The eponymous ‘wise woman’ of Mannu Bhandari’s short story Stree Subodhini (The Wise Woman, as Vidya Pradhan interprets it in her translation of the story) may be wise after the fact. Most people would say that this is a woman who has shown a distinct lack of wisdom: she has made the mistake of falling in love with a married man, and—perhaps even more unwise—has persisted with the relationship over several years, despite knowing that she is the ‘other woman’.
That she should label such a woman as wise is one of the many manifestations of Mannu Bhandari’s sensitivity, her empathy for her characters, no matter how flawed. The women in the stories comprising The Wise Woman and Other Stories: The Best of Mannu Bhandari are by no means the strong, self-assured, self-willed women one might expect of women-centric literature. Most of them are well-educated, many of them hold jobs (even the ‘wise woman’ is employed; her lover is her boss).
They are often financially independent. But they are not always ‘wise’ women. Their decisions are not always the right ones, and they let their hearts, rather than their minds, guide them. And their education, their supposed hold over their own lives, often cannot stop them being trapped in situations not to their liking. There is Neelu/Neelima of Rooms, Room and Rooms, for example, going from one situation in life to another, seeking greener pastures. Or the successful actress Ranjana of The Actor, who loses herself in the love of a man, only to discover that there are others more skilled at her work than she is.
There are situations here that are very different, too, from those of the ‘wise woman’ and her ilk. There is the poignancy of old, abandoned Soma Bua of The Lonely One, so aching for human company and human validation that she is ready, even, to gatecrash a family function.
Mannu Bhandari’s gaze is incisive yet empathetic. She does not judge, she does not accuse; all she does is present the truth. Whether her protagonist is the woman teetering between her current fiancé and the ex who has suddenly reappeared in her life, or the wealthy woman comparing herself to her much poorer yet inexplicably more contented sister: these women are not perfect, but their imperfections are what make them so very real. Flawed, yet so three-dimensional: these are characters one can identify with, their mistakes, indiscretions and faux pas similar to the ones we may be guilty of, too.
Mannu Bhandari’s skill as a story-teller, her progressiveness and her ability to plumb the depths of human nature come vividly through in this selection of stories. Each story, in its own way, is thought-provoking, touching, even occasionally unsettling. And Vidya Pradhan’s translation is competent, doing justice to Mannu Bhandari’s writing. She manages to convey the essence of Bhandari’s lucid prose, the approachable, conversational tone that Bhandari used so well.