Tanuja Chandra’s recent book, Bijnis Woman, is an exhilarating reading experience for those who wonder about the nature of stories and their power to bind human beings across generations. Her book is exciting not only because of its penetrating insight into human experience in Uttar Pradesh’s unique cultural context, but also because of the fact that these stories have been handed down from one generation to the next in their enduring dramatic quality. Interestingly, the book’s subtitle is Stories of Uttar Pradesh Told by My Mausis, Buas, Chachas, making it an ambitious storytelling venture that blurs the binary between fact and fiction while making the cliché ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ all the more real.
There is an element of companionship with these stories that is reminiscent of a concept in the literary sub-discipline of socio-narratology, called the ‘material semiotic companionship.’ Arthur W. Frank, in his book Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology, studies the sociological presence and the dynamism of the stories in our everyday life and argues that the characters in them are our “material semiotic companions” whose fictional lives are strangely interwoven with our historically endured lives. Through these characters, he suggests we live several other lives; this enables us to empathise and engage with others and expand our knowledge of human differences across time and space. Similarly in Bijnis Woman, Chandra recounts the childhood stories that circulated in her family and formed her inner landscape as a storyteller and filmmaker, all the while inviting us to feel an uncanny relationship with these characters and people who exist somewhere in our conscious and unconscious histories.
Bijnis Woman consists of 14 short stories, each of which transports the reader on a rather cinematic journey into a nostalgic world of human emotions and relationships. The graphic details and palpable descriptions of the story settings and inner feelings of the characters confirm the author’s cinematic imagination that she has so successfully dramatised through her language. Despite being set in the particular context of UP, Chandra’s stories hold a universal quality concerned more with the nature of human emotions and human bonding than anything external to them. However, this exploration into uncharted territories of human interiority can also be uncanny as we see in one of the finest, graphically strong stories, ‘Atta Chakki’.
A collection of tales handed down from one generation to the next depicts the timelessness of the human experience
‘Atta Chakki’ is the story of the Upadhyay family that treasures its daughters more than its sons — an unlikely Indian setting that defies the usual custom. The family witnesses the sons grow dull and leaden-minded, while daughter Gomti becomes more strikingly beautiful every day. In order to preserve Gomti’s beauty, she isn’t allowed to do any household work; thus she grows lazy and numb-headed. She is married off into a family that cherishes her beauty, but soon it transpires that Gomti is unable to do any chores because she was never initiated into thinking outside of her own appearance. When her in-laws bring the matter up with her, she develops strange headaches that can only be alleviated while she grinds flour in the mill.
The story ends on a rather suggestive note when the Ayurvedic doctor’s prognosis is that the headaches are caused by an insect that went in through her ear and multiplied in her head by laying seed. This is unmistakable symbolism of an idea being transferred to our minds through our ears, childhood conditioning that multiplies with the seeds of reassurance as happened with Gomti, who was told that her beauty, rather than her mind, needed to be nurtured, which then disabled her mind altogether.
The title story, ‘Bijnis Woman’ is another exciting story that follows Langhi, who has come to the big city in the hopes of becoming a ‘bijnis’ (business) woman. In this beautiful account of a woman’s self-confidence and enterprising skills, Chandra presents a moving portrayal of the talkative Langhi, the door-to-door seller of steel utensils, and her strange friendship with Sarla Madam who writes plays for the radio. It becomes a mutual give-and-take relationship between the two women where Sarla Madam weaves into her plays the words Langhi so dramatically, and yet unknowingly, gives her during her chatty conversations.
A moving story of human drama and the choices life compels one to make is ‘The Guru.’ A blind man, after experiencing a problematic childhood of disability and physical ugliness, becomes a professor of music at the college from which he graduated. Guruji, as his colleagues and students call him lovingly, has lost all faith in relationships and love having grown up in a household that was so hostile to him as a child. In a moment of emotional arrest he falls in love with a “woman with the large knowing eyes” who eventually wins his trust, then robs him of all his valuables. Once again Guruji is lost in the world of relationships where he doesn’t dare take another step. However, Chandra’s recounting of the story is hopeful as Guruji’s caring colleagues get him married to another girl who is “not all erratic passion and romantic love, but [the] respect and companionship” that’s needed to move a relationship forward.
In the rest of the 14 stories, Chandra recounts strangely familiar characters, such as the court clerk who loves chaat (‘The Final Insult’); two cousins inseparable even in death (‘Sibling Love’); a student’s revenge on a celebrated fortune teller (‘The Fortune Teller’) and the indecisive ramblings of a bodybuilder-turned-soldier, that do compel the reader to question their credibility. However, the author clearly states: “I swear they are true. Besides you know as well as I do — anything is possible in UP.”
The reviewer is teaches literary studies at Kinnaird College, Lahore
Bijnis Woman: Stories of Uttar Pradesh Told
by My Mausis, Buas, Chachas
By Tanuja Chandra
Penguin Random House, India
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 11th, 2017