Have you ever been enchanted by an item, so much so that you searched high and low for it? Did you dream of obtaining it at any cost, only to find that it eluded you- online and offline?
This book exactly did that to me. I was always an avid reader, and more so took advantage of this habit during my college years. I would go to the library very often and borrow countless fiction books. I would find immense peace in holding the book and devouring the sentences, page by page. I still do, as a matter of fact.
I remember coming across this book in the iron bookshelves of the library in 2012, its book cover decorated with ethnic motif prints. I took it home with curiosity, and the rest was history. I finished it within three days, and longed to own it as my own. I returned it with a sad heart, only to borrow it once again months later.
By 2015, I was working and had the means of buying anything I wanted. I sought this book for days, but never found it in any library or bookstore. I searched online, but the copies were sold out or unavailable. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, that I would never get to call a copy of this book my own.
Cue 2016, when I was in a long-distance relationship with my then-fiance, now-husbandman Mr. A. (He was in US, I was in India.) I told him about this one book I fell in love with three years back, but never got to claim for myself. And when he came down to India to marry me in November 2016, guess what he had with him? 🙂 It would be an understatement to say I was thrilled.
The book pictured is a second-hand copy, but it makes it all the more special. Why? Because it has passed down from another set of hands that once cherished it, the pages yellowed and once sitting warm in someone’s home.
Okay, I think have waxed on and on about the personal significance of this book. How about I jump into the book review?
The Book, In A Nutshell
‘The Inner Courtyard- Stories by Indian Women’ consists of 18 short stories, edited by Lakshmi Holmstrom. It consists of prose which were written in both English and native languages, translated into the former. It is a curation of stories hand-picked and translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom and other knowledgeable women.
The themes covered are caste and hierarchy, relationships, colonialism and its aftermath, sexuality and the search for identity- as described in the book.
A Girl’s Sole Review
In my opinion, all stories combined together, clamor in one unified voice. They all address the complexity in the very act of living as a woman. They speak out about the various judgments we were and are subjected to, the veils and the walls we hide behind in order to not irk others, by just being a woman.
For example, in ‘Revenge herself’, the author Lalitambika Antarjanam speaks of Tatri, a Nambudiri woman who was cast off in the fires of history as a vengeful prostitute. But the story behind why she was spoken of in disgusted, hushed tones reveals the destructive path she took, to reveal men’s misogyny in the ancient ages. A quote from the book-“O these men who seem so honourable, so saintly! Men who expect unquestioning faithfulness from their own wives, but who are quite willing to ruin another’s!”
Some stories made me feel strongly, such as ‘Chauthi ka Jaura’ by Ismat Chugtai. Here, she wrote of how a poverty-ridden mother wants to marry the elder of her two daughters. For years, she stitches her daughter’s and others’ wedding trousseau with perfection and care. Both younger sister and mother wait to see Kubra don the wedding clothes, and it seems like opportunity comes in the form of a long-lost relative’s son. But the thankless man eats away all the food they wring their life out for, and makes lewd gestures at the younger sister. The story ends tragically when the man molests the younger sister and ends up leaving for his wedding to another. Kubra dies because of starvation and the mother stitches the white cloth for her funeral. When I finished reading this one, I felt so deeply angered, because this is still a prevalent, deplorable happening.
Some other stories, moved me with just the sounds and sights they provoke, such as ‘Memories of an Indian Childhood’ by Qurratulain Hyder, ‘Rhythms’ by Lakshmi Kannan and ‘The Farewell Party’ by Anita Desai. They paint vivid images, as if you can breathe in the air that fills the protagonists’ lungs, privy to their fortunes and misfortunes.
Two stories from the book induced a little sadness in me- ‘Girls’ by Mrinal Pande and ‘Her Mother’ by Anjana Appachana. Both of them are rooted in a mother-daughter story arc, but in totally different directions.
‘Girls’ by Mrinal Pande made me sympathize for a small, mischievous girl who is constantly reprimanded by her mother, and told that she is the bane in her life. The pregnant mother goes to her maternal house with her children in tow, a ritual North Indian women commonly follow during their pregnancy. The little girl is also there, playing around but clumsily, thus earning her mother’s wrath very easily. She is surrounded in an environment, where women constantly quip that girls are a nuisance. Then dawns the day of the Kanyakumaris, a festival where young girls are worshipped as goddess Durga incarnate. While all girls are feasted on puri-halwas and given money as gifts, the young girl is nearly slapped by her mother for playfully acting like an engine. In tears, she leaves a stinging repartee for the adult women-
‘Her Mother’ by Anjana Appachana is written from the mother’s point of view, communicated as a letter to her daughter who left to study abroad. She talks about how her usually quiet and cheerful daughter turned morose just a few months before leaving her family behind, why she left the parents feeling raw and stung with hurt. She talks about how she as a mother never felt like she got her daughter’s love wholly, claimed instead by her father. She talks about how her daughter who was fiercely independent and feminist in thought, never took her mother’s side openly. The mother speaks about her views on the cultural differences in Indians and Americans, how she wants her daughter to stay rooted to her traditions. Peppered with deep-running emotional cries and advice to her daughter, the author weaves the mother-daughter’s past and present into a touching story.
I could go on and on about the book’s contents, but that would tire you out. I wanted to quickly write down how much this book means to me. In short, this is a book that I would read and re-read, until the pages look worn down, heavily thumbed.
Why should you read it?
It is a book for men and women, feminist or not, to understand the collective plights, stances and voices of women through several generations.
It is a book to tell you that there is a labyrinth that women walk through every single day, waiting to come out the other end without being plunged into deathly oppression.
It is a cry, a night-time lullaby and an anthem- encapsulated in 204 pages.
It is a book you would give your sister, mother, friend, colleague, girlfriend or wife. Eighteen stories that would tell her that she is not alone, her history has been written about and will continue to be written and re-written.
This is a book that is not meant to gather dust on the shelves; it is one to be unforgotten.