I am reading The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar.
While I read it I keep thinking about my own writing. I’ve been trying to make the crossover from non fiction, prose poetry, poetry and little slips of short fiction to actual full-blooded short stories. Unless I write speculative, fantasy or travel-type fiction, I do realize that the realities I can best and most honestly portray are that of India’s.
This is certainly not the best Indian writing in English I’ve read, but it’s got some very powerful pages. I especially delight in the masterful use of Indian English, how Miss Umrigar seamlessly blends Parsi and a very specific Bombay (Gujarati influenced – only a Gujarati influenced style can corrupt English so freely and joyfully – freshum-fresh) style of speaking Hindi that only someone who grew up around Gujarati people can distinguish. I giggle at the most inopportune moments, many times against my will, when Bhima calls AIDS a “daaku” illness or throws the word “shameless badmaash” with her eyes and pointedly disapproving looks at the man levelly staring at her. Miss Umrigar almost sneaks these delightful bits of words in and makes them mix like bhelpuri, as she would undoubtedly have said. With these flavors, you can see the characters come to life. Like the mean old woman who calls her modern, educated daughter-in-law “acchut” just because she’s having her period, or the playful Parsi middle aged lady who calls her own husband a “luchcho”. Just one word – kit-pit, deekra, Bai – and modern day Parsi society or Bombay slums are instantly conjured up before the seasoned Indian.
Seasoned from these stories, of pain and defiance in the face of pain. When I think about Feroz ritually beating Sera, I wonder how many homes in this country carry the same story like a sigh on their parted lips. When I think about Bhima, the image of the lady who works at my parents’ house is the one that looms large. Her little one roomed excuse of a house is merely ten steps away from the staid Bengali middle class neighborhood they all live in. When I think about Sera hesitating to go into the slums, but propelled on by her need to tend to a sick Bhima, I think about going to Rita didi’s house down that same narrow lane so many times, with little dirty kids staring at me curiously, a vicious chained dog trying to chase me but failing.
These are my stories. I can talk about closed doors and silence and voices that can be heard no matter how much you try to muffle them. I can tell stories of louts harassing women on the street, to the point that ritual stalking is some sort of twisted courtship dance. I can talk about the leap of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea and the Dilli heat and sudden summer storms in Calcutta. Stories of heartbreak, stories of daily cruelty, jingoism – let me invoke all that is ugly and wrong with women’s lives here today. I’m not saying there’s no ray of light. And I certainly don’t want to come across as a man-hater. I mean, look at what this is doing to our women, our men, our children.
Look at the God of Small Things. I can tell these stories. But I don’t want to descend to pain and nothingness, even if I know that special kind of Indian pain about the Love laws Miss Arundhati Roy talks about so beautifully very well. I want to sing a different tune today.
I want to talk about women with their back straight, who can give people dirty looks to put Bhima to shame. Dirty shameless badmaash, shaitaan, behaving like he has no sister at home. I want to talk about women like Bhima, like the lady who cooked for us at my first flat, who would rather do some jadoo over their husbands and stay their hands than feel the humiliation of blows raining on their backs. A woman who can tell her husband to piss off after 27 years of being together. Women who walk out alone, women who walk out in files, men who help their women, men who don’t claim ownership of their women, men who belong to their women. I want to talk about this pain and get it out of the way first, then I will be absolved and the kahaani can begin in earnest.
So will you listen? I can tell you about how anybody who abuses you is a bully who is quaking hard in his own boots, out of the reach of your downcast eyes. Look up, fight back. Let me tell you about the time she confronted someone who said something grossly inappropriate to her on the street. He apologized in the end. He had to. He was scared, he knew he was wrong. I can tell you about the cold rush of indifference she, gentle one, is capable of feeling towards someone who thinks he can get away with forcing himself on her. Repeated unwanted contact is not love, it’s about power and control. And watch her give a shit. Watch her laugh. Look at these people who cling to the hem of her skirts, cling because they are so dependent that even a negative response will do, like a drug. Look, she can dance, alone in her own apartment, buy her own groceries, laugh and live and do everything a fish can do without a car or a bicycle.
See that’s the thing — anyone should be allowed to do that, not dunked in milk or social expectations or silence, anointed with some false fate hanging over their heads the second they were born. Both girls and boys. This is for all our children, all our heartbreaks.
Do you know that word her mother uses for her? Jabri. The same one Freddy uses for that mean old Banu, his wife in Miss Umrigar’s book, mean and jabri. Brazen. Only this time it is meant with intense admiration. Jabri girl. Brazen, brazen girl. I’m so proud of you. Why can’t my stories have this leaping joy, instead of the brutal, straight heartbreak from Miss Arundhati, or the underlying melancholia of Miss Thrity? Have I answered my own question, considering this whole post has been so sad?
But still, Dalrymple has said this, and I will repeat it – The sari is slipping.
For people who don’t know India intimately, this post will be near incoherent. But here’s something to help you decipher the words:
Badmaash — wicked
Daaku — burglar
Bhelpuri – a kind of Indian street food with puffed rice and spices
Acchut — untouchable
Luchcho — rascal
Kit-pit — bickering
Deekra – son (as used by Parsis, and Gujaratis)
Bai – in this context, what Maharashtrian domestic help call their lady employers
Shaitan — devil
jadoo — magic
kahaani — story
jabri — brazen