Review: Stories Usual, Yet Unusual by Prerna Jain
A collection of 17 short stories that look at the lives of women as they negotiate a range of issues including unhappy marriages, sexual harassment, and family politics
The 17 stories in Stories Usual, Yet Unusual present the mundanity of the everyday lives of a range of spirited women. They are overworked, exhausted, and surrounded by people with an overpowering sense of entitlement, yet they are not drowning in their anxieties. It is easy to relate to these familiar themes as the protagonists negotiate issues that plague every woman. The conversational writing style also compels readers to reflect on their own lives. Originally written in Hindi and worked on by different translators, these fast-paced and well structured stories do not exceed 1000 words. A common thread runs through them all. As poet-storyteller Suman Keshari writes in the foreword: “There is no unnecessary revolutionism but a gentle sensitivity.” These are stories of empowerment. Irrespective of caste or class, when plunged in despair, Prerna Jain’s women bounce back, take charge. The reader isn’t suffocated with sadness; rather she is buoyed up.
There are no moral judgements either. As Jain writes in the preface, “Whether these women are good or bad will depend on the reader’s point of view.” She effortlessly exposes the patriarchal mindset and underlines the importance of financial independence.
Most of these stories are drawn from the author’s own experiences. However, her perceptions have changed over time: “The women who appeared helpless, weak, and harassed now appear to me to be strong and determined.”
The book’s first piece is Enough is Enough and features a young girl being married off by her poor, ailing mother to a rather rich “good-for-nothing boy”. It is hoped the boy will mend his ways after marriage. The girl fails to form a bond with the boy, even as she becomes fond of her parents-in-law. While the mother-in-law pampers her son, the father-in-law always stands by his daughter-in-law. On one occasion, when the son returns home after several days, the mother-in-law instructs the daughter-in-law to indulge him. The father-in-law, however, scolds his wife: “Grind the food and feed your darling directly through a pipe.” When her parents-in-law die, it is time for the girl to decide about relationship with her husband.
In Think Before You Leap, two friends, who would have liked to marry each other, meet again after several years. They ponder over how their lives have turned out. The woman believes her friend avoided marrying her as she was a “feminist” and judges him for not letting his sister marry outside their caste. He presents his side of the story, which she finds unconvincing. However, the truth dawns upon the readers when she returns home and makes an offhand comment about the power outage.
I Thrashed Him is about a petite maid, who gets beaten by her husband every other day. Then, one day, she decides to take him on.
In A Working Wife, Pratiksha steps into a cafe after a long day at work. There, she overhears an annoying conversation between two men: “Why do you even hire women in your office?” When she gets home, her husband, Sumit, wants her to take a day off to host his boss. Since Pratiksha has meetings lined up, she makes arrangements for the dinner and goes off to work. When she returns, Sumit yells at her and throws her favourite framed picture across the room. “You think your job is important! Your salary is half of what I earn. You are working in a worthless, tiny company and you consider yourself to be some kind of a big shot!”
In She Broke the Mould, Sunaina wants to visit Agra with her mother. “I will talk to your Father,” her mother says. Sunaina expresses surprise that her mother cannot even go on a two-day trip with her daughter without seeking her husband’s permission. That’s when her mother decides to take charge of her own life.
Dahi Bade is about a girl being exploited by her teacher after school hours. A kindly lady stands up for the girl by refusing to eat the dahi bade served by the teacher as she had forced the girl to grind the lentils for the snack.
Other stories tackle sexual harassment – on the streets, by close relatives, and by an elderly landlord – and of a woman being taunted for being infertile.
The most heartfelt story is My Almirah. A mother empties her daughter’s almirah, years after she has left her maternal home, and calls her up to tell her that she will be shipping the contents to her. The daughter cannot understand why her belongings were being thrown away while her brother’s things were left untouched.
Another story deals with the complicated relationship women have with their hair. A woman is driving her husband home from work and the children selling flowers at a traffic signal trigger the conversation. Explaining why she wears her hair in a bob, she talks about hair being a signifier of sexuality and how it can be manipulated to showcase piety or wantonness.
Most of the stories have been translated well but the quality slips towards the end of the book. Readers will also find the wrongly placed punctuation marks rather annoying.
Jain is a writer with a modern sensibility and treats women’s issues with great sensitivity. This collection is a must read for those who want to know, to quote Keshari, “what do women do in the house?”
Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.