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The great escapes of the mind

books Updated: Dec 24, 2007 18:36 IST
Mrinal Pande
Mrinal Pande
Hindustan Times
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Galpa: Short Stories by Women from Bangladesh
Edited by Niaz Zaman and Firdous Azim
STANZA * RS 250 * PP 279

This is a somewhat patchy anthology of women's writing from Bangladesh, in which stories of a gem-like brilliance are laid in close proximity to fairly mawkish and garrulous bits of writing.

As always, women in this anthology too write close to the line that separates their personal lives from that around them. There is a little bit of everything here: autobiography, fiction, anthropology deep traumas suffered by women in bad marriages, in relief camps and during natural and manmade disasters. <b1>

To enter these stories is to step into the invisible pathways inside women's minds as they lead their lives confined within their homes and veils and with various social taboos that make it clear to them that to be a homemaker is not to be the owner of the home.

Many of them, therefore, cling pathetically to things that spell comfort and security: food, saris handed down by mothers and grandmothers and bits of jewellery. At the same time, most long to travel, to feel at once mobile and free.

The first story of this anthology, Sultana's Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein, is a gem. It was originally written around 1905 in English, and later translated to Bengali by the author. It is a strangely grandiose daydream arising out of a demure pardah nasheen (one who observes the veil) homemaker's inexplicable desire to leave her home behind and sail away on the wings of a long fantasy.

The protagonist, a housewife lying in an easy chair, imagines herself giggling irreverently and fleeing hand-in-hand with someone who calls herself Sister Sara, to a strange Utopia called Lady1and.

Here, women rule and men are forced to sit all day long in purdah, minding babies, chatting with each other and generally dawdling away their time.

"Where are the men ?" I asked her "We shut our men indoors." "Just as we are kept in the Zenana?" "Exactly so." "That's so funny," I burst out laughing .."But my dear Sister Sara, if we do everything by ourselves what will the men do?" "They should not do anything, excuse me they are fit for nothing."

The rest of the stories were written much later, during which time much water has flown in the Padma river Stories from this period reflect preoccupations with the linguistic roots of a newly-formed Bengali nation.

Bengali seemed to have triggered off a subtle politics visavis Urdu, Pakistan's official language. And so, Rokeya's name, which she spelt as Rugayyah (the Urdu pronunciation), begins to feel more familiar to her editors as Rokeya (the Bengali version).

Like the dwarfs painted by Velazquez, rich or poor, all women in these stories regard the spectacle of life with a certain irony and often react hysterically. One of them, Radha ('Radha Sha11not Cook Today')1aughs and laughs as she vows not to cook for a day, shocking her family into witlessness.

Another, Durgati ('Why Durgati Weeps') just sobs. Women in relief camps and rich homes share the same deep resignation since each realise how little their little rebellions matter ultimately.

Somehow, even the happy endings feel nearly always contrived. It is an interesting anthology, although, like the fabled curate's egg, good in parts.

Mrinal Pande is Editor, Hindustan