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Nautanki Saala and Other Short Stories

The very first story, “Does Your Cat Speak To You?” is intriguingly told in just six pages. It conveys the trauma many Hindu refugees faced
nautanki saala and other stories
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Title: Nautanki Saala and Other Stories
Author: Mohua Chinappa
Publisher: Oakbridge Publishing
Price: INR 200

 

This collection of short stories took me utterly by surprise.  Mohua Chinappa, a new author, has gifted us fifteen short, crisp stories delivered with searing honesty, courage, exquisite sensitivity, and deep compassion.  Her direct, uncluttered style delves into the emotional minefield of each of her protagonists, enabling us to enter their inner worlds to grasp their particular predicaments. Each tale compels us to understand the complex and diverse lives that women and girls navigate – uncommon stories that reflect experiences that many confront.  A line or two, at the bottom of each narrative, “Most rural women migrate from rural to urban areas for marriage,” or “According to a survey by a medical portal, 72% of married Indian women said they were dissatisfied with their sex lives,” places each story in the broader social, political, and cultural context. These individual and nuanced stories occur every day and play out in a myriad ways.  

The very first story, “Does Your Cat Speak To You?” is intriguingly told in just six pages.  It conveys the trauma many Hindu refugees faced in the Bangladesh Liberation War.  Paromita, with large luminous eyes, long wavy hair wearing a cotton sari with a white and red border is almost desperate in her urgent search for a pinch of sindoor.  She is waiting for Aslam, her husband, to take her back home.  The reality is far more sinister.  She paid a heavy price for that love that burned within her: “Paromita had finally found the red on her parting, just that it was not from Aslam Khan.”  Her agonizing story ends with the fact: “During the 1971 war, 2,00,0000 to 4,00,000 Bengali women were allegedly raped.  Mohua draws our attention through Paromita to so many women who seemingly survived, (but did they really?) those tumultuous times.

Also read: Rabindranath Tagore’s Ideas for World Change

In “Tethered Wings,” Mrinalini is on a flight to the United States via Germany when she thinks back to the three-day journey from Delhi to Assam by train when she was a young girl.  On that journey an elderly co-traveler who sees her potential encourages her “to write, paint, sing and travel.”  Yet it was her mother’s voice that took hold of her. “Mrinalini did not let her mother down.  She kept aside her paintbrush and drawing book to be comely and of allure.  Her eyes fell on her diamond ring, catching the sunlight and she could see how proud Ma was of her achievements.”  The stranger’s words came back to haunt her as she acknowledged to herself the immense price she paid for her present comforts.  “A study at the University of Basque Country suggests that mothers are most responsible in transferring of sexist attitudes.”  How many women and girls internalize the danger of spreading their wings and remain caged?

The very first story, “Does Your Cat Speak To You?” is intriguingly told in just six pages. It conveys the trauma many Hindu refugees faced in the Bangladesh Liberation War. Paromita, with large luminous eyes, long wavy hair wearing a cotton sari with a white and red border is almost desperate in her urgent search for a pinch of sindoor. She is waiting for Aslam, her husband, to take her back home. The reality is far more sinister.

“Teen Choto Chamuch,” like the title suggests, is the sweetest of the stories in the collection.  It is a story that brings hope, love, and kindness where least expected.  Sobha, day after day, holds her husband’s photograph in her thin hands to show people in hope of being reunited with him.  She is at the point of accepting, with stoic resignation, that her husband was not to be found in Delhi.  “The glimmer of hope in her eyes had been extinguished, fatigue and helplessness had replaced it.”  Then, one unremarkable day, a stranger sees her and offers her a helping hand.  He takes her home to look after his aging mother.  In that home, Sobha is able to chart out a new life and home for herself, far from Faridpur, that she thought would always be home to her. 

The very last story is entirely different in tone and is bold and magical.  In this story Mohua daringly cuts free from reality.  In “What Happens When You Let Go In Front Of A Gypsy,” the protagonist confronts Rajjo, A Banjaran, on the streets of Rajasthan. “She was uninhibited, and her slim waist held up a ghagra teamed with a backless blouse that showed off her dark smooth back…. Her eyes were filled with leftover kohl.”  The two start an erotic exchange of jewelry and clothes: “She threw her choli on my face and I held the choli against my skin.  It had the fragrance of the desert and the death of her spirit in it.  It was still warm with her body heat…..I wanted this game to end.”  The nameless protagonist in this encounter with Rajjo’s unrestrained sensuality,  confronts her own desires.

Mohua Chinappa
Mohua Chinappa at the launch of her book.

The stories I have mentioned in this review are to give the reader just a taste for this rich trove that lies between the pages in the deceptively slim book.  It is a memorable set of stories. Stories that will stay with me. Stories that I will read again and again. Simple, but very layered, evocative stories.  Small gestures suggest momentous times and experiences. Mohua also suggests the overwhelming role that food and culture play in women’s lives.  She poignantly draws attention to the fragility of relationships and the resistance of women.  As she does the kindness of strangers and the violence and cruelty of lovers, especially those rebuffed.

Perhaps it is the many traumas, born of political strife as well as personal tragedies, that span generations, that has given Mohua this winning and exceptional gift of understanding with love in the face of darkness and despair. Mohua’s parents were displaced from Bangladesh and moved to Assam.  As Bengalis in Assam, they again found themselves caught up in the racial prejudice and violence meted out to Bengalis by the local people, people whom they lived among and trusted.  As a young girl, Mohua moved to Delhi and faced the many challenges that newcomers do face in a large metropolis.  There were other personal tragedies Mohua had to surmount including serious health issues.  

Mohua’s personal encounters with trauma, pain, love, violence, betrayal, and grit stalk the pages of this collection.  Her ability to share her experiences through the lives of people she knew and met, without ever being didactic, makes Nautanki Saala and Other Stories, an unputdownable book.  It is a book for everyone that I highly recommend.  It will certainly change, as she wished in her Preface, “the way you look at a bar dancer, a parlour masseuse, women who can’t become mothers and people in cities who bravely hide the longing of returning to a place they call home deep inside their heart.”

The book is available for sale on AmazonFlipkart.

Jael Silliman, born in Kolkata, was educated at Wellesley College, Mass., Harvard University, University of Texas, Austin. She received her doctoral degree in international education at Columbia University. She has written extensively on gender and economic development, and women’s movements in the developing world. ‘The Teak Almirah’, ‘Where Gods Reside: Sacred Places of Kolkata’, ‘Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women’s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope’ are some of her published works.

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