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Short Stories set in India (“…. we are just villagers”)

16th March 2016

An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao – short stories set in India.

A collection of short stories reflecting the time and impact of Partition, 1947, and the repercussions on so many people that this arbitrary political decision had….

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There is an Author’s Note at the beginning which sets the scene for Partition. It was 1947 that Pakistan was established as an Islamic republic, where most were Muslim and where India had a Hindu majority. The so-called Radcliffe Line was hastily drawn, followed by a rapid transfer of peoples between the countries. An estimated 8 to 10 million were displaced, seeking out their religious majority. Violence was frequent and intense, nearly a million people lost their lives. It is against this turbulent setting that Rao sets her stories.

The stark factor at the heart of many of the stories (but not all) is the place of women in Indian society: “Just be careful he doesn’t beat you” is one character’s advice. In some ways, the late 1940s as described in the narratives do not seem much different to the landscape today, where scores of women in the very rural areas of the subcontinent still toil the fields and accept their subordinate roles in society, and where abuse is still rife. Not much has changed in 70 years one might conclude, (although of course the economy is blossoming). Many reports still come out of India detailing the abuse of women, through from conception into adulthood. This phenomenon sadly is not confined to India alone…

However, in the stories, the women have largely developed a strength, which redeems the, at times, disheartening trajectory that blighted the lives of many females living in a society, in which men largely had the upper hand.

The opening story is of Neela, the Unrestored Woman of the title, who is barrelled into widowhood from one second to the next. Living with her Mother in Law, she turns to dressing in white, the colour of the bereaved – but their poverty is such that the two women can barely feed themselves. Drastic solutions find Neela living in a camp for women who have no means of supporting themselves, and from what was a lonely and abusive marriage, she finally comes to know what true friendship means. But there is one more twist to discover….

Renu, in The Merchant’s Mistress is adept at playing off different family members in an upmarket household. Or in Blindfold there is Bandra who spots Zubaida as a child and gives her father a downpayment for her when she ripens into early womanhood – she will become a prostitute in Bandra’s establishment, and will be an asset to the failing brothel. There is Mohan, in The Opposite of Sex, who is tasked with charting the line of the Pakistan/India divide; or Arun in The Memsahib, who becomes infatuated with a Britisher…..

The summarily drawn border deeply affects all of the characters in very different ways and the stories are a fascinating if sometimes bleak view of life around this time. The narratives reflect a tumultuous period of history and what it meant to be a simple villager caught up in the maelstrom of political events. This vivid and captivating read reverberates with echoes of footsteps past and enhances understanding of the country’s history for any visitor today.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

Over to Shobha who has kindly agreed to answer our questions:

TF: You choose the period around Partition, and the aftermath, for the background to your book. In the stories, how much is based on research and actual events, and how much is from your imagination?

SR: All the stories – the characters, their destinies – are completely an act of the imagination, though I certainly borrowed from similar events that occurred during Partition.  For instance trains being attacked as they carried refugees across the new border was a very real phenomena, as was the abduction of tens of thousands of women.  My main research, because of the focus of the collection, centered specifically on the atrocities committed against women.  And while that was a basis for my thinking, what I truly tried to do was to invoke, in my mind, the worst kinds of cruelties we perpetrate against one another, on any given day, and then I tried to make these cruelties exponentially worse – because conflict, forced migration, religious communalism, nationalism, and the colonial experience, all added heightened miseries onto an already miserable situation.  The horrors committed during moments of global or inter-state conflict are not unique, but they are committed in a cauldron of mass hate and relentless despair, which takes them from a place of tragedy to a place of unfathomable tragedy.

TF: You describe individuals who face enormous struggles, often amidst dire poverty. A lot of hardship is still very evident in India today. What do you feel have been the marked changes over the last 70 or so years since Partition?

SR: What is marked is the deepening of the animosity between India and Pakistan.  Since Partition, the two countries have fought two wars, and continue to harbor much distrust.  They both now have nuclear weapons, so the stakes are even higher.  Of course, in recent years, India has undergone an economic awakening, but that rarely means that all segments of society are lifted equally by prosperity.  Those who are profoundly disenfranchised – who have no access to clean water, food, electricity, birth control, let alone the luxuries of an education and a computer, fall into a deeper state of paralysis.  The entrance to the most basic of mainstream commerce eludes them; that has not changed, and has seldom changed in the course of human history.

TF: I understand you live in the USA now. How do you maintain your connections to your heritage? And what aspects do you value from both cultures?

SR: One the best things my parents did for me while I was growing up in the United States was to take me back to India during the summers.  The trips were never one or two weeks – they lasted the entire summer, all three and a half months.  And the place they took me was to my grandparent’s village, a primarily rural part of Andhra Pradesh, in south India.  No running water, limited electricity – I dreamed all summer of drinking a cold glass of water.  But it was there that I began to understand the true meaning of abundance, of poverty, and of the knife’s edge on which most of the world lives.  These are not meanings one forgets very easily.

What I appreciate, though, about the United States, is that there is an endlessness to the landscape.  I have driven across the country, and the feeling of freedom, of an unconquered and unexplored land, just around the next bend, is a persistent and beautiful possibility.  And this feeling of infinite possibility is a thing that seeps into the consciousness, it blooms in one’s heart.

TF: We are always interested to discover new books that are strong on location. What are you currently working on and will locale feature strongly as it has done in “An Unrestored Woman”?

SR: I am currently working on a novel.  The narrative switches between two continents, but I think the greater distinction is that in “An Unrestored Woman,” the places themselves were shifting, along with many of the characters.  When nations are carved up (because of the end of colonialism, or civil war, or some other upheaval), the very ground beneath the citizens of these countries shifts.  And so, in the story collection, place itself was a character – one that grew and contracted and was ravenous and moribund and tingled with life.  In my current project, the shifts happen more in the characters and in their understanding of place.  Where are we, and how did we end up here?  I think every life, whether lived during or between wars, experiences within it a ground that is certain, and a ground that is not.

TF: Which books are you looking forward to reading in 2016?

SR: Clarice Lispector’s “Complete Stories” was published last year, and I am looking forward to reading it.  I am irresistibly, maddeningly drawn to anything written by Roberto Bolaño, so I will read his work, over and over again, I think, every year for the rest of my life.  László Krasznahorkai is also a recent favorite of mine.  “All the Birds in the Sky,” by Charlie Jane Anders, is on my list.  I am embarrassed to admit I have never read “Moby Dick,” but this is the year:  this is the year I will tackle the whale.

Thank you to Shobha for answering our questions. You can follow Shobha on Twitter

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