Liddle has a complete grasp of her stories, which makes her characters and all that is happening in their lives very believable.
Paro tells the story of Sana, a young girl whisked away from Assam to parts of North India, as she changes hands from one man to another. She realises why she is called paro when she is told, “Don’t you know what a ‘paro’ is? A stolen woman, a bought bride... Little better than a whore.” Though Sana does have a pyrrhic victory finally, the author’s note at the end of the story brings no joy, with mention of the 10 lakh trafficked brides, known as ‘paros’ or ‘molkis’, who live in the states surrounding Delhi.
Ambika, Mother Goddess recreates the trauma of rape, coupled with the insensitivity of dealing with accusations like, “She must have been making eyes at him. That’s why he did it.”
Mala brings out the absolute hypocrisy and lack of concern of the middle class towards their domestic help, as much as it does the exploitation of this class of women workers.
The title story, Woman to Woman, could probably be termed the pick of the collection. Madhulika excels in recreating a tale charged with tension as a nun boards a bus and takes the only vacant seat in it, to realise soon enough that she is seated next to a prostitute, who has no hesitation in confessing this to the nun.
The dynamics of the nun being forced to listen to a confessional and then opening up for a sharing of her own life story is riveting, as is the converging of their seemingly unconnected lives.
Collector of Junk is unusual in the way that the story is titled and the manner in which it finally pans out. Amongst the moving lines is the protagonist saying, “Death is not the worst thing that can happen. The worst thing that can happen is to be left without anybody by your side.”
Two Doors unravels societal pressures on a woman who is unable to conceive, and how it starts playing on her psyche, forcing her to succumb to painful tests and other fertility treatments.
Intense loneliness is the theme reflected in both The Letter and Maplewood, whilst Laxmi, the protagonist of Captive Spirit, has shades of the heroine of Tagore’s Monihara, with their all-consuming obsession for jewellery over everything else.
The author manages to cover many emotions in her compilation. The theme of extra-marital affair becomes the subject of Wronged, whilst the Kashmir conflict is touched upon in Poppies in the Snow, with its surprising twist at the end.
The one story that adds lightness to the collection is The Sari Satyagraha, and is, therefore, most enjoyable. In this tale, Sulakshana, the long-suffering wife of an overly interfering and pompous husband, turns the tables on him, in a way that one cannot help but laud her genius.
If the stories are found wanting, it could be in their sometimes abrupt endings, but in all fairness, it could be the constraint of word limit that perhaps prevailed. But Madhulika Liddle deserves kudos for touching upon different aspects of women’s lives and creating an awareness of the many injustices that are heaped upon them.
The sensitivity and compassion with which she deals with the deep and dark corners in the lives of each and every one of the marginalised women that she writes about, make all the stories rich and layered. The book certainly has a place in a woman’s library, and it is suggested that men read it, too.