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Between Birth and Death

Mala Pandurang

Edited by Kalpana Swaminathan
Penguin Books, New Delhi, India, 2009, pp. 244, Rs. 275.00


Kalpana Swaminathan is a surgeon writer, and the influence of her profession is evident in the choice of her themes in Venus Crossing: Twelve Stories in Transit. Swaminathan co-relates the physical states of fatigue, terminal illness, decay and death with the corresponding states of mind of her protagonists. The narratives are chiefly located in Mumbai city, and the daily commute by the local electric train is an integral part of the lives of her lower and middle-class protagonists, who must grapple with survival tactics in an impassive city. Some succeed, while others fail. In the opening story ‘Sister Thomas and Mister Gomes’, Sister Elsamma Thomas has worked for the last 15 years in Ward 14, meant for terminally ill patients. Sister Elsamma develops a strange intimacy with Mister ‘NOSURNAME’ Gomes whom she knows will die soon. In ‘A Prostitute’, Shubhada is accused of being an ‘emotional prostitute’, and of ‘giving herself in homeopathic doses to anyone who asks’ (p. 3). Stung by this comment, she remains a mute witness to an incident where a schoolboy dies falling from a train. In ‘Fly Away Peter’, Kashmira’s failed love story is related to us by her fellow commuter Anandi. ‘Euthanasia’ is a tale of a failed marriage and a pact between a wife, her alcoholic husband, and his friend to facilitate the husband’s death. It ends with an unexpected twist. ‘Eclipse’ is a disturbing account of female feticide related to us by the young girl-child narrator Champa. Champa unknowingly accompanies the midwife Dropdiben, who tips a bag with a female fetus from a running train into Mahim creek. Dropdiben then goes on to kill Champa’s new born baby sister who is born with a cleft. Having committed the act, she wins the gratitude of the male members of Champa’s family. Champa recounts: ‘When Dropdiben carried the gift in to Father and grandfather I heard her say: “All is at peace now. It was for the best”’ (p. 174). In the last story in the collection, ‘Yellow Dupatta’, Doctor Aparna helps a poor couple (Masuma and Hamid), to surreptitiously transport the dead body of a child on its final journey back to the village. The story ends with the poignant image of a resilient Masuma sitting on the floor of a speeding train: ‘People push past Masuma on their way to the toilet but she endures there, a milestone in the flux of ...

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