Monday, 14 May 2012

Books: Mridula Garg ~ Country of Goodbyes

by Mridula Garg.

Translated from Hindi by Manisha Chaudhry. 
Kali for Women. 
P 230. 2003. Rs. 250.

MRIDULA GARG stands apart from the mainstream of contemporary Hindi literature for basic reasons. Her audacious themes and her searing stylistic honesty. With six novels, eight short story collections, two plays and two volumes of essays to date, this English translation of her 1996 bestseller ‘Kathgulab’ gives non-Hindi readers access to her oeuvre ~ and her relevance to today’s literary world.

But no translation, not even this competent one by Manisha Chaudhry, can bring alive the shades between the sentences, the colloquial cadences, the literary non-conformism that is intrinsically Garg. Why else would she be honoured with the 2001 Hellman Hammett award for courageous writing by the New York-based Human Rights Watch in the aftermath of her brief arrest by the Delhi administration for ‘obscene writing’ and the seizure of book stocks after Sarika magazine printed two pages of her 1979 novel ‘Chittacobra’ out of context? Why else would Garg be invited as the keynote speaker at the International Colloquium of Women at Iowa in 1990?

‘Country of Goodbyes,’ with a dramatic Manjit Bawa painting on its cover, encapsules all that Garg’s writing has stood for down the years. Its five interlinked narratives twist and turn tautly into each other to form a tight-knit novel of human interdependence realized through interpretations of independence. Across continents, relationships and existential terrains, she essays a saga of the seeking self.

At its very heart is Smita, a victim of incest, who flees to liberation in America, only to be confronted by seething disquiet triggered by dilemmas of alienation ~ until she turns to the solace of social work. The other voices stem from Marianne, a sociologist who sacrifices herself at her husband’s creative altar, then struggles to break free. And Narmada, the domestic help in Smita’s sister’s house, the chronicler of the family’s turbulent passage through redefined bonds. And Aseema, a New Delhi social worker, a defender of feminist values. And Vipin, the sole male voice, who embodies more tenderness and life sap than the strong women protagonists do. At the very heart of their interchanges is the issue of motherhood ~ and its place in each life.

Isn’t that an old-fashioned issue? Not in Garg’s worldview. For, as she said in a recent interview with this writer, “I’ve been told that I talk too much about thwarted motherhood in ‘Kathgulab.’ Motherhood is back in fashion in the west, but in India we’re still caught up in an aggressive feministic ideology. Why should a woman want be a mother? Why not? It’s a personal choice.”

Garg’s characters dare to bare all, to be themselves without social approbation ~ because her conclusions are never author-defined. Instead, she invites the reader to identify with the fictional lives, the raw emotions evoked, the otherness of everyday beings, unhampered by social diktats.

In Chaudhry’s translation, a glimpse of this unfettered spirit seeps through, often in stream-of-consciousness passages interspersed into the narrative flow.  Take this excerpt from the opening of Aseema’s story: “My name is Aseema. What! I can hear you exclaim. Aseema is no name for a girl. Without limits ~ who’s ever heard of a girl being called that? Boys are often called Aseem, though. I suppose that’s what male chauvinism is all about. Girls have to remain within limits while boys are free to cross them. So, it was that my pipsqueak of a brother was named Aseem by my parents and I was just plain, old-fashioned Seema. Limited. Within boundaries or fetters or whatever. I changed it and made it Aseema without so much as a by-your-leave…”

Each character is built up with as much spontaneity, with distinctive dialogue, with potential to evolve as a thinking being. Each crisis arrives out of the blue, as dramatically as it does in real life. Each individual seems based on inner spirit, sensual more than sexual. Throughout, the novel palpates with discontent.

Garg arrived on the Hindi literary scene in the mid 1970s, when extra-marital relations and women’s sexuality were burning topics. But her stance was radically different from the existing ‘fallen woman syndrome,’ as she terms it,  that consigned the courtesan and the professional woman alike to the domain of husband and home. But Garg did not subscribe to that. She associated no guilt with a woman’s enjoyment of worldly success or sexuality.

Perhaps that is the key to Garg’s success as a writer, whether in Hindi or in translation. She voices the world of the contemporary Indian woman, unafraid to defy age-old norms, or flaunt her economic independence, or fight to re-mould the world her own liking.  Today’s woman can identify with Garg’s characters, their radical stances, their conceptualization through literary devices within a non-realistic mode.

Overall, Garg explores social issues beyond textbook feminism. That’s an impeccable reason to get to know her better through her words.

(The Hindu Literary Review, 2003)

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