Sucharita Dutta-Asane, Cast Out and Other Stories, Dhauli Books, 2018. 188 pgs.
Villagers being forced to fight for their rights against a land mafia, a woman missing on her way back from work, another taunted throughout her lifetime for her dark complexion… These are not headings from newspapers or online news agencies, but instead the themes in the short-story collection, Cast Out and Other Stories, by writer and editor, Sucharita Dutta-Asane.
In a strange twist of dark irony, the days leading up to this review had indeed been full of such news, and in fact, Dutta-Asane acknowledges in the Notes section at the end of the book that her stories originate from the anger and angst she feels upon hearing or reading about certain events occurring in the country and the world.
The collection has sixteen stories in all, and each holds up an unflinching mirror to our times and social mores, and often to the inbuilt hypocrisy that we only sometimes acknowledge, and then only in the darkest of hours before dawn.
The opener, “Half a Story,” for instance, starts with the premise: “I thought social mores had an universal virtue, an all-encompassing benevolence in one’s life: of providing hope and security.” The narrator teaches in a slum and tries to help a young girl when her mother, a sex worker, dies suddenly. However, bringing the girl home opens a Pandora’s box with her neighbours, who ask questions about the girl’s origin, forcing the woman’s family to make up stories about her being a distant relative. The narrator tries to show her affection and even support but is scandalised when a twist reveals a more direct connection between her family and the young girl. In the end, the narrator’s grandmother calls out her façade of being a good person:
When she finally spoke, her voice was calm but I detected in it a trace of something that made me want to wriggle into a hole.
“She will be safe there, taken care of, not discarded.”
Similarly, another story, “Night Song,” switches between the perspectives of a woman, “Raater moton kaalo. Black as the night,” and a man who finds this very darkness a challenge and who obsesses about her until inevitably, after possessing her (or what he thinks of as the act of possession), backs out: “You confuse me. He said. And then, “Whom will you marry?” because a woman’s value is calculated only on the basis of her being chosen for matrimony.
The title story, “Cast Out,” is the collection’s strongest. It describes the double standards prevalent even today around menstruation. A whole village prays to a god they cannot see and asks for their wishes to be granted; trains stop at the station supposedly until they get a signal from the god to proceed and a woman, the priest’s wife, is believed to be the cause of another family not having a much-awaited son when she prays at the temple’s threshold on the day she is “impure” due to menstruating. Matters come to a head when the same man who has been killing and burying his unwanted granddaughters leads a mob to confront the woman, and she has to seek refuge at the temple.
Like the darkness of the spirits and mores around the woman who is being judged solely on her complexion, each story in this collection discloses the darkness of these times and the complexities of the conflicts between men and women, landowners and the dispossessed, the powerful and powerless, and also the way we evade our responsibilities to do something to change the status quo, resulting in the destruction of what is good in us.
In “Fire,” for instance, as the journalist Sharat tries to find out what is happening on the ground in tragedy-struck village, he comes to see that his questions are useless against the challenges the villagers have faced: “Should I ask questions of the shadows first? Who burnt their crops? If shadows can laugh, they will at me; ask me some other question, they will say.” As he spends more time interacting with Savitri, the widow of a slain leader who was also a friend, he realises that even children in the village are indoctrinated to kill and have turned into shadows. The lines from the Carl Sandburg poem, “Killers,” are an apt choice to be quoted in the story: “I never forget them, day or night: They beat on my head for memory of them; they pound on my heart and I cry back to them.”
Not all stories in the collection have such dark themes. There are some that have a lighter touch and focus on the tenderness of relationships. For instance, “Another Life” describes the turmoil of a long relationship and how the central character yearns and then fights for her love:
I am learning to live without you. A month you’ve been dead so many more months to live.
Similarly, “True, False, Right” delicately shows the effects that the slow loss of memory has on the relationship between a woman and her son, while “A Train Story” reveals how a young woman becomes clear about her priorities while on a train journey.
There is hope in the stories as well. In “Night Song,” the central character decides not to despair at the “rejection” of her lover, and instead walks out towards the darkness of night and the freedom it represents. Similarly, the narrator in “Absolution,” a modern-day adaptation of the character of Ahalya in the Ramayana who is seduced by Indra through his taking the form of her husband and then turned to stone as punishment for her “adultery,” declares in the final line defiantly, “I’ll be here, Adi. Not penitent or veiled. I will be here.”
And even in the agonising last few paragraphs of “Fire,” Savitri, the leader of the villagers fighting against their land being stolen by the mafia, stands tall despite losing her love, her husband and being brutalised and gang-raped: “She inhales long and deep, her mind already far away from what they have done to her body, focused on what needs to be done.”
Not all the stories work that well. For instance, “Dhaara” uses elements of mystery and history to build a story about a city and its queen, but I found it hard to focus on the central theme due to shifting perspectives. Similarly, “Bulldozer” falters in its description of migrant labourers and its ending doesn’t quite fit.
But overall, the strengths of this collection are the vivid imagery of the landscapes, both internal and external, and the mirroring of real events. Most of us glance through the news, sometimes flinching, and then move on to our own concerns. That’s why the work of writers, such Sucharita Dutta-Asane—who can pick up a story and then detail it with such a deft touch that we are forced to revisit, recall and then reexamine our role in what is happening—is exactly what is needed in these times. As Maya Angelou writes, “The idea is to write it so that people hear it, and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”
As I am finishing this review, India is facing, once again, the horrors of rising incidents against women. The recent gang-rape of a young woman while she was on her way home, eerily mirrors the undertone of one of the stories in this collection, “Night Duty.” And another woman was set on fire by the alleged rapists, who had been released on bail. Now, more than ever, we need stories that depict the realities of our society and raise our voices so that change, finally, happens. This book is timely and a valuable contributor to such efforts.
Jonaki Ray was educated in India (IIT Kanpur) and the USA (UIUC), and is now a poet, editor, and writer based in New Delhi, India. She is a 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award winner. She was nominated by Zoetic Press for the 2018 Pushcart Prize for short fiction and by Oxford Brookes Poetry Center for the 2018 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. She is also the winner of their 2017 International Poetry Contest, ESL category. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Best Indian Poetry 2018, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Southword Journal, among other places. Her poetry collection, Memory Talkies, is forthcoming this year. Visit her website for more information.