Jaiwanti Dimri reviews A Box of Stolen Moments by Usha Bande. New Delhi: Lifi Publications, 2014. Rs. 160, pp 164.
A Book of Stolen Moments by Usha Bande is a collection of twenty one short stories that capture, or to say, click on some momentous and revealing moments in the lives of people belonging to various regions, nationalities and ethnic identities. Written in the early 1970s and 1980s, these stories were published in journals and magazines. However, the basic thematic concerns and issues addressed in these stories are still very much contemporary and contextual as they touch upon the simple yet penetrative, day-to-day realities of life in terms of the joys and pains and the twists and turns of life. Based on the ‘lived experiences, observations, reaction to and interaction with life” (Preface) by the writer’s own admission who is a fine mix of an academic scholar and creative writer, the collage of these tales unfolds the multi-faceted moods and manners of the people like the flow of the river.
Majority of these tales are women-centric and women-oriented but the joys and pains of the life of an old solitary painter, the omnipresent orderly, the disgruntled office clerk, the newspaper boy scared of the dogs on his daily rounds and the small coolie boy,– ‘The Lonely Waif’ bullied by his senior fraternity make their entry in this collection to impart it a holistic view. The title story “Stolen Moments” would be contesting/subverting the key feminist paradigms of the ‘self’ and ‘identity’. Bereft of the umbrella institution of matrimony the once energetic, exuberant, vivacious and ebullient female protagonist Shakuntala Devi is reduced to a skeleton, a nonentity in her middle age. Implicit in this story that initially fulfils the premises of feministic postulations, is the socio-economic critique of the rural hill society of Himachal Pradesh wherein the city-based rural migrants are often driven into second marriage not by choice but circumstances. Contrarily, the following story “The Void” establishes the strength and superiority of the institution of matrimony juxtaposing the ‘void’ in the life of a single independent bureaucrat to the tranquil bliss of a placid married woman. A few of the stories, “Waiting for Chhaila Babu”, “A Cake for Mom”, “Liberating Laxmi”, “No Re-takes in Life, Kena” and “On the Wings of a Butterfly”, for instance, address various kinds of feminist issues with a feather’s touch what Shashi Deshpande describes as ‘nascent feminism’( Forward). The crisis of privacy in a working couple’s life (“Waiting for Chhaila Babu”), a woman’s resolve to tackle the mid-term crisis of loneliness in her life with a positive alternative to visit an orphanage with a cake (“A Cake for Mom”), the agonizing moments in the life of a woman who regrets her decision to be swayed by filial obligations (“No Re-takes in Life, Kena”), the patriarchal mind set of a wronged wife towards her erring husband (“Liberating Laxmi”), and a corresponding attitude of a duped bride towards her deaf husband (“On the Wings of a Butterfly”) — all these issues and concerns situate women in real life situations confronting the challenges of life in their own peculiar feministic or un-feministic way.
The references to Sita-Savitri image, Lord Byron and Alexander Pope in these stories bear the imprint of the writer’s academic moorings. The love affairs between the French teenager niece of the French viceroy of Canada and a young cavalier way back in 1542 (“Where Memories Dwell”) and Peshwa Bajirao and Mastani disapproved at the familial and social level reflect the all pervasive class binaries across the globe vis-a-vis the eternal force of love. What accounts for the readability of these stories is the inherent humour and under currents of irony in them. The unexpected twists and turns in these stories such as “Desert Roses”, “Masks”, “The Void” and “The Ordeal” reflect the craftsmanship of the author who is a prolific writer of long standing. The change of subject position in the story “The Bundle” towards the end when the victimized babu catapults to the position of the ‘victimizer’ displays a fine intermix of humour and irony. The parting remark of the disappointed wife of the army officer in the story “Waiting for Chhaila Babu”, “Do you need looking after with Chhaila Babu around?” (48) diffuses the tension with the couple’s laughter. “And the General Came” offers a glimpse of army life that puts high premium on rank. The hectic preparations and activity prior to the visit of the General and the aftermath is a potent comment on the regimentation of the army as well as the waste of human resource.
The collection would be a welcome addition to the library of the modern day readers catching time to read in between the travels or bed time.
Finally, a word of appreciation for the publishers will not be off the mark. For a new publisher in English fiction, Lifi publications has done a commendable job. The paperback edition with the cover jacket designed by Him Chatterjee is priced moderately.
Reviewed by Jaiwanti Dimri is former professor of English, Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla.