Lakshmi Holmstrom’s ‘The Inner Courtyard’

It is an anthology of stories by Indian Women that was published in 1991 and I picked it up around 2000 as a reprint version. I happened to chance on it while rummaging my book collection and re-read it with great enthusiasm.

The writers are all women who trace their roots to the Indian sub-continent though quite a few of them are now settled abroad in the US and UK – part of the celebrated Indian diaspora. Quite a few are also translated versions of vernacular tales.

In a lucid introduction the editor explains some of the constraints that impacted the stories selected for the anthology. In all we have 18 tales and the choice tends to focus more of English writers and writers who seem to have settled abroad. A few translations of vernacular stories are included but they are indeed rather by exception than the rule. However we must accept that the editor did the best possible of a bad job since many constraints impact such an anthology. It is still quite representative and an Indian reader will have little trouble in discovering the familiar world.

And it is all there – patriarchy, provincialism, paternal attitudes, feudal set ups, the angst of women trapped in situations not of their own choice. And yet the stories are not all that depressing – an exotic range of coping mechanisms evolve. From rebellion to stoicism, our ladies have found devices to manage their circumstances. Indeed in many the male characters are quite in the background and the tale does focus on the fairer sex. One ends up having favourites and my Top 5 picks are the following :

♦ Anjana Appachana’s ‘Her mother’

More than the tale itself, I like the structure of the story. It begins with a mother writing to her daughter who has gone abroad to complete her Ph.D. Her concerns are routine – take care of your health, avoid getting corrupted by Western influence, a suitable Indian boy has been found in US as well – be cooperative and take the initial steps of courtship for the eventual marriage.

Gradually the story unwinds further – we learn about the girl’s father, her elder sister who is married but is staying in a different city and her brother-in-law who happens to stay with them since he has been transferred here. And then we learn that the girl had been sad while leaving and the mother even sensed that she does not wish to return home. In the final twist the reason for this dawns onto the mother and reader. The twist is painful but realistic – and the writer needs to take a bow for creating such a riveting structure for the tale.

♦ Mrinal Pande’s ‘Girls’

‘When you people don’t love girls, why do you pretend to worship them?’ A spirited and hyperactive girl of eight asks this searing question on seeing the hypocrisy of the adults. Her rebellion ends in tears but we know her spirit endures. Well she needs to be tough to survive and succeed in a man’s world. One even wonders whether these are scenes from the writer’s own childhood.

♦ Padma Hejmadi’s ‘Birthday deathday’

A happy theme for a change – two sisters with different temperaments. And yet they share a close bond. Well western values and independence are not the only values to be cherished, the Elder sister gently teaches the younger one on values of empathy and kindness.

♦ Anita Desai’s ‘The farewell party’

The futility of the social routine and provincialism that exists in the so-called ‘upper middle class’ circles. The writer bares it all with conviction. And when one is about to get convinced that social gatherings are so futile, she draws us in to the warmth of close friends and well wishers. True we meet very few of them in life and need to feel thankful for our blessings.

Anita Desai impresses us with her talent as she has mastered the art of delving into the hearts and minds of her lead characters and effectively and efficiently portraying the angst that drives their inner life. Her leitmotif includes themes of solitude, feminism, the devices effected by women to combat patriarchy and moribund societal norms.

♦ Ismat Chugtai’s  ‘Chauthi Ka Jaura’

The social scene is narrated with authority. The writer is well versed with the conventions and the rules of the game of courtship in her society. Her efforts rends ones heart as we can see what she can’t – that they are mis-directed and will not bear fruit. And yet there is no other way to play the game – there is no escape route available from the situation. Well it is indeed a tragedy that we saw coming but again hats off to the writer for the realism of her narrative.

Even the other tales are interesting, so it is a nice collection to read and realize the reality of Indian women in the times of the past. A lot of it is likely to not have changed for most of them even now though a part of India glitters and has joined the race to be a global citizen.

Credit: Cyrus McCrimmon / contributor Courtesy:Getty Images
Credit: Cyrus McCrimmon / contributor
Courtesy:Getty Images

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