Short Stories set in India (“…. we are just villagers”)
- Book: An Unrestored Woman
- Location: India
- Author: Shobha Rao
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….
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 Linewas 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.
This review first appeared on our blog, where we talk to the author about her work and writing.