Grim pickings

Grim pickings

Grim pickings

Ghalib at dusk and other stories: Nighat M Gandhi Tranquebar, 2009, pp 175, Rs 200

Often short fiction serves as hors d’oeuvres and nowhere else will you find as grim a tray as this book of short stories. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are explored inside out, through their gutters and small-town jails, via the necessary marriages and even more necessary mistresses, from family politics to the pathos of the physically challenged.

Moving away from fashionable, trendy topics, Gandhi takes on the lower middle-class segments of society. So we have for protagonists a man with wasted legs but perfect libido in Saeed of ‘Desire By Any Other Name’, a six-foot inmate of the Dangerously Insane Women’s Wing in Mariam of ‘Mariam’s Bath’ and the mini tycoon who finds his girlfriend’s lack of foot hygiene distasteful in ‘Hot-water Bag’.

Marital mayhem is brought out in ‘An Undelivered Letter and Trains’, where the slow journey of women in love to depressed, resigned and lacklustre beings is depicted station by station. Stark stories, they throw light on the inherent helplessness of women, both financial and social, as they cower under niceties and sociability even while they have no illusions left where their men are concerned.

Maqsood Al in ‘Fishing At Haleji’ has to decide the fate of his daughter’s breasts. Uneducated and ignorant, he thinks, ‘Why breast cancer? Weren’t such diseases meant for shameless women, like prostitutes? Why his quiet daughter who said her prayers and fasted every Ramazan, who never stepped out without a burqa?’
Gandhi writes: ‘The image of Nasima minus one breast came to him. He had allowed the doctor, a complete stranger, to examine his daughter’s breasts. He covered his eyes in shame.’

The best story, perhaps, is ‘Love: Unclassified’ where lesbianism is a warm splash of pastels on the most delicate of canvases. Keeping in mind the rest of the realities that the other stories deal with — gender inequality, poverty both hidden and exposed, physical infirmities, middle-class morality with its hypocrisy and attendant hysteria — ‘Love: Unclassified’ is the essence of the book with its gloves off. There is the sifting of brutal facts and the collecting of the crux. An unhappily married woman who is a grandmother and domestic help — is there any hope of happiness for her? Is there any chance of romance?  Gandhi grants this unfortunate woman, Zainab, true love in the form of Mehru, who is neither man nor woman.

Zainab loses her family as she knows it, but gains someone who understands her and is able to squeeze her thigh in a public place in reassurance. Here, at last, is the emotional give and take that women dream of all their lives and rarely receive on equal terms. When Mehru tells Zainab, ‘I’m yours from now until you die and leave this wretched world. In the next world, and all the worlds that you know of and don’t, I’ll be yours. No man was born to love you the way I will’, she is talking more than role reversal; she is talking Third-World politics.

The author, a mental health counsellor, spent her formative years in Dhaka and Karachi before she settled down in Allahabad. By picking up protagonists from the dimly lit alleys of an Asia she experienced in first person, Gandhi provides them with the power of speech.

These are tales of despair, but also of a kind of bravery. Of life’s upwardly licking flame on a ragged, ragged wick.