In her second short story collection, Waiting, Nighat Gandhi explores many of the same preoccupations that have dominated both her fiction and non-fiction thus far but with even more minute and interior details. As she wrote in the preface to her first collection, Ghalib at Dusk and Other Stories (2009):
I choose to focus on the minutiae of human tamasha; it is the violated, the marginalised individual’s life that entices me as a writer, and whether the spectacle unfolds in the life of a Muslim woman in Allahabad, a Hindu mother in Ahmedabad, or a Christian salesgirl in Karachi, are merely incidental details of geography. It is in the interstitial ideological and cultural fringes into which people are squeezed because they happen to be the wrong gender, class, religion, or ethnicity, and where they remain trapped, it is to those cracks and crevices of existence my curiosity as a storyteller takes me to, finding “beauty in the saddest places”, as Arundhati Roy has said.”
In Alternative Realities: Love in the Lives of Muslim Women, Gandhi wove her personal stories with those of other Muslim women trying to break their silences even as they struggle with their sexualities and socio-cultural restrictions.
In this latest collection too, Gandhi’s women are trying to comprehend and address subjects and themes that are either taboo or fetishised. However, their voices are still repressed – questioning, rebelling, or negotiating inside their heads – as they themselves remain trapped in their worlds, waiting passively for something to change.
In this last aspect, the women in Waiting are different from the eight real-life women of Gandhi’s non-fiction book, What I Am Today, I Won’t Remain Tomorrow: Conversations With Survivors Of Abuse (2010) who had actively left their abusive situations and created new, independent lives.
Of these 13 stories, a majority could be described as mood pieces, vignettes, or portraits versus plot-driven stories. Gandhi presents inner lives through mostly interior monologues or lengthy dialogues. Each female character – whether a young girl or an old woman – is grappling with a situation she is locked in. While mostly set in domestic spaces, these situations vary: post-partum depression, loss of sexual desire, religious mores, the onset of menstruation, sex work, same-sex relationships, rape, loneliness, later-life love, and more. And they are all permeated with explicit and implicit disparities driven by religion, caste, gender, and class hierarchies.
The strongest story, “Shaming, Shaving”, stands out because of its interconnected themes and two-part structure. In the first section, we are in the point of view of a young Muslim girl being given instructions by her mother about religious and physical purity and the shame she feels about not being able to openly discuss her puberty-related bodily changes with anyone. The second section is from the same character’s point of view but as a post-menopausal woman, cynical rather than confused about the ways of the world and giving advice to her elderly mother who is still unable to find words for the lifelong contradictions in a woman’s place in that world. Gandhi skilfully portrays how, though a woman’s roles change with life stages, the rules she has to abide by remain frustratingly the same.
Another strong story is the only one with a male protagonist, Sharmaji. When his second wife goes off to help her daughter in the US with a delivery, Sharmaji spends time at a religious retreat with a friend, Guptaji, who has also been temporarily abandoned by his own wife. The petty grievances Sharmaji has to deal with in his wife’s absence make him recall his first wife, long dead, with much love and longing. Gandhi’s narrative register here has more irony and sly humour, especially in the banter between the two old men who are clueless about how much they depend on the kaleidoscope of women around them.
Unfinished and unpolished
The most troubling story is the first, “Lingerie”, though not for the reasons the writer might have intended. The narrator, a new mother in the US, has symptoms of post-partum depression, including a loss of sexual desire. Encouraged by her husband, she visits a psychiatrist. During the first counselling session, this therapist (who is variously described as priestly, motherly, and fatherly) diagnoses the problem to be “emotional incest” with her father. This controversial 1980s term has long fallen out of favour among mental health practitioners because of how it became an over-used catch-all for all kinds of dysfunctional parent-child issues. It would be rare, indeed, these days to have a case diagnosed as such in just one therapy session without any inputs from the patient’s parents or spouse/partner.
There are a few more problems with this story beyond the mental health diagnosis and the glibly-given advice (dinner dates, lingerie, etc.) And, though the protagonist is skeptical too, her constant self-questioning and second-guessing do nothing to refresh the tired fictional stereotypes and tropes.
Some stories do not read like polished, finished pieces. “Panjpir Chowk”, about a lesbian couple getting a sudden day off to spend together because of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination, feels too self-absorbed despite the ruminations about Sufi poets and terrorism. The same could be said about “Aab-e-Hayaat”, about a wife and mother who goes through her daily household chores while raging internally about having to do them, wondering about the sudden death of a neighbour, and then fantasising about a paradisiacal retreat where she meets her twin self.
In “Goodies”, a twice-married older businesswoman inexplicably agrees to marry a man she’s only conversed with via Whatsapp, Her tepid enthusiasm turns to angry disgust when she discovers, after their first meeting, that he has given her a suitcase full of fake-branded gifts and how he is dictatorial about her actions, behaviour, even her posture. As she calls the whole thing off, she refers frequently to being questioned and guided by “the woman inside her”. Such stories needed an expert editorial hand and a few more rounds of revisions.
What we really need
Exploration of the interior worlds of women has been a long, evolving, even thriving, tradition in literature. It has also often been derided and dismissed as “women’s fiction” or worse. Yet, the stuff of everyday – families, children, neighbours – can be extraordinary. And characters can be highly political by going within rather than stepping outside of themselves.
That said, in patriarchal cultures like ours, we women still repress much of our femininity due to deeply-conditioned approaches to our bodies, emotions, and ways of being in the world. And women writers from societies like ours are working to excavate so much that remains unspoken or taboo. Our literary traditions, whether in English or other Indian languages, continue to be male-dominated so that, often, our women writers are lauded only when they pander to the male gaze in their works. Collectively, publishing gatekeepers, critics, and readers – men and women alike – are still learning how to connect the language, metaphors, and situations used by our women writers in women-centred fiction to our more universal, gender-neutral experiences.
So, while such stories are much needed, they should also accomplish more – in terms of both story and storytelling – to get past the usual complaints about women’s fiction: narrow focus, lack of range in subject matter and emotional tone, trivial themes, lack of a sense of humour, running between the boudoir and the kitchen, sentimentality, self-absorption, etc.
Our fiction needs to go beyond presenting the battered inner landscapes of women to also examining carefully the weather and the elements that have done or are doing that battering. Instead of simply showing how women are asking questions privately and silently about the oppressive socio-cultural traps they are in, our stories need to reframe the existing questions about such traps and ask new, defamiliarising questions. Rather than magnifying and amplifying the same old aspects of suffering and endurance, our literature needs to expand our notions of what women are capable of and how.