Secrets and memories

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
Alice Munro
Penguin Canada

First published in DNA

As I unroll the reels of my life’s movie, the stories of my mother and grandmother, two women who shaped my growing up unravel before me. All three of us have lives distinctly different from each other’s. Yet, when I look closely, I see we have all been shape shifters — slipping into moulds we scarcely anticipated, not necessarily with ease or delight, but always with the readiness that our circumstances demanded. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Alice Munro’s collection of nine short stories, I found many of our comrades — women across small towns and big cities juggling domesticity and the rigours of the professional world — slipping into and out of moulds and bearing the consequences of their actions with or without grace.

The book derives its title from a counting game young girls play with the names of potential boyfriends. Yet time and again, Munro’s adult protagonists prove that their lives need not remain constrained within the clusters of hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship and marriage. Like an ocean’s waves that don’t adhere to a boundary while undulating, the women of Munro’s stories don’t hesitate to spill outside the defined perimeters of their existences.

In the opening story, which shares the book’s title, Johanna takes the bull by its horns, torso and tail, when unbeknownst to herself, she falls for a prank played by two young girls. The girls write her love letters on behalf of one of their fathers, who lives in a different province. Johanna finds not just emotional succour in the letters, but true to her working-class industry, she smells an opportunity to banish her status as a pitiable spinster once and for all.

Johanna’s success in achieving what she sets out to establishes the book’s tone. In Munro’s more-real-than-real-life stories, women are not always in control of their destinies — sometimes by choice and at other times, without any. But what arrests the reader is their remarkable refusal to be pathetic, sympathy-arousing creatures. And they accomplish this with utterly ordinary, non-awe-inspiring actions.

In Floating Bridge, my favourite story of the collection, Jinny, a cancer patient, steps into the light — metaphorically speaking — even as she is engulfed in darkness. Thanks to a stranger, a young man, she walks on a floating bridge for the first time while her husband socialises with the same man’s family. But that’s not all. Jinny also receives the youth’s passionate kiss as he guides her steps on the bridge — an affection without any nomenclature, a fleetingly eternal moment of breathtaking freedom.

“What she felt was a lighthearted sort of compassion, almost like laughter. A swish of tender hilarity, getting the better of all her sores and hollows, for the time given.” [Floating Bridge]

Weaving inter-generational tapestries that span not just months or years but decades isn’t an easy act to pull together in short fiction, but Munro achieves this with the effortlessness of a teenager’s unabashed giggle. Even as the characters and stories swing back and forth in time, one is left amazed and bewildered by the author’s ability to carry the innocent reader through her intricately mapped-out territories. This is brilliantly evidenced in Family Furnishings, a story that interlaces family drama, the female protagonist’s brisk, nonconformist quips clashing with the deep-set conventional thinking of other family members, and finally intrigues and secrets that make the reader see the same character in a completely new light.

In this collection, Munro explores the idea of fidelity in marriage in more than one way, with no easy answers or moral positioning for the reader. And not all trespassing, if one could call them, happen in a blatant, deliberate manner. Stories like Comfort, What is Remembered, and The Bear came over the Mountain show how ephemeral and impulsive a moment of ‘stepping out’ can be at times. And not necessarily sexual in nature either.

“Ed Shore puts an arm around Nina. He kisses her — not on the mouth, not on her face, but on her throat. The place where an agitated pulse might be beating, in her throat.” [Comfort]

Memory can be a treacherous, manipulative and even therapeutic poultice. We realize this while reading the layered narratives of Nettles, What is Remembered and The Bear came over the Mountain. In What is Remembered, Meriel cherishes the sole pulsating whiff of an extramarital affair that breezes through her long married life, yet she wants to remember things differently than the actual sequence of events that took place.

Transitions — geographical and otherwise — often form the metaphorical motif of Munro’s stories. Nettles, Queenie and Family Furnishings, chart the perplexity-ridden phase between young adulthood and grown-up in Munro’s spade-is-a-spade candour.

“I know exactly how old he was because that is something children establish immediately, it is one of the essential matters on which they negotiate whether to be friends or not.” [Nettles]

And it is this sense of negotiation, the constant trading of emotions, personal space, the necessity of belonging — that guides Munro’s characters, especially her women. This is not always easy or even plausible and must be done on the sly, but the women that we come across in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage aren’t shy of doing so.

“Young husbands were stern in those days…What a lot they had to learn, so quickly. How to kowtow to bosses and how to manage wives. How to be authoritative about mortgages, retaining walls, lawn grass, drains, politics…It was the women then, who could slip back — during the daytime hours, and always allowing for the stunning responsibility that had been landed on them, in the matter of children — into a kind of second adolescence. A lightening of spirits when the husbands departed. Dreamy rebellion, subversive get-togethers, laughing fits that were a throwback to high school, mushrooming between the walls that the husband was paying for, in the hours when he wasn’t there.” [What is Remembered]

I came to Munro as a reader with her first book of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades. Every story in that anthology charmed me as I read about young girls and women at crossroads, getting a taste of the bitter truths of life and coming of age. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, I met women who had already come of age and were mature and daring enough to dance and even miss a step or two on the paths that beckoned them.

Whenever I read Munro, I am seized with both the thrill and dread of a scientist in a laboratory, who discovers the minutiae of organic life under a microscope. Munro turns the spotlight on lives around us with such astonishing alacrity that it is but impossible not to find strains of one’s own living reality in her stories. The modern-day fables in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage hold a clear-as-daylight mirror to women’s lives — imperfect and rocky, but never without the possibility of a spark, a fresh leaf and a redeeming edge.


Book Review: One Step Towards the Sun

Note: This review was first published in The Asia Writes Project.

In recent publishing history, the universe of Indian Writing in English (IWE) has been continually expanding, with a deluge of new titles spilling off the market shelves. While that is sweet news for the authors of these books, their counterparts writing in India’s various regional languages often don’t receive similar attention. The obvious reason for this is that regional languages have limited readerships, mostly restricted to readers from the respective regions. One way to get around this is to make these writings available in English. According to Valerie Henitiuk, “…The past couple of decades have seen a rapid rise in the distinct phenomenon of Indian Literature in English Translation (ILET).” One Step Towards the Sun is an important new addition to this phenomenon.

Edited by Henitiuk along with Supriya Kar, both of them academicians in the field of literary translation, the book is a collection of twenty-five short stories written by women from the eastern Indian state of Orissa. The very fact that women writers from this state could make their voices heard only as recently as the 1970s makes this anthology critically significant. What makes it interesting and a great read is the amazing diversity on offer–in terms of the periods of writing covered, themes, and writing styles.

Traversing through the milieus these stories present, one discovers that the women writing these stories are every bit as sensitive to issues concerning their own gender as they are about the wider humanity. As is to be expected, women’s issues form the core of many of the stories–exposing the many levels of exploitation the woman is subjected to–sexual, domestic, social, and psychological. In Basanta Kumari Pattnaik’s “In Bondage”, the nameless protagonist is brought to a big city by her brother and sister-in-law so they can use her as an unpaid maidservant. In “The Worn-Out Bird”, Aratibala Prusty narrates the tragedy of a mother who is imprisoned for killing her daughter’s rapist. However, her act of revenge goes in vain, as upon her release she learns of her daughter’s suicide, after suffering even more sexual violence.

The reader need not lose all hope though. For sharing the pages with such grim tales are characters that refuse to bow down to social prejudices, despite undergoing extreme torment. One such woman is Pata Dei, the protagonist bearing the story title by Binapani Mohanty. As she returns to her father’s village home with a child, slanderous accusations are hurled her way and the villagers question who the child’s father is. Defiant and fearless, Pata Dei narrates to the villagers the trauma of the night when a group of her own village men had raped her. Turning to her infant son, she says, “Why should you cry, dear? Don’t be afraid of these people. None of them is man enough to stand up and admit to being your father. But your mother is always there for you…”

Besides highlighting different kinds of trials faced by women, the anthology presents a gamut of themes, from Partition riots, old age, poverty, marital issues, to the impact of natural calamity on humans. Deprivation and hunger present themselves as stark contrasts to the riches of Orissa–splendid art and architecture. In Gayatri Basu Mallik’s “Ruins”, the narrator, while on a trip to Konark, the sun temple that is Orissa’s architectural pride, is bemused to experience “the ruins of real flesh and blood” as he encounters an old woman whose entire life had been a series of misfortunes. Banaja Devi echoes a similar idea in her story, “A Classic”. Here, the narrator comes across what appears to be a sculpture in a railway station, but, on closer inspection is revealed to be a beggar family–emaciated and driven to the edge by hunger.

One story that deftly tackles two themes–hunger and marital infidelity is “A Mother From Kalahandi” by Gayatri Sharaf. A seemingly blissful marriage starts falling apart for the heroine, Amrita, as she accidentally discovers her husband Swapnesh’s secrets. On probing, Amrita learns that Swapnesh has bought a young girl from the famine-struck district of Kalahandi for a paltry amount, only to bring her to the city for his sexual gratification. A social worker herself, Amrita decides to become a foster mother to the child born of her husband’s extra-marital relationship. At the same time, she convinces the biological mother to return to her village and liberate herself from the clutches of Swapnesh’s exploitation.

One Step Towards the Sun also impresses because of its stylistic variety. From elements of fantasy to disjointed soliloquy, plot twists and lyricism, the stories arrest the reader as much with the unfolding story as with the words that unveil it.

It is to Henitiuk and Kar’s credit that they have produced a book of writing translated from a regional Indian language without tedious footnotes or a painstaking glossary. The translations have standardized almost all of the original text, including some of the very localized expressions. Although the end result makes for easy readability, it can be a bit of a disappointment for someone seeking to derive a taste of local flavours offered by phrases and idioms unique to the region. One wonders if certain regional expressions couldn’t have been incorporated into the translated narratives without hindering the readability. However, this is a small omission in an otherwise excellently produced anthology. Even as IWE basks in the warm light of international awards, this book has taken but a solid step towards the sun as far as furthering ILET is concerned.

Short Stories by Women from Orissa
Edited by Valerie Henitiuk and Supriya Kar
Publisher: Rupantar
Price: Rs. 295.00
ISBN 978-81-906729-1-7