The Black Magic Women
By Moushumi Kandali
Translated from Assamese by Parbina Rashid
Penguin Random House
Rs 299, pp. 200
It is never easy to talk about short stories, in the way it is to talk about novels. The very nature of the short story means that each story has its own voice, and its own identity and when an author gets experimental in the way each story is set and expressed, it becomes a challenge to review a short story collection without giving too much away.
The 10 short stories in The Black Magic Women by Moushumi Kandali, a bilingual short story writer (also a translator herself), and translated from the Assamese by Parbina Rashid, are exploratory in nature, delving into a myriad themes—from the racist gaze, to the vehemently misogynistic, to the contours of different forms of violence and then how, women in positions of power also mistreat other women while talking about the injustice they face within the larger society; the last bit in a story titled Andhika Parv is situated in a section of the Mahabharata, where a low-caste servant woman, who is used and abused by men, observes the tumult around Draupadi’s fate of being bet on by her husband in a game of dice without her consent and then disrobed in the Royal Court and then getting avenged. ‘What of women like us?’ she wonders as she contemplates if there will be justice or vindication and then finds real life bringing her right back to the ground when Draupadi rides roughshod over her work in the palace.
The title of the short story collection might lead one to think the stories in this collection are about the many reported cases of violence on women around alleged witch practices in Assam but it isn’t. The book blurb says that the stories have brought out the characters from Assam and placed them in the mainstream, but there are also stories that are placed within Assam and in a set timeframe: the heady days of armed insurgency when violence prevailed outside of homes and entered within, leaving behind devastating effects in the form of acute mental trauma, the rape of women, the constant fear of being caught between the two forces—security personnel and those fighting them.
Moushumi Kandali juxtaposes the narrative of her stories with elements from Assamese socio-cultural history on one hand, and the conflict that prevails unbidden in contemporary times on the other: the lonely alienated existence marred by a racist lens, the burden of being ‘othered’ and seen only as exotica, the violence of the male gaze and their toxic actions that tears apart the lives and bodies of women. There are references to real-life incidents as well: that of Nirbhaya and a passing mention of Lakshmi Urang, an Adivasi girl who was stripped naked by a group of men in Guwahati during a protest march. While Nirbhaya saw mainstream discussions and debates, what happened to Urang and many other women from the Northeastern states continue to be swept under the carpet.
The stories have a manic feel to them—there is a throbbing, a pulsating of forces driving them but happening at its own pace. Kandali writes her stories around questions of inclusivity and social justice not being equitable, of why it is that people who have different features are considered aliens within their own country and treated with aggressive vehemence. The stories are crafted carefully and therein lies the overall slight: they are too well constructed in terms of themes and the references they make that they do not touch you in the guts as they should. The writing is brilliant but does not move you, as they should. Her stories around the theme of racism that people from NE states face in the cities and towns of the mainstream hold true but when she structures her story of a girl from Assam facing the same, it rings false as the majority of people from the state have the acceptable mainstream Indian looks: sharp nose and eyes. It is only certain ethnic communities from Assam with narrow eyes and snub noses that face inequality in their homeland because they are considered of a lower social class. They face racial discrimination once they migrate outside for studies or work—their lives are enmeshed in disquiet within and outside. To not make this differentiation evident is a huge oversight.
(Manipur-based Chitra Ahanthem is an independent journalist writing on the socio-politics of the state)