Short stories are like telegrams. More is pieced together by what remains unsaid. Each story in Woman to Woman: Stories is a window of the author’s making: the author’s gaze defining the fractures, the pain unseen. Madhulika Liddle’s craft is sure and steady. At ease with her subject, she drags the reader to the pith in each of these laments.
What else could stories about everywoman be? Gender is fragile as it is all over in the world. In our subcontinent, it comes with the finesse of a “cruciatus” curse. In this collection, sorrows of an Indian woman’s lot become her calling card.
Full marks to the author for confronting, in her very first story, a reality we avert our gaze from—trafficking. Dragged from a village off Guwahati, a difficult journey through a cabal of middlemen leaves Sana with the violent Sajid. She imagines that awful bond is her marriage while others know she is but a hired sex slave, a Paro.
Ambika delivers a baby under horrendous circumstances. Rape by the uncouth mechanic Kuldeep drives her drunken father to suicide. The rapist won’t offer reparation but volunteers to pay for the child, if male. It is a baby girl. Worse, Ambika is just 13. Other women in the book are driven to the edge. Like Mala, the trusting village girl in love with the son of the family she serves. Or the successful Kamini trapped in the endless cycle of IVF, her worth only to be determined by motherhood.
There are mothers who wait interminably for their son’s visit. The unlettered Inimai receives a letter too late and mistakenly anticipates the visit of her son’s family. The memsahib of the colonial Maplewood succumbs to her loneliness.
‘Collector of Junk’ is a remarkable tale of a woman who becomes the repository of other people’s sorrow. In a way, all women are. Sorrow is their invisible ink. The jewel in this collection is the title tale, ‘Woman to Woman’, a chance encounter in a bus of a prostitute and a nun. The only niggle is that at points the view is that of a social worker. This collection would benefit from a good draught of gur chai instead of elaichi.
An excellent collection, though not ideal for anybody seeking comfort or misdirection. Despite her delicacy of language and movement, the author disturbs exactly as she seeks to disturb. The aftertaste is acrid, nudging the reader to re-assess just how impossible gender parity still remains. A word here for the publisher, Speaking Tiger. Against all economic odds this boutique publishing house quietly produces quality readable books. How admirable to inspire and serve literature just by being there!