Book Review by Reba Som
Title: Through a Looking Glass: Stories
Author: Aruna Chakravarti
Publisher: Om Books International
Aruna Chakravarti is a formidable storyteller. Her collection of short stories Through a Looking Glass reflects images from different periods of time and walks of life. Recounted with a compelling realism, these are characters from daily life, primarily women, that Chakravarti might have encountered or read about. She draws out in each, the woman’s inner cry of anguish and despair.
A keen observer of life, with an ability to discern the complex nuances in human relationships, Chakravarti’sstories are riveting. They reveal the continuing vulnerability of women even as they find their inner strength and voice to overcome age old prejudice and gender stereotype.
Chakravarti began her literary career as a translator into English from Bengali, first of Tagore’s song poems and then select writings of giants of Bengali literature like Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay which earned her the Sahitya Akademi award and much recognition. In the process, she absorbed the vocabulary, cultural nuances and colloquialism of Bengal’s rural life so thoroughly that in her own works of fiction such as Inheritors or Suralakshmi Villa her descriptive imagery of rural Bengal, conversation among villagers and depiction of poverty in village life acquire a rare authenticity remarkable for an author who has never lived in Bengal.
Her hugely successful translation of Sunil Gangopadhyay in First Light and Those Days introduced Chakravarti to a new genre of literature where narratives of famous personalities in a historical time frame are woven together in a rich tapestry of storytelling. Aruna ventured into historical fiction with her Jorasanko and more recently with Mendicant Prince. In all her writings, the woman’s voice remains paramount to the extent that in her Daughters of Jorasanko the key figure of Rabindranath Tagore remains conspicuously absent as with an author’s imagination she pieces together the little known details in the lives of the women of the Jorasanko household.
Through a Looking Glass is an attractive and compact production containing nine short stories. ‘Mobile Mataji’, added from Chakravarti’s previous collection, describes superstition ridden rural Bengal where barren couples turn to a spurious god woman rather than seek medical advice. Cases of sexual treachery and forcible impregnation still figure in newspaper reports and Aruna’s story chillingly conveys the grim reality of woman’s vulnerability. The contrast between the inner strength of widow ‘Satwant chachi’, who stoically raises her children and then experiences a sense of liberation once they are out of her hands is contrasted sharply with the weakness of her landlord who on his wife’s sudden death realises rather pathetically that he cannot live another moment without a woman. Incest within close families born from sexual inadequacies within marriages, which are never talked about or addressed, figures in several of these stories. However, her punchline in many of these stories is how after years of suffering in silence women can reinvent themselves and resist their destinies.
The characters in Aruna’s stories are drawn from diverse backgrounds and timelines battling their own conundrums and prejudices. In ‘Second Sight’, the Scottish missionary in Srirampur Bengal spreads the inclusive teachings of Christ and yet is ironically unable to accept his brown skinned native convert socially in marriage. The hapless plight of the Anglo Indians searching for an identity of their own is showcased powerfully. ‘Crooked House’, “a tall narrow house with two chimneys standing high on a hill beside the sea”, is the tale of a family in Goa at the turn of the century narrated by a girl who worked there. It is a tale of lovely women, ballad evenings with sailormen, sex, romance, marriage and family jealousy ending in violence, displacement and poverty. The story ‘From an Upstairs Window’ reads like a play where a woman’s plunge to her fall, is seen from different points of view – of the suffering wife, the jealous husband, the lover, and the helpless mother-in-law. In the end the wife recovers from her fall which leaves her an invalid for life, the lover moves on to another life, the mother-in-law is remorseful but the possessive husband is smug in the realisation that his wife can now be his alone.
Many of Chakravarti’s stories are in the form of flashbacks from imagined encounters after decades with protagonists known early in life sparking off an exploration into the past. The storyteller is inevitably a distanced observer whose life has taken a different path although curiosity to unravel family mysteries trapped in the innocence of childhood draws the author’s pen to write vignettes with empathy.
The author has an easy, flowing prose style with graphic description of the settings in which she places her stories. Her pictorial portrayal of characters helps to paint their image firmly in the minds of her readers. Take for instance her description of Mandeep in her story ‘Satwant Chachi’ (p 41):
“Words fail me when I try to describe Mandy. I’ve tried and tried but nothing I say can capture it all. She was a tall girl, very thin, with a long face as keen and eager as a greyhound’s. An amazingly attractive face! What was most striking about it was its mobility. It was as though her features hadn’t been set in a mould but left to ripple and flow at will. Her mouth looked full and smooth one moment and like crushed velvet the next. Her eyebrows danced as she laughed and talked; her nostrils quivered – the tiny diamond in one winking wickedly. Her long shining plait, with the pink and green pompom at its end, flailed up and down her tall, narrow back with every toss of her head, and the earrings that came down, almost to her shoulders, rang like wind chimes. Even her bindi flashed and sparkled on her shining brown forehead as though it had a life and will of its own.”
 Aunt, father’s younger brother’s wife
Reba Som is an author and academic. She was the recipient of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship in 2000–02 and the founder director of the Rabindranath Tagore Centre, ICCR, Kolkata, from 2008 to 2013. Her publications include Gandhi, Bose, Nehru and the Making of the Modern Indian Mind (Penguin 2004), Rabindranath Tagore: The Singer and His Song (Penguin, 2009) and Margot: Sister Nivedita of Vivekananda (Penguin Random House, 2017). She is also a trained singer of Rabindrasangeet and Nazrul Geeti.
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