Jaded16’s Note: So a few weeks ago I joined Tumblr on a whim. Alcohol may have been a part of the three second decision-making process. Or not. Anyway, on another equally fancyarse whim I promised myself I’d read one book a week. So readers of the Olde Interwebes I will torture you weekly with these inane book reviews. It comes with the territory of e-stalking someone. Heh.
A year ago, in one of the best classes I’ve ever taken (women’s studies) my professor introduced a book to us ‘The Inner Courtyard’, a collection of short stories by Indian women. She read out an excerpt wonderfully and I just knew that I had to read this book. Sort of like a strange need to again re-create the magic the excerpt had weaved around me. I remember finding this book and feeling so happy, looking and touching the cover; it seemed like an image I’d seen before somewhere but didn’t know just where. Now I remember my grandmother’s sari had a similar border, but there yet remains an ever illusive feeling, of possessing something and yet letting it slip out in wisps helplessly voluntarily compulsively, taking tiny slivers of myself with it.
With page one started my difficult — at best — relationship with the book. People are always surprised when they see me not completely swooning over the book, after all it’s written by Indian women right? So I should be able to automatically relate to it, as if some part of my cell formation as an IndianLady should tug me towards these stories. As if, these words should re-vertebrate within my soul (if I even have one that is) or perhaps within my being as a woman, I should see my past coming out alive from the flesh of the book. As if I were to react to the book like I was an ant, caught between the words and print, till I became so tiny, forgetting who I was and become a part of the grand narrative. As if this ‘Indianness’ that I supposedly am born with will help me understand this book as an extension of myself. I can’t simplistically say that none of these assumptions were true nor can I completely accept what I felt reading these voices.
These are hard stories about women I can see around me. Perhaps I’ve known a few of them, met one, been one, aspired to become another. Sometimes I saw glimpses of my grand mum, in some characters I found my sister. In many lines, breaks and pauses, I saw me. How do you deal with a book that mirrors your life, makes sure you are deeply affected and then shrouds itself under the convenient label of ‘fiction’? As if it is really that easy to disengage with history, with the past that stills runs fresh in my larger collective identity as a woman of a certain Hindu community, even as I try to deny its presence. There were too many instances in the book where I had to keep it down, when I’d read about another repressed character and see it wound a place directly near my uterus. I’d feel that low guttural punch no matter how many times, in how many tempos I’d read Ismat Chughtai’s Chauthi Ka Jaura wishing fruitlessly this time it would hurt less as the protagonist would lock herself in that tool shed while her mother soothed her bleeding fingers from the wedding dress she didn’t finish making. Or I’d try not to smile at Anjana Appachana’s Her Mother as she blends stream-of-consciousness with the most abrupt pauses left mid-sentence. I wish I wasn’t moved as much by Vaidehi’s ‘madwoman’ Akku as she made up stories about her husband, dead child and dead self or I tried really hard to keep my distance from the fury unleashed my Mrinal Pande’s nameless protagonist as she raved against blatant sexism she witnessed as a child in Girls. The hardest moment was when I felt Vishwapriya L. Iyengar’s Library Girl slip under the veil. A claustrophobia so similar that it has become a part of my identity; precisely why I choked back tears when I read “Within the veil, a darkness seized Talat. It bandaged her mouth, her eyes and sealed her voice. She cried and screamed inside her black veil. But they did not hear and did not see“, shocked to see someone had peered somewhere inside and chiseled these words to perfection. I remember laughing out loud in the train reading Mahashveta Devi’s Draupadi as she subtly and beautifully recast history, this time giving her Draupadi a bare body albeit a proud one. It’s difficult to not fall in love with this book, exactly where the danger lies.
The moment you lose your cool, it slips under your skin leaving you with nothing but these voices right in your veins. As the title suggests, these voices are present in the Inner Courtyard of the house, inside that space that was made for women just so they could be contained within the confines of their home. The same happened to me; I was there in the courtyard, crying that my voice doesn’t leave the inner veranda of the house. At the same time, strangely relieved no one could see this bile pouring out. Just when I closed the book, that part of me in the courtyard sits there, waiting to unleash itself when I next open it. Ironically, the day after I finished reading the book I went to a wedding, pasting that fake smile, fitting into the heavy shoes of the ‘Indian’ woman who lost her voice a long time ago. And then I remembered the remaining five copies of the book on the shelf, fantastically wishing those five readers would join me in the inner courtyard later as we’d air our locked voices.
The Inner Courtyard is a collection of short stories written by Indian women, in English and in translation. There are more stories in the collection, though I talked about the few that I liked best. The anthology is edited by Lakshmi Holmstörm.