Rituparna Datta Roy
Department of English,
Literature is a river, a sparkling stream, whose ripples reflect the mindscapes of people poignantly portrayed by innumerable litterateurs all over the world. No other field of knowledge maps the human mind as effortlessly and as accurately as literature. In every country, in every language there exist such great artists whose only passion is to explore the mental labyrinths of his /her fellow human beings. India in particular is rich in vibrant collection of all genres of literature— novels, drama, poetry, biography, articles et al — in all the Indian languages. Many of the Vernacular writings, translated into English and Hindi, are available to the readers across the country and across the globe. One of the best known Indian woman litterateur of 20th century is Smt. Ashapurna Devi (1909-1999)—the unanimously acknowledged uncrowned queen of Bangla literature. The present paper will explore some of the stories from the collection Self-Selected Best Short Stories.
Key Words: Literature, Litterateur, Mental labyrinths
Literature is a river, a sparkling stream, whose ripples reflect the mindscapes of people poignantly portrayed by innumerable litterateurs all over the world .No other field of knowledge maps the human mind as effortlessly and as accurately as literature. In every country, in every language there exist such great artists whose only passion is to explore the mental labyrinths of his /her fellow human beings. India in particular is rich in vibrant collection of all genres of literature— novels, drama, poetry, biography, articles et al — in all the Indian languages. Many of the Vernacular writings, translated into English and Hindi, are available to the readers across the country and across the globe.
Indian women writers form a formidable part of this literary brigade— Ashapurna Devi, Mahasweta Devi, Kamla Das, Kamala Markandaya, Nayantara Sehgal, Shashi Deshpande, Bharati Mukherjee, Manju Kapoor, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy,—— the list is endless.
One of the best known Indian woman litterateur of 20th century is Smt. Ashapurna Devi(1909-1999)—the unanimously acknowledged uncrowned queen of Bangla literature. Winner of numerous awards, including Jnanpith Award for her novel Pratham Pratisruti ( The First Spark), this honorary D. Lit. from 3 universities ( Rabindrabharati University, Bardhaman University, and Jabalpur University), has published nearly 225 books. Novels, poems, short stories– she is at home in all the genres. Of these, short story is, according to her own words, her actual domain: “When I finish writing a successful short story, I am more elated than having finished a vast novel. The vast has the joy of’ construction’, the small has the fulfilment of’ creation’ ( Ashapurna Devi’ s Preface to Self-Selected Best Short Stories).Her works have been amply translated in all major Indian languages and of course, in English. Many of her novels and short stories have been made into memorable (and commercially hugely successful) films and television serials. Her short stories, in particular , portray the quintessential middle class Bengali households. But the human predicament that is portrayed in these’ regional’ stories is universal in appeal. The Keralite and the Kashmiri can equally empathise with the Bengali, such is the consummate artistry of the artist. I am going to discuss some of the stories from the collection Self-Selected Best Short Stories (Model Publishing House, Kolkata, 2000).
“The Prisoner” explores the pan-Indian mindset of the traditional Indian housewife who places her husband on a high pedestal and firmly turns a blind eye to all his faults and foibles. The protagonist Charusheela’s moorings are so strong in the concept of “pati parameswar” that she puts her self -respect in the backburner and waits hand and feet on the man of her life. Though she is regularly roughed up by Taranath, her good -for-nothing husband, she cannot withstand it when her young son, Shankar, retaliates his father’s illogical cruelty to his mother, and hits him back. She leaves her astounded son’s home and goes with her husband to their dilapidated ancestral home in the village, in order to fulfil her marital vow of being inseparable from her husband till death parts them.
In “The Homeless”, the childless aged widow Annada, who is given shelter by her distant nephew, Bibhuti, constantly picks up fights and quarrels with Bibhuti’s wife, his domestic helps, and even with his children, in order to keep up the facade of her self-respect that is slowly, but irrevocably, eroding away for living under one’s mercy. One day, when the charade is ruthlessly torn apart by Ramola, Bibhuti’s wife ,Annada decides that enough is enough. She leaves Bibhuti’s home to find a place of her own. Though she is now literally homeless, she refuses to be trodden all over by the heartless Ramola in exchange of two square meals a day.
“The Butcher” reveals the merciless mind of Kamala, who performs her domestic duties to her in -laws at the cost of her dying son. While the child goes on wailing piteously, unable to bear the excruciating torment of his terminal illness, Kamala goes on cooking, because it is her kitchen day as per the “rules” of their joint family today. When the child dies on that very day, she accuses her in-laws to have butchered her son, by not letting her attend the terminally sick child even in his last minutes. Her husband Samaresh points out that in reality, she is the butcher. She in her desire to be a perfectly dutiful daughter-in-law, has neglected her duty as a mother.
“The Penance” is the story of the beautiful and intelligent woman Sunanda. She leaves her husband for her paramour, Kamalakshya, is deserted by her paramour in turn, and is taken back by her husband, Niranjan. Niranjan arranges a huge party, calling all his relatives and friends, to “celebrate” the “safe return” of his “abducted” wife. That is the story they fabricate to keep up their social stature. When Niranjan displays Sunanda’s hand-written love-letters that he “bought” back from Kamalaksha , Sunanda realizes that from now on, she has to pay-act the role of a loving and loved wife, to keep up the charade of a happily married couple in front of the world: this is her life-long penance.
“The Ensign” is the story of the mother-daughter duo Savitri and Jayanti. Office-goer Jayanti looks down upon her uneducated, housewife mother, Savitri, who, thinks Jayanti, does not do a great job by simply running the house hold. Only when Savitri is struck down with thrombosis and Jayanti has to shoulder the household chores taking a day off from her office, does she come to realize that it is the tireless hands of the housewife that actually move the house, and not the money of the office-goer. Too late, Jayanti realizes that she, her father, her siblings— every one has simply exploited the hapless housewife, has taken her for granted. Had they paid her due love and affection ,had they shared a minimum of household chores ,keeping the stove burning would not have been a burden to Savitri, which led to her sharp temper and ultimately her paralysis caused by cerebral thrombosis.
Almost the same fate is shared by Lilavati, the protagonist of “The exhausted pen”. Lilavati, the aged widowed mother, is now a burden to her sons and daughters-in –law. She spends her days mostly in the family ‘puja’ room, at the feet of God, away from the respectless eyes and rude tongues of her family members.
“The Penumbra” is the poignant story of two sisters, one beautiful and talented, always hogging the limelight, the other ugly and termagant, drawing attention for all the wrong reasons. The reader’s heart goes out to the ugly younger sister, whose secret sweetheart dies in abject penury, while the beautiful elder sister, the cynosure of all eyes, is being married off to a wealthy NRI with great pomp.
Each story reveals one or another territory of the human mind. Ashapurna Devi is a master story-teller. The compact plot, the realistic and wholly credible characterizations are the chief attractions of her stories. Reading the stories, one gets a good glimpse of the lives of very, very ordinary people. In Ashapurna Devi’s own words, “From the outside, it is impossible to gauge the inner life of these seemingly ordinary people. A storm may be raging in the mind of the man buying vegetables, or in the mind of the woman cooking food. A sudden spark in their words/actions reveals the inner turmoil. The duty of the short story is to capture that moment of revelation. Once the revealed is recognized, it is found that even the lowliest deserves pity and mercy, not hate or wrath” ( Preface to Self-Selected Best Short Stories).
Not surprisingly, the reader yearns for more such’ revelation’. After finishing one story, one is goaded towards the next. That is the hypnotic spell that Ashapurna Devi wields over her millions of die-hard’ fans’.
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