In the story, “Waiting,” Kusum, an elderly lady, still retains her fierce independence of spirit. It is much against her will that she succumbs to the demands and humiliations old age enforces but, even then, her strength of personality can be intimidating. She does not hesitate to mince words when people cross her path, and makes her wishes clear when others appear far too ready to write her off as doddering and senile. To her daughter and her family, Kusum is still the matriarch who ran the family effortlessly, and so when the time comes to break a particularly hard bit of news, the family settles on her beloved niece, Meena.
In this story, easily my favorite in this new short story collection by Latika Mangrulkar’s, there is much insight into the little-understood and yet frightening world that old age inhabits. Old age, and especially old women rarely figure as a subject in Indian writing; one that comes to mind is Mahasweta Devi’s collection of two novellas titled Old Women (translated into English by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), which deals with women left behind in Bengal villages.
Kusum traverses worlds in Latika Mangrulkar’s story. Even though her life unfolds in a few pages, it is really evocative, for, while enduring her present day daily humiliations and tribulations, she relives her past, her rich life in her mind, which no one else has any inkling about. And therein lies the tragedy of old age—an entire life becoming invisible to younger generations.
Latika’s stories are about people in all their various contradictions and complexities, the dilemmas that can appear starkly simple to the reader/other, but end up playing a centrally large role in shaping the characters’ lives.
These are lives lived out within traditional expectations, and there could be hidden pain, betrayals, never fully expressed but carried within oneself. The stories have a deep interiority; there is a gradual unraveling of the many layers a life can hold. Often told from the immigrant standpoint, they speak of dual identities—those within and without, and the demands that come from living in and adapting to a country that is now a second home.
One story in the collection, “Strange Connections,” is about Sheila, middle-aged and comfortable in her own skin, and her encounter with a younger man at an airport lounge. As Sheila and Satish converse in the lounge and in the flight, Sheila allows herself a flashback through her own life, and wonders if this is a new chance at happiness. But this, too, turns out to be elusive.Sheila realizes that her sophistication, gathered over the years, is ultimately something of a veneer.
Some stories dwell on the painful dilemmas of being a father and husband; how a man can be torn apart by the demands of family. Few stories written by women authors feature a man’s perspective,.Here the male characters and relationships are explored with sensitivity.
The poems that intersperse these stories are of a somewhat different texture, with themes of love, dreaming, and acceptance.
Many of the stories in the collection, displaying, as they do, a complex tapestry of people, emotions, and conflicts, could have worked better as novels or even novellas. Still, in the Balzacian world she has unraveled, Latika gives us a glimpse of ordinary lives; in those simple lives, with their petty conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas, entire universes can be concealed.
This review first appeared in sawnet.org.
Anu Kumar’s novels include Letters for Paul (2006), The Dollmakers’ Island (2010) and the forthcoming, It takes a Murder. She has also written for younger readers, and was twice awarded for her short stories by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association.