'There are only two types of women - goddesses and doormats', said Pablo Picasso. The irony is that these two types are often the same woman, for the former can end up in the latter category by the bitter bows of fate. Gaura Pant Shivani has aptly penned stories of such women whose lives were turned around by men, or by the absence of men in
A Padma Shri awardee for her contribution to Hindi literature, the author had a Kumaoni Brahmin for a father and a Sanskrit scholar for a mother. With such influences, and her early years in Rajkot and Lucknow, her writing reflects the true heart of India. For most modern day Indians, women are defined by extremes - either too meek or too strong. Shivani's stories throw light on the tale of women who were driven to insane acts of killing by a sudden spurt of strength.
Shivani gives her own verdict for each story. For her, not all these women who killed their husbands or sons or mothers-in-law are criminals. In her stories, an intimidating Vaishnavi pushes a buffalo, her cruel mother-in-law and husband over the edge of a ravine and spends the rest of her life punishing herself. A mother prays for her daughter's widowhood. A Kumaoni girl Chanuli throws a sickle at her condescending mother-in-law when she blames her for her husband's death in war. Chanuli innocently pleads and calls it an accident. In her heart, she knew her husband would return. And when he does, she is in prison. He fights to reduce her sentence but then ends up remarrying. What will she do when she is released? In the author's eyes, Chanuli was never a criminal. On the other hand, someone like Janaki, who conspired with her lover to kill her husband, deserved no forgiveness. The author makes one think why one crime was greater or lesser than the other.
From women becoming victims of their circumstances to those overpowering them, her stories never fail to move the reader. And yet, the tone of her writing remains real and not overtly sentimental. Like all stories that deserve to be told, these stories are not easy to narrate; only a storyteller like her and an award-winning translator like Pande can put them together in a language that is simple, yet rich.
While the book has well-rounded stories, which answers most of the reader's questions, some information about the role of the judiciary would have been more satisfying. Questions like how long would delivery of justice take? Would it only be governed by facts and evidence, or can one hope for exceptions in cases like Chanuli's? For girls like Lalita who were married off at the age of ten and then suffered death during child birth, are there any proceedings against the husband or his family? Or will Tagore's statement for his heroine "disrespect destroyed you, poor Lalita" continue to hold for many more Lalitas in India?
All in all, in her extraordinary sketches of ordinary women, Shivani beautifully traces the lives, and in many cases, the death of women whose destinies were altered by men. Brilliantly translated by her daughter Ira Pande, Shivani's narratives hold the reader's attention till the last word. They evoke shock, anger, disappointment, understanding and compassion - all at the same time.