Her Muzzafur Jung murders set a kind of expectation flowing. Madhulika Liddle established herself as an expert in describing the city of Shah Jehan and the fabric of the time. Since then she has also written two collections of short stories. Woman to Woman, her latest, is exactly that, a collection of the longings and frustrated desires of women who hope for a great deal out of life but who find themselves confronting dysfunctionality in one way or another. Whether it is through bride trafficking or the encounter between a nun and a prostitute on a bus who find that they have a great deal in common, or the story of Laxmi who seems to have emerged from Tagore’s Manihara, unable to let her jewellery go till the bitter end.
Liddle’s gift of observation combined with sensitivity and her fondness for history allows her to inhabit the different dimensions of femininity. She is at her strongest in the longer stories where she allows her characters and the situation room to develop. ‘Two Doors’ stands out with its slow unfolding of frustrated motherhood and the suppressed bitterness of a marriage that has outlived its days of passion. ‘Maplewood’ is an exploration of loneliness in a world where the young have no time to spare for the old and where the crowded lives of those who live in villages, though Liddle hints that sometimes, in old creepy bungalows, that might always have been the case.
It is an easy read because of Liddle’s polished language with cliff like ‘morels’ in a Kashmir valley where blood competes with the poppies and descriptions of bygone jewellery and saris. Her storytelling technique is the good old fashioned style which ends with a twist in the tale. She balances it with layered nuances, leaving much unsaid. In the end it is a book about memories weighed down heavily by grief. There are few happy voices — perhaps this is a world where the woman’s lot is destined to remain unhappy. For some, growing accustomed to unhappiness is a way of life, for others getting the better of a situation is a triumph. The victories and the defeats are mainly small ones, expressed in the way that women do, except for one or two who find their own dramatic roads to vengeance or escape. Even then, they are told subtly, so subtly that sometimes the reader has to read it again to take in the full effect. Woman to Woman will certainly give its readers ample scope to ponder on the way women in this country live and have lived their lives.
Anjana Basu is the author of Rhythms of Darkness