, is less on illustrating the author’s evolving craft journey and more on a demonstrating her various stances on moral issues; less concerned with presenting a unified aesthetic sensibility than a broad sociopolitical agenda. It is also difficult to find the rhythm of the collection’s beating heart as the stories shift through time and place frequently.

In the opening story, ‘The Testimony,’ a woman who was a spectator to the brutal murder of fourteen people decides to serve as a witness in court. She is threatened upon her arrival and informed that the judge and her court-appointed lawyer have already been bought by thugs. On her witness stand she gazes at a portrait of Gandhi with guilt, but eventually chooses her own safety over the truth. The story depicts the helplessness of a woman who has little economic and emotional freedom. The use of footnotes, particularly one that describes the significance of Gandhi’s contribution to India’s freedom movement and why his portrait is placed behind the judge, is peculiar here.

As we continue reading other stories, several more footnotes crop up explaining references to the Mahabharata, certain ethnic clothes or kinship terms, and local delicacies. Vaasanthi’s work packages a linguistic and cultural history that would require copious explanations via footnotes or glossary to be faithful to the original text. And every translation has its own spirit guided by its target audience. The literary translation world remains divided on the matter of whether footnotes are enriching or distracting for a translation’s intended readership and what they should even contain. Here, it is clear that they exist for a primarily western audience without much familiarity with India.

Non-English words are almost always in italics and then explained in parentheses within the sentence. For example, “tulsi” is translated immediately as holy basil, and then footnoted to further explain that: “The holy basil or tulsi plant is considered sacred in Hinduism.” There is no further discussion on the significance of this sacredness. For an Indian reader, this approach can be distracting as it otherizes and exoticizes non-English words and also oversimplifies certain myths and folklore. Even the act of italicizing words like “amma” seems to create a language hegemony that strikes a discordant note in the overall reading experience. Yet these are stylistic choices that invoke different reactions from reader to reader, and ultimately, it is the stories that captivate our gaze.

Vaasanthi aims to shock the sophisticated, urban reader. Binding myth, which can often be demeaning to women, with practices that upper-caste urban populations assume only existed in the past, she describes realities peripheral to her own lived experiences. In this impulse to shock, she is careful not to be bleak. “There is humanity in some form or the other that comes as a ray of hope,” she says in an interview with eShe: The Female Gaze, harkening back to her dedication that what makes us real is our ability to feel. This is the book’s greatest strength. It does not seek to do away with folklore or traditions that handicap feminism. Instead, it asks us to do the hard work of thinking through the myths we have inherited as truths and to reinterpret rather than demolish them.

Born into a conservative family, Vaasanthi was not allowed to ask many questions as a child. When she started questioning why a cheerful person in her house wore no jewelry and shaved her head, as she described to Indian Express, she realized that fiction could provide her the space to think through these sanctioned and normalized social behaviors. The stories in this collection not only embody that spirit of resistance, they also invite us to inhabit that thinking space alongside her.

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Suhasini Patni is a freelance writer based in Jaipur and Delhi. Her story was shortlisted for the Toto Funds the Arts, Creative Writing in English Award 2021. Her work has appeared in Words Without Borders, Asymptote, Scroll.in, and elsewhere.


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