by Bhaswati Ghosh
A woman in today’s world is as layered as the realms she inhabits. She could be at home or work in a college; she toils equally hard in the kitchen and towards her thesis; she seeks happiness in a marriage and is content without being in one. She’s okay with not having ambition and savouring the everyday; she’s curious about her body and delights in exploring it; she negotiates expectations and questions long-held positions on issues of identity. A woman is all of these, sometimes even in the same person. Gariahat Junction, Rituparna Roy’s debut collection of short stories, studies this multiplicity of womanhood from equally diverse lenses. The word junction then is appropriate not only in the title but as a defining element of this book – an intersection that brings to the fore a range of scenarios a woman has to contend with on the way to her destination.
Reading through the stories, one feels a sense of disquiet vexing the female protagonists. This is seldom because of a full-blown crisis; more often than not, it stems from the characters wrestling with ideas of what’s expected of them versus what they want for themselves. These wants are not supersized ambitions; these are commonplace aspirations tied to the business of leading an urban life. In the first story, which lends its name to the book’s title, Katha is at a traffic junction with many potential destinations, yet with nowhere to go. With a partner in a different country, friends scattered across the map on their life paths, parents busy with their own schedules, she’s stranded with little more than memories and the longing to reach a spot where she can feel at home.
While the everyday is a significant motif texturing Roy’s stories in the collection, she also lends considerable attention to a modern woman’s career aspirations and how those are often scuttled by the demands of domesticity she’s supposed to prioritize. In A Wasted Dream, Kabita, who wins the lottery that marriage classifieds are on the basis of her being a lecturer — “Priority would be given to a lecturer,” as the advertisement announces — has to not only make customary adjustments to assimilate into her in-laws’ house, but undergo the deeper anguish of seeing her goal of securing a PhD burning into ashes, literally at that. Roy, herself an academic, pens this story with an insider’s pain — that of a woman whose cerebral side is utterly disregarded by the very family that brought her into its fold because of her vocation.
The concept of marriage comes under scrutiny in A Phone Call in which Roy employs the device of a phone conversation between two female friends to draw readers into not only the time-worn debate on a married-versus-single life, but also into a curious exploration of what seeking freedom in the body could feel like, even as she debunks notions of sexual liberty, particularly as they are perceived in the West.
Similarly, in Dancing Queen, we see a protagonist negotiating the immigrant experience by drawing on nostalgia even as she sees through the shallowness of marriage in her desi friends’ lives and finds meaning in pursuits that bring her joy, not in relationships meant to check off boxes to mark progress in life.
Gariahat Junction also pauses to focus on the places where the stories are situated. Although the majority of them are set in Kolkata, the author’s hometown, stories like The Housewife and Dancing Queen, set in The Netherlands and the USA respectively, bear out the influence of one’s immediate environment on their psyche and worldview. In The Housewife, Ruplekha is a woman happy with the mundane and even a bit tired of the “hop-skip-jump” nature of her married life that sees her being transplanted to the different countries her husband’s work takes her to. Ruplekha has no grand ambitions herself and misses the romance with her husband that had happened in a brief spell before they got married. The story courses through the places Ruplekha finds herself in — Kolkata, Singapore, London, Amsterdam, until she arrives at her moment of self-discovery in a museum in the Dutch capital. It is there, while admiring a display of earthenware utensils that she realizes how much of art is about routine activities, about “getting on with the business of living – eating, drinking, and working to make a living.” This repose is an important moment, not only for Roy’s less-than-ambitious protagonist, but for her readers, who are invited to challenge modern ideas of success.
The question of what constitutes freedom for a woman is consistently raised in this collection. It could be living her own life on her own terms, it could be celebrating her body, mind and spirit, and it could even be fantasizing as in A Languorous Afternoon. Tautly crafted with details that are as delicate as they are delicious, this sensuous story of sexual fantasy bears evidence of Roy’s range and skill as a storyteller.
In Madonna and Child, the last story in this anthology, Roy dissects questions of choice and ethics, pivoting the narrative around a familiar theme — of abortion as a woman’s right to her body, but with uncharacteristic depth and a 360-view of the issue. Roy adds even more vigour to the narrative’s superbly-layered edifice by folding into it the example of The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Leonardo da Vinci’s intriguing painting depicting two mothers with their offspring in the same frame.As I read the stories in Gariahat Junction, I got a sense of women on quests — both within and in the world out there. Every protagonist in this collection is a woman grappling with real issues and seeking a sky of her own to chart her flight.
Bhaswati Ghosh lives in Ontario, Canada and writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her fiction and non-fiction writing has been published in print and online journals. Her first book of fiction is ‘Victory Colony, 1950’. Visit her at bhaswatighosh.com