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Lives in Translation

Nivedita Sen

By Uma Chakravarty
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 312, Rs. 595.00


Uma Chakravarty’s chatty yet sound introduction is the highlight of this collection of novellas. She cautions against the nineteenth century labelling of the novel as a lighter genre that women not only read but even write. Fiction burgeoned around the new middle class which required the charming, cultivated, educated bhadramahila to grace a companionate marriage. The publishing industry with its mushrooming journals, some especially for and by women, contributed greatly to the new constituency. According to Chakravarty, each of the narratives in this compilation creates and sustains an atmosphere that only a novella can absorb—short stories are too brief and tightly plotted, while novels are too complex and layered for the intensity portrayed in these. Time past and present intertwine fluidly through the narratives, constructing a mosaic.   In Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s Defying Winter, (translator Tutun Mukherjee) a woman writer in her sixties, persecuted and ill-treated by her daughter-in-law, leaves the house that she owns to her son and family and retreats to a home for the aged. She encounters people who have taken refuge there for various reasons. The novella interweaves narratives by various women characters who have seen prosperous, successful and connubially fulfilling lives, talking about their past and yet interacting with the inmates of the home in a meaningful and open manner. There are also a few peripheral narratives by characters outside the ‘twilight shelter’ who are only tangentially involved in the lives of these characters. Another old woman dies a fulfilled death, surrounded by daughters, sons and daughter-in-law (Mrinal Pande’s A Woman’s Farewell Song, translated by the author herself). The story allows us more than a glimpse into the politics of the woman-centric domestic structure in the life of a modern woman who manages to combine satisfying the demands of her professional life as a lecturer with her traditional role as a wife, mother, daughter-in-law and sister-in-law. Its nuanced reading of her frustrations, struggle, bitterness, imploding within her largely benign and well-meaning personality, yet falls short of the best of Mrinal Pande’s fiction.   In Vaidehi’s Temple Fair (translator Nayana Kashyap), the adult narrator recaptures the mood of the fair as one that had forged a bonding between women and children in the family, feeling sorry for and othering older boys who have ‘neither tresses nor ribbons nor floral strings but only cropped heads’. Bringing her own children to the fair ...

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