Reviewed by Sucharita Dutta-Asane
Title: Woman to Woman Stories
Author: Madhulika Liddle
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
The title of Madhulika Liddle’s 2017 collection, Woman to Woman Stories, draws us into sororities with the whispered promise of shared secrets. One could think, conveniently enough, of images culled from life, literature, movies – the murmur of shared afternoons, coffee table chat, restroom gossip or the giggles, chatter and tears of a morning spent amid pickles and spices drying in the sun, the aroma mingling with the salt and tanginess of the telling and the sun-warmed terrace… woman to woman. Yet, the title beguiles, for the book’s cover lays out a warning within this seemingly casual – the shadow of death, of violence, of abuse, of beauty that could slip through the fingers any moment. This then is no book of snug tales; these are stories of being a woman, of beauty and hope perhaps, but primarily of the underside of her life and lived experiences.
Woman to Woman Stories is Madhulika Liddle’s shout out to listen, and to listen with care, with humour when needed, with compassion, anger, love, empathy. These are stories told without frills, as in ‘Ambika, Mother Goddess’, not an unusual narrative, the kind that screams out to us daily from television screens and newspaper headlines – the rape of a minor in a nondescript alley of her city. Her life, it is obvious, was never hers to live, a continuum from her mother to her and to her new born daughter. The narrative doesn’t overtly ask the question but leaves its shadow in the reader’s mind, a question that rises to the surface with frightful intensity because of its possibility: will Ambika’s daughter live a similar narrative?
The initial stories are told with an apparent simplicity that shouldn’t fool the reader. As one progresses into the collection, the stories are less innocent, the emotions more tangled, complex. Told primarily from the perspective of a child at play, ‘Mala’ meanders through a house and the spaces that surround it, hinting innocuously at human lives and their equations, with just a sliver of a threat hanging around it. When the threat materialises, it is conveyed harmlessly but leaves behind its resonances, the discomfort stronger for the casual way in which it is inserted into the structure.
‘Woman to Woman’, the title story, is built up to reflect the secret, inner selves women carry, the narrative playing out between two unlikely characters, half the story couched in the cinematic detailing. However, it is in ‘Collector of Junk’ that the writer’s stance shifts and seems to merge with that of the character. Told with a meander and gentleness that enhances its poignancy, this is the story of a woman as a collector of other people’s sorrows and troubles, a “collector of junk”. Here is also the writer – the accumulator and segregator of human lives and emotions, of the detritus of their very being.
These are stories of Everywoman, of the lives we live and those we leave behind – in our past, in hovels and bungalows, on snow-capped bloodied mountains, in buses and bedrooms. These are stories we know, but we choose to remain deaf to their whispered secrets and stifled screams. However, it is not only the poignancy of suffering that determines the tone in this collection of 12 stories. In the deliciously titled ‘The Sari Satyagraha’, pathos turns to humour, to the welcome sound of chuckles, perhaps the most tantalising story in the collection, one that reminds the reader of the writer’s earlier collection, My Lawfully Wedded Husband. Unlike a few other stories, this allows the reader to take off where the writer leaves, to insert meaning between the lines, among the chuckles that rise naturally to the throat and spread across the pages.
One of the joys of reading a short story collection that imposes no chronological compulsions is to pick and choose how one reads. Reading Maplewood after ‘A Sari Satyagraha’, the chuckles dry up in the throat. Maplewood’s dark tones lurk within the rooms of this house, among the trees that offer no solace or shade, in the description of ages and cultures colliding, grating. The house seems to swallow the character, as the past subsumes the present, one pushing the other out in constant conflict. Here, trees and nature and history are seen to be vicious and devouring, but the end is different; it swivels and turns and readies for a new beginning. Here too, the story is told through its details, acutely observed, drawing the reader into the cloistered life of this colonial mansion and its mistress.
Madhulika Liddle’s stories remain true to the form, to its terseness and brevity, even as she probes deep, scouring the surface of everyday living to look into its crannies. The last story, ‘Poppies in the Snow’, lures us into thinking of the narrator in gendered stereotypes, only to reveal the full thrust of its implication at the very end. There is almost nothing in tone or tenor to give away the narrator’s identity, wiping out gendered expectations from love and revenge. What matters here is a voice seeking sanity as it recounts a tale of insanity; the twist at the end normalises the abnormal in a setting where nothing is impossible or unimaginable.
As a writer of short stories, of the popular Muzaffar Jang series set in 17th century Delhi, and of travel articles and a blog on cinema, Madhulika brings to the collection her varied interests, blending the precision of the short story with an eye for detail, compassionate humour and an understanding of places and the people who inhabit them. The writer’s ability to insert twists – a split second decision, the age of a rape victim, a sudden perception, or an event that threatens to turn the tide – raises many of the stories from the quotidian. While some of the stories might seem similar to one another, the settings, covering different parts of India, introduce variety and underline the universality of the female experience. At a time when the MeToo campaign has taken hold of the world’s imagination, this is a timely collection that speaks of women’s lives on a wider canvas – child abuse, bride trafficking, societal and familial expectations around pregnancy and child bearing, adultery, death, motherhood, militancy and terrorism – and to anyone who would care to stop and listen.