May 25, 2020
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Feminist fables, from a man

The Dilemma And Other Stories
By Vijayan Dheta Translated By Ruth Vanita
Edited By Madhu Purnima Kishwar
Manushi Prakashan Pages: 155; Rs 150

THIS is an extraordinary collection of stories by Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Dheta (known as Bijji). Inspired from Rajasthani folklore, the six short stories (selected from the volumes Duvidha and Uljhan) are distinctive for thematic boldness and feminist assumptions.

During the launch of the book recently, Bijji recalled how he receives letters from women readers who refuse to believe that he's a man. Perhaps because of his stories' insight into the unconscious desires and fantasies of women. Moreover, his women are not passive victims. They retaliate with terrible weapons. In "The Crow's Way", the female protagonist who eventually takes up prostitution takes revenge for years of suffering, torture and fraud by going to bed with her son. In "Double Standards", Barhatji is a charismatic court poet who enjoys great favour with the king. He takes a new woman to bed each night, while keeping his wife cloistered at home. He rationalises the paradox to her saying: "Tell me, does a tree enjoy its own shade? The clouds, which water the world, themselves remain empty. Has the wind ever felt a breeze? Has the sun received light?" However, both his wife and the Queen end the degenerate regime by publicly humiliating their husbands by sleeping with men of lower social status and reordering the social structure.

Bijji is severe in his indictment of patriarchy and the inequality of institutionalised heterosexuality. Men who are socialised to think that they are superior to women are further corrupted by power and wealth. Like the stable boy in "Double Standards" who becomes king only because of the queen but turns against her the moment he is crowned. In "The Quandary", the woman saves and educates an 'ape man' who eventually becomes the king. Thereafter, he begins to condemn and torment her. Ironically, the 'ape man' possesses the best human qualities as a 'beast' and loses them when he transforms into a 'human'.

While humans in Bijji's stories are flawed and self-centered, birds, animals and spirits embody the best human qualities. Each story is a fable where fantasmatic happenings meld with mundane business. Interestingly, not one story shows men and women in a happy relationship within a normative family situation. When Bijji's male protagonists embody unselfish and admirable qualities, they are inevitably non-human. In "The Dilemma", the only story to depict a happy (heterosexual) marriage, the kind and generous husband is a ghost. The human husband he replaces had left his wife to go in search of wealth and prosperity. The wedded bliss is ultimately shattered with the return of the human husband. The ghost goes away and the wife returns to a life of misery.

Perhaps the most exceptional story is "A New Domesticity"; the only story about a happy marriage that also ends happily. Two women, Teeja and Beeja are married to each other as one of them is thought to be a man. When the truth is uncovered the two women, who are already in love, refuse to abandon their marriage. Helped by a benevolent king of ghosts, Teeja and Beeja set up a new domesticity that while threatening the existing social order ("this new kind of domesticity has made men lose face altogether") also presents new hope for humanity ("the sight of your love made me feel that life is worth living," says the ghost). The story is extraordinary for its unapologetic endorsement and exultant celebration of a same-sex relationship.

Without a trace of awkwardness, Ruth Vanita brings alive the vernacular idiom and in the process, she shows how versatile Indian writing in English has become. But the editor's contribution fails to measure up to the rest of the book. Madhu Kishwar and I seem to have read two different books as I failed to find "the glimpses of enriching and caring man-woman relationships" that she refers to in the two-page introduction. She could have provided a useful context through which to understand Bijji's work by exploring its relationship to traditional folklore. But, despite the minor flaws, the typographical errors and binding, the book remains one of the best to emerge from a women's publishing house.

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