Relayed from past

Relayed from past

Bijnis Woman: Stories of Uttar Pradesh I Heard from My Parents, Mausis and Buas by Tanuja Chandra is just what the title says: a collection of anecdotal tales. A slice-of-life collection, it is a heartwarming book that envelopes the reader into a cocoon of warmth and comfort.

One is transported into one’s childhood where similar stories (not content-wise, but generically) were narrated by elders during the annual trips to ‘native place’ where the extended family gathered under the noisy ceiling fans on hot summer afternoons, or recounted their memories disguised as juicy tales, peppering post-dinner sessions, while everyone snuggled under thick quilts on the winter nights of northern India.

The book is bound to evoke nostalgic wistfulness for a time gone past and strike a chord regardless of whether the reader hails from Uttar Pradesh (where the stories are set) or not. Even Amitabh Bachchan, with his roots in Uttar Pradesh, corroborates the evocative aspect of the book (if that inspires the Bachchan fan-readers to go buy the book). Imagine a scene at the peepal tree in the village under which sit a motley group of people sharing their hookahs, munching roasted channa, and exchanging qisse-kahaaniyan (yarns and fables), and there you have the spirit of this book.

Tanuja Chandra’s experience in penning for magazines and newspapers, combined with her screenplay-writing, comes in handy in the creation of this book. Of course, the family creative genetic pool would have helped too, seeing that her mother Kamna Chandra and brother Vikram Chandra are both writers, and sister Anupama Chopra is a film critic. Obviously, words flow in the family.

The stories, the author says, stayed in her mind from her childhood when she heard uncles, aunts, and relatives narrating the tales. So, the stories do have some grounding in reality, though some may seem seriously embellished and not facts at times. But the exaggeration lends to credibility, really. After all, haven’t we all come across people considerably embroidering their recounting of incidents so as to make their narration more interesting to their audience? Yes, there’s a touch of the macabre in Atta Chakki, but that could be because of the Chinese-whispers effect of the gossip mill where an incident turns into something quite different from what it was originally.

The stories are short and sweet, some as short as two-pages long. Some leave the reader in a state of suspense and wanting to know what happened next. What happened to Rajjo, for example, in The Tea Stall? Were Surinder Garg’s stories real or fantasy-laden untruths in The Soldier? Was Lotika ever found (The Guru)?

Most of the stories have their roots in the innate desires and foibles of real people, not in those of some fanciful protagonists living in a make-believe, sunny,  photoshopped land. The characters are real; they could have lived in our neighbourhood sometime. They are sweaty and grimy, with basic instincts and emotions. Take, for instance, Surinder (The Soldier) who is looking for approbation from his fellow villagers, and wants to be looked up to. Isn’t that something most humans crave for: praise, approval, admiration? Others may make fun of that desire, but in reality, everyone wants to be commended and lauded.

Chandra keeps the language simple, in keeping with the ethos of the settings of the stories therein. No bombastic words, no highfalutin metaphors or thoughts, no judgmental attitude towards the protagonists; just an honest, down-to-earth telling of universal emotions that grips the reader from page 1.

Original pronunciations have been retained in the Hindi words used, and that makes the stories even more endearing. Of course, there’s the inevitable glossary and footnotes. Somehow, footnotes can never catch the deliciousness of the original language. For instance: “Jaa beti, bhagwan ke ghar khush rahiyo,” transports the reader to an Uttar Pradesh village far better than the antiseptic, “Farewell child, may you find happiness in god’s home.”

‘My moon, my diamond’ does not have the same ring as ‘mera chandaa, mera heera’. But these are minor quibbles as footnotes are essential for non-Hindi speakers to understand the flow of the stories. It may not be a classic but Bijnis Woman can very well be an important sociological document, one that is written with a lot of affection, care and empathy. And it shows.

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