The stories in Sucharita Dutta-Asane’s collection, Cast-Out and Other Stories are steeped in India – the place, the emotions, the paradoxes – but tug at them long enough and patriarchy in a multitude of forms, irrespective of geographies and cultures comes unraveling. The characters in these sixteen stories are not linked to one another. The settings too, vary - urban drawing rooms, moving trains, slums about to be bulldozed, Maoist villages where women are raped to teach them a lesson, a boat cruise on a brooding river. Things happen to the characters in Cast Out; things happen around them and force them to take a stand. The stories speak of those banished to the margins and how we have come to choose to ignore them.
These stories vibrate with the anxieties of our times. They ask questions. The author’s strength is eschewing over-determined meanings, shunning over-parented characters, letting ambiguity show the way to the ethical. Nothing provokes thought as the right question framed through the mouth of protagonist who is confronting hypocrisies, within herself or in the society.
In the title story, ‘Cast Out’, a menstruating woman, also the priest’s wife, is the one to break the taboo against praying and circles the temple perimeter, provoking an entire village, bringing to fore the patriarchal and cultural conspiracies thickly embedded like banyan roots in the temples’ walls.
The movement in these stories seems slight at times. For instance, the prose in the story ‘Eyes’ has a floating, ruminating quality that enters the reader’s psyche. Just Like the couple on the boat slowly gliding on a murky river surrounded by the jungle, you too feel trapped in the enchanted setting. There are tremendous currents beneath the surface. It is a deft unraveling, paralleled by the troubled dreams of the protagonist, of the unwitting couple’s brush with tiger poachers.
In ‘Fireflies’, the protagonist, who has been weaned on the fables of the patriarch, confronts her great grandfather’s land grabbing, murdering antecedents.
“What do I do with the stories I have to unlearn,” she asks.
These are difficult questions, and answers require a painful re-configuration of the self. Similarly, in ‘Half a Story,’ a do-gooder woman has to come to terms with the limits of her kindness. She is righteously proud of her work - teaching prostitutes’ children in a night school.
“Traditions and customs are meant to be, not broken into fragments. My work was shard that bled my family’s heart.”
But the real challenge occurs when these shards penetrate her own heart. Her triumphant sheltering of a prostitute’s daughter in face of opposition, evaporates when she discovers ties of blood with the child; and finds herself, her family, ‘mutating into our fears.’
The award-winning story, ‘Rear View’, also sets up a contrast between words and actions. The first-person narrator is compelled to face the immediacy and horror of sexual assault in an encounter with a rape victim. The woman journalist protagonist lives in a serene upper-class colony, is so self-assured, and polished. She is progressive and sexually liberated. Her world seems impervious to rapes. She memorably tells a younger, crime beat colleague who is upset at a horrendous rape, ‘to chill’. Her words come to haunt her when she is face to face with the hospitalized victim who turns out to be her next-door neighbor.
In the story ‘Fire’, a seemingly neutral narrator, Sharat, a journalist who covers the story of a Naxal village comes to know and trust the leader and his wife. He sees first-hand the brutality, the land grabbing, the continuing repression. When he witnesses the murder of Dileep, the leader and sees Savitri, his courageous wife, carrying the torch of the movement, he can remain neutral no more. Even though the narrative closes with the rape of Savitri, the wife, she rises with conviction to move on. The story relates the stark truth, how the war for land and resources is waged on women’s bodies, the ultimate battleground. The story, like a flicker of lightning, illuminates the power structures and misogyny in our social fabric, and subtly provokes reflection on how political and development agendas are tilted against the poorest.
In the magical story, ‘Dhara’, the ghost of a medieval queen in mourning protects the modern-day city on the banks of the same river, her medieval fort stands in times of communal violence.
The evocative story, ‘Night Song’, written in the second person, is an ode to the night, to a girl who is as dark as the night, a manifestation of Goddess Kali, who renounces the fixed attitudes, jokes, complexes that the society insists on forcing upon her and rides victorious into the night.
You get so carried away by the gorgeousness of the sentences and the power of the narrative that the debate at the heart of it is set aside enough. Long enough to keep you thinking, engaged and disturbed. That I think is the power of a good story, and why you must read this collection.
These stories, then, are about places and feelings and paradoxes familiar to any Indian; fascinating to any outsider. The poetic beauty in the sentences and deftly crafted narratives will provoke, engage and disturbed you deeply. Sucharita has a gift for transforming the acrimonious debates that haunt our public spaces into art. She peels off layers off social tragedies and dilemmas, and reveals the individual, human faces grappling with them. There is no whiff of moral superiority in her stories. Instead they challenge us to expand the circumference of our empathy.
Elsewhere in this issue excerpt from Cast Out and Other Stories by Sucharita Dutta-AsaneVarsha Tiwary finds her material and insights from being on the other side of the table - that the act of writing confers. All fodder for more stories. Her works are forthcoming in Shenandoah, Gargoyle and Caitlin Press.