The Song of Life and Other Stories is an impressive addition to the body of regional literature translated into English. Its author Vijaya Rajadhyaksha is a well-known Marathi writer whose short fiction has, for five decades, entertained readers of popular magazines such as Satyakatha, Maher, Mauj and Loksatta. The 12 stories in this collection, translated with sensitivity and skill by veteran translator Keerti Ramachandra, span the period 1969-98.
While these stories echo Indian attitudes, tradition and beliefs, they also examine the clash with modernity. Chiefly through the perspective of women, they reveal the emergent thinking of the time—the way women were beginning to regard themselves, their bodies, its desires. If one were to look for a common thread in the collection, it would have to be the pursuit of freedom.
For the male protagonist of ‘Nirvana’, a senior clerk in the court, freedom lies in ending his attachment to the material world. Relinquishing his duties as head of a traditional joint family, he seeks the company of sadhus and mahants. While renunciation is an age-old Indian theme, the extension of a comparable desire in women, as seen in this collection, is something new and different.
By and large of a certain class—upper caste, city-bred, well-educated and working—the women in these stories are extraordinarily strong-willed. Liberation from traditional roles thrust on them is what they seek. In ‘Janaki Desai Asks’, the protagonist avers, ‘I will not get married for the sake of getting married,’ choosing instead to have a live-in relationship with the man to whom she is attracted. But when she senses his interest waning, fresh questions arise: ‘I want stability. I want a lord and master, but I don’t want marriage. What is this tangle all about?’ Similar uncertainties appear in ‘A Trial Once More’, where a woman choosing to marry a foreigner and living abroad for decades has to deal with the collapse of her marriage, the disinterest of her children.
‘But which relationships are stable in the long term? All of them are doomed to curdle. The thread that holds them is strong at first, but soon it begins to fray.’ No clear solutions are offered. However, counterpointing these questions are other stories. ‘Today’ is written from the perspective of a doctor who exercises her independence by giving up her career—much to the disappointment of her dominating mother—to look after her disabled child.
The stories suggest that a woman seeking freedom is in a self-imposed exile. One needs to develop inner strength. In ‘The Sunset Hour’, a woman activist, paralysed after a stroke, tells her husband, ‘I am trying to garner the calm necessary when taking leave of life. Don’t say anything that will emasculate it. Go silently, like the last ray of the setting sun. Leave me my evening light. Light that is familiar….’
With simple language, restrained style and an introspective tone, these stories spark empathy. Experimentation appears in the themes. The title story, from the viewpoint of a husband witnessing his wife in labour, is about the mystery of childbirth. ‘One body within another. Creating a word within a word, a sound within a sound, colours within colours.’
(The stories suggest that a woman seeking freedom is in a self-imposed exile. One needs to develop inner strength.)