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In the alluringly subtitled Apradhini: Women Without Men, the late Hindi writer Shivani turns a spare and elegant eye towards the lives of women on the fringes of societies.

books Updated: Jun 24, 2011 22:19 IST
Sharanya Manivannan

Apradhini: Women Without Men
Shivani
Translated by Ira Pande
Harper Perennial
Rs 250 pp 224

In the alluringly subtitled Apradhini: Women Without Men, the late Hindi writer Shivani turns a spare and elegant eye towards the lives of women on the fringes of societies: prisoners and mendicants, domestic helps and viragos, whose existences are rarely registered as anything other than pitiable ciphers or outright contradictions. Shivani, however, seeks them in more liminal spaces, avoiding the tropes that usually jaundice narratives of subalternity. She seeks them, most of all, in the space of conversation: of what one woman will say to another when no one else is around.

It’s necessary to mention upfront an issue that does the book a disservice. We are told that this collection of 16 sketches is a mix of non-fiction and fiction. One surmises after reading that the book’s final section, of three pieces, contains the short stories, if only because of a detectable nuance in tone. But no indication is given otherwise as to which category they fall into.

This begs the question of whether one must approach the reading of what is presented as fact and what is presented as fiction differently. The answer is yes — good literature will illumine the world no matter which medium it appears in. But to pass off the imagined as the experienced is an act of questionable integrity.

The women we meet in Aparadhini would have suffered at the hands of a writer concerned with sensationalism or self-interest. They could very easily have been rendered one-dimensional as objects of pop or pulp. But Shivani etches them so delicately that even the most lurid of their stories is full of empathy and nuance. We meet several of them behind bars, most often for murders. A few, like alms-seeking travellers Alakh Mai and Rajula, live without an address. “There is no jail on earth that can shackle a free spirit and no spirit so free that its feet cannot be bound in chains we cannot see,” writes the author. Unsentimental yet compassionate, Apradhini assigns such importance to the vagaries of fate.

Then there is the deeply sensual Muggi, who left a trail of 14 conned husbands behind her before falling in love with the 15th and who eats terra cotta to assuage her sadness. Or Alakh Mai, a child bride who pushed a buffalo, her husband and his mother over a ravine before turning to the spiritual life. Or Deshpat, who enjoyed the power of being a moll till the love for a piece of gold ruins her life. In these lightly etched but powerful vignettes, we feel intimately connected to their lives, and appreciative of their agency without feeling sorry for them.

A few pieces, however, miss the mark. The first is ‘Ama’, a recollect-ion of the author’s mother. Here, the subject seems to be too close to the bone and so comes across as a bit maudlin. But the more notable failure are the three pieces in the book’s final section. These carry far too many shades of regressive, parochial caution of female immorality, a disappointment in an obviously feminist collection.

Ironically, one of the book’s most notable figures is hardly a woman without men: the flamboyant Christina Victoria Thomas rabblerouses right from “the historic time when she really spewed fire and brimstone” all the way into old age. Fiction or non-fiction, heroine or harridan, we could always do with more women like her.

Sharanya Manivannan is a Chennai-based poet and writer