Read 13 of 2022. Mobile Girls Koottam: Working Women Speak by Madhumita Dutta . Illustrated by Madhushree

Mobile Girls Koottam - Working Women Speak by Madhumita Dutta

Title: Mobile Girls Koottam: Working Women Speak
Author: Madhumita Dutta
Illustrated by Madhushree
Publisher: Zubaan Books
ISBN: 9789390514458
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 284
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Mobile Girls Koottam is a book I would recommend everyone in the country to read at least once before they start speaking of equity. It is a book that will perhaps make it clear of how young rural migrant women work vis-à-vis how we imagine the worlds of working-class women from a privileged vantage point.

How do these migrant women see themselves in the larger scheme of things as they work, day after day? What are their aspirations and how they navigate around them, sometimes negotiating their circumstances? This book was first a podcast, when Dutta, in 2013, a doctoral student went to do her research in Kancheepuram district in Tamil Nadu, encountering five women who worked inside an electronics factory. There she documented the lives of Abhinaya, Satya, Lakshmi, Pooja, and Kalpana – in a single rented room, over cups of tea – chatting and recording the podcast over a year, till the factory shut down in 2014. This book is a collection of those transcripts.

No topic was out of bounds when it came to these women. They spoke their hearts and minds – about reclaiming public spaces, the nature of factory work and how exploitative it is when it comes to women, the fear of losing a job, the differences that work creates between men and women, about economic independence and marriage. In fact, most of them were living alone for the first time – leaving their homes and stepping out to work.

The book also looks at economic policies made in favour of or not for the working class irrespective of gender. Madhumita speaks of labour and its relation to the society at large through these women – most of it was covered in the preface but I could also see glimpses of it in the conversations documented.

At this point, might I also mention the most fantastic illustrations by Madhushree interspersed quite intelligently, throughout the book to state points and to capture the experiences of these women with wit and candour.

Mobile Girls Koottam is a book that reveals a lot – about the nature of work, about the nature of work when it comes to genders and how it then shapes into something else by the end of it, and most importantly it speaks of having a room of your own to be able to think and speak freely.

Read 12 of 2022. Shit Cassandra Saw: Stories by Gwen E. Kirby

Shit Cassandra Saw by Gwen E. Kirby

Title: Shit Cassandra Saw: Stories
Author: Gwen E. Kirby
Publisher: Penguin Books USA
ISBN: 978-0143136620
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This collection of short stories by Gwen E. Kirby places women at the front – in all their glory and agency. It strips the old -age telling of stories from the perspective of men and looks at women telling their own stories, with their voices getting centerstage.

Shit Cassandra Saw speaks of women that keep getting a raw deal. It rewrites womanhood – with a lens of bravery, a sense of flaws that exist, contradictory sometimes, and mostly with empathy and wit.

The Greek goddess Cassandra received the gift of prophesy from Apollo only to find no one believed her visions of the future, only because she refused to have sex with him. Helen of Troy was a temptress, a seducer, because of which the war happened. Women who were accused and hanged because of witchcraft in the 14th century. Women who cross-dressed so they could travel, and so much more.

The stories in this collection focus on women – those from history and those from today’s time and age – bringing out feminism and the weird, along with humour in right doses.

These 21 stories take the reader to different worlds in which women not only have agency, but also reveal the mundane and the predictability of living in a so-called man’s world. Gwen E. Kirby breaks all the stereotypes and categorizations, only perhaps to create some new ones through her stellar storytelling.

The writing is precise, sharp, morbid at times, but mostly wildly unique. Whether it is about protagonists who refuse to be secondary characters or about women who have learned how to tell their stories, Kirby whips up women at their breaking points – all ready to rebel and reclaim spaces. Shit Cassandra Saw is a fine debut collection of short stories that is constantly not only pushing boundaries but also successfully breaking them.

Read 11 of 2022. Longing and Other Stories by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki . Translated from the Japanese by Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy

Longing and Other Stories by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

Title: Longing and Other Stories
Author: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
Translated from the Japanese by Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy
Publisher: Columbia University Press ISBN: 978-0231202152
Genre: Translation, World Literature, Short Stories
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

This is a collection of three stories by Tanizaki, which were published relatively earlier in his career between 1917 and 1921. Maybe that’s why you can as a reader sense the jagged edges, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons this collection is highly satisfying as well. The stories are set in early 20th century, and all focus on the mother-son bond – its complexities and also exploring the subtlety of relationships using different styles, which were also used in his later works.

The book starts with the title story “Longing” – a story that is extremely poetic and possesses a dream-like quality. It seems to read quite simply – that of a young boy walking alone along a dark coastal road, recalling events, in search of something, constantly being played by the light and the darkness, along with eerie shadows and the atmosphere of dread, till it becomes clear what it really is.

Tanizaki’s style is out there for all to see – the playfulness, the sudden revelations, the vague memories of childhood he brings to fore – and in all of this the element of some unreliability which works in a most out of the blue manner, fitting in rather perfectly.

The second story “Sorrows of a Heretic” is about the protagonist Shōzaburo almost wasting away his life – living the life of depravity. In this story, I saw Tokyo being brought to life and seeing it in a point of time that was so different and unique. We don’t feel much for Shōzaburo but there is some feeling of sentimentality. Tanizaki gives his characters that from the readers.

In the final story “The Story of an Unhappy Mother”, the narrator Hiroshi is one of the five children in a family that talks about his family, more so his mother. Tanizaki paints a picture so vivid about the mother – her flaws, her mistakes, and her misgivings. Again, the relationship of the mother and child is told with great nuance and care.

The translations by Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy are on-point at almost every single page. Once again, the translators when it comes to a Tanizaki work have managed to communicate the sparseness of prose, the details when required, the elegance of Tanizaki’s descriptions, and in turn highlighting different aspects of Tanizaki’s writing.

“Longing and other stories” is a collection that is wholesome, intriguing, and speaks of lives that are lived on the border of imagination and reality. A must-read collection in my opinion.

Read 10 of 2022. Adam by S. Hareesh. Translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil

Adam by S. Hareesh

Title: Adam
Author: S. Hareesh
Translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil
Publisher: Penguin Vintage
ISBN: 978-0670094608
Genre: Short Stories, Translation,
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

You just cannot predict what’s going to happen next in any of these stories, written by the very talented and imaginative S. Hareesh. Each story makes you question the world around you, sometimes quite minutely, and sometimes on a larger scale.

This was the first collection of short stories read this year, and I am so happy it started with this. S. Hareesh writes with abandon that is very hard to spot. His sentences are sparse but sometimes they extend to many, more so if there is a scene to be described. For instance in the title story, S. Hareesh takes liberty with the form by shifting narratives as he takes turn to describe the four children born of the same parent, and their eventual fate. The emotion in all of these stories is that of rawness, of masculinity that appears so strong on the surface, only to be eventually shattered.

S. Hareesh’s characters might come across as simple but they are constantly fighting with themselves or against the system. There is an internal war that rages, which is reflective in day-to-day living. Take for example, the story “Maoist” (on which the movie Jallikattu is based) – it is essentially about two bulls creating havoc in a small village but there is so much more to it. The class and caste politics play themselves out unknowingly, and is a constant pressure point till all hell breaks loose. The story then doesn’t just remain about the two animals but is so much more, given the metaphors and layers.

S. Hareesh builds his own worlds through his stories. We think we know the terrain, but he is constantly pushing the boundaries. Alone in that sense transforms itself to being a semi-supernatural story, where there are so many elements of fear and horror, that it could be set anywhere in the world. The appeal of universality is strong, and yet S. Hareesh reins himself in to talk of these stories in the milieu he knows best.

One cannot bracket S.Hareesh’s writing in one single genre. He constantly tries to offer more and more to readers with each story in this nine-story collection. The writing is simple, and so effective that you will not stop thinking about at least some stories when you are done with the collection. Jayasree’s translation is on point as it was in Moustache. You can hear the lilt of the source language (Malayalam) even though you are reading the text in English. Each and every word is needed and in place. There is nothing that seems wasted. Adam is a collection of short stories that is diverse, relatable to some extent, and very accessible to readers.

Read 9 of 2022. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Title: Mrs. Dalloway
Author: Virginia Woolf
Publisher: Vintage Classics
ISBN: 978-0-593-31180-6
Genre: Classics
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This was my fourth reading of Mrs. Dalloway. The fourth time when I would go back to the book, as if it were the first time, and it would reveal itself a little more, another insight, maybe not, maybe just the usual run-of-the-mill circadian novel that it is, but not monotonous. Never uninteresting, and most certainly never out of touch with the contemporary landscape of emotion and thought.

Mrs. Dalloway is a book about community than just one person. It is about illness, suffering, love, sensations that merge together in sentences that portray that at every page. Clarissa is a protagonist who isn’t likeable and yet you relate, you empathise, you find yourself being a part of her world – and more than anything of the banal every day. Whether it is through the life of Septimus Smith or that of Peter Walsh or even Rezia – who is the most sympathetic character, it is all the every day. A Groundhog Day kind of scenario, but the one that is perhaps bearable, tolerable to read during a pandemic – the prose saves you.

So, then what is Mrs. Dalloway about? A day in the life of someone who wants to throw a party? A day in the lives of people who are as confused and torn apart in a world that didn’t opt to live in?  Why do so many readers, year on year, want to read Mrs. Dalloway? What is it about this novel? Maybe because the characters are flawed and fail constantly. Maybe because it is about younger generations, trying to find a way after the war and not knowing what to do. It is about Clarissa’s regret – of being married to the wrong person and not being able to make the choices she wanted to. It is about declaration of life, and yet ironically not living. It is about how Peter and Clarissa move through the party and the incidents that occur during the course of a single day – merging the past, the present, and the probable future.

The inner lives of characters more than just shine through Woolf’s writing. They gleam, they break apart, and they also reflect the lack of profundity. There is a lot of suffering – some latent and some on the surface, and there is no redemption for anyone. Mrs. Dalloway is constantly asking questions that one cannot answer: Why do we die? Why must we die? What is living? It asks this of a world that is ignorant to them – a world that engages in a party, in life, in the hopeless optimism that life is worth something, only to realize the mediocrity of the living, and even then to turn a blind eye to it.