“What are you looking at?” she asked her reflection. “What do you see? Do you see Medusa or Circe? Do you think I am worse than them, or better? Don’t you see I am stronger than Ahalya and Sita, Urvashi and Shoorpanakha? Do you prefer Kannagi or Draupadi to me?”
(A “demoness” whose rage takes the form of flowers that don’t fade, in Sukanya Venkatraghavan’s “The Rakshasi’s Rose-Garden”)
“What am I? Only cloud and water, my love. I am Elokeshi on the Bengali stage. I was Mah Laqa in Hyderabad, and a long time ago I was called Amrapali. In the coming years I will have more names and faces.”
(A courtesan plying her art, and pledging immortality, in Shreya Ila Anasuya’s “Gul”)
There’s always a risk in commissioning original stories for an anthology built around a specific theme or a word. Such books can (speaking from experience) become hard-to-control things: even when the stories are of high quality, some of them may acquire defiant lives of their own, or interpret the theme so loosely that the book feels like a ragbag of unconnected trinkets.
Given this, it’s notable that Magical Women – edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan and including stories by fourteen women writers with varied styles and concerns – feels like so much of a piece; it’s almost as if all the writers got together beforehand and discussed precisely what each of them would do. But it rarely happens that way, and such books shouldn’t be so schematized either – it’s more likely that the editorial brief was very clearly spelled out. Either way, the result is a collection that has real personality and a sense of individual voices, but also has echoes and links between the stories, all built around the theme of feminine strength, so often suppressed, patronized or marginalized (in both life and literature).
The “magical women” here include goddesses, rakshasis, creatures from other worlds, witches, statues, tawaifs, mythical heroines, contemporary Tinder users. They build, destroy or rebuild universes: sometimes with intent; sometimes incidentally, in the process of asserting themselves; sometimes even reluctantly. And the tones vary from the poetic intensity of Tashan Mehta’s “Rulebook for Creating a Universe” (about a young girl with a mind of her own, on an island made up of people tasked with spinning the Universe into existence) to the jet-black humour of Shweta Taneja’s “Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party” (where the “kitty party” of the title involves – among other things – an old “chudail” kneading cat flesh in a bucket with her toes) to the stream-of-consciousness sections in Asma Kazi’s “Bahameen” (a time-travel story, a parable about not being able to fit in, and a cry of outrage against a world where babies might die in hospital through oxygen deprivation).
Nearly all these stories have elements of fantasy, supernatural horror or science-fiction, which are slyly exaggerated takes on real-world dilemmas and compulsions. For instance, in SV Sujatha’s powerful “Gandaberunda” – which reminded me a little of Brian De Palma’s film Sisters – the protagonist Amaya has a secret self, a dark twin, that emerges and takes control when predatory men must be dealt with. (Personally I was rooting for her to get her claws out when her date began over-using her name – “You do drink like a fish, Amaya” – in that over-formal, patronising-sounding tone some people employ.) But do these sisters live in harmony, or is there a cannibalistic side to their relationship – that’s a question you might find yourself asking. And, by extension: what happens when women negotiating possibly dangerous worlds – like online dating – glide between dual personalities, one that wants to explore and experiment, the other that feels the need to be tethered and cautious?
Then there is Shreya Ila Anasuya’s “Gul”, a haunting account of the courtesan world, told in the voice of a woman who works at an 1850s Lucknow establishment and falls deeply in love with another dancer named Gulbadan… who mysteriously vanishes one day after an encounter with a British soldier. Again, while this story is “non-realistic” at the narrative level, its effect lies partly in the contrast between the far-reaching influence of tawaif culture and the constraints that individual courtesans (so many of them anonymous for ever) would have faced in their own time. Here is a way of life that still casts its spell, across time and space, on the modern world: through passed-down stories, through love, though frightening new contraptions like the gramophone – and perhaps even through a woman who travels and transforms through the epochs.
Other stories are about goddesses pushed into unleashing their powers. Sejal Mehta’s “Earth and Evolution Walk into a Bar…” (the title is surprisingly accurate!) takes the form of a conversation between the human personas adopted by Earth (Mahi) and Evolution (Sanga), but read the ebbs and flows of their exchange and you’ll find a comment on men and women, their different approaches to talking, arguing, world-shaping. In this story, Mahi might hold the power to wipe out all human history with a single action, but in Krishna Udayasankar’s “Apocalyptica” the goddesses who decide it’s time to wind things up must go about it in a more complicated way, more attentive to the current state of the world – “as far as electronics and technology went, our divinity had ceased to affect these things a long time ago.” It takes time and effort to demolish things their male counterparts have built.
This angry-deities motif also finds lighter form in Trisha Das’s “Tridevi Turbulence”, in which the goddesses Parvati, Ganga, Lakshmi and Saraswati play snippy games of one-upwomanship. In this quirky look at how the ancient world might coexist with the modern one (a running theme in Das’s writings), an irritated Parvati waves her fingers when yet another of those human-driven airplanes approaches the mountain she is sitting on, and a blizzard envelops the peak, causing the plane to beat a hasty retreat; in response, Ganga diverts an avalanche that might have killed a group of climbers further down.
Even as they maintain their distinct personalities, the stories often converse with each other in intriguing ways. There are too many such links to mention here, but to take a more obvious one: Shveta Thakrar’s “The Carnival at the Edge of the Worlds” and Nikita Deshpande’s “The Girl Who Haunted Death” both draw on well-known myths – about the lovers Nala and Damayanti, and about Savitri defying the God of Death when he comes to claim her husband – that appeared in the Mahabharata’s “Vana Parva” (as stories that the exiled Pandavas hear from visiting Rishis). The Savitri of Deshpande’s story doesn’t just walk seven steps with Death (to establish their friendship), instead they spend hundreds of years together as he/she adopts new forms – this narrative is about the mysterious rules of love, attraction and sacrifice as much as it is a reworking of a triumphal old tale. And in “The Carnival at the Edge of the Worlds”, the protagonist Prajakta is a puppet that plays the role of Damayanti in a cosmic carnival that borders all worlds. After a series of surreal adventures – frightening, because “she’d never pulled her own string before”, but also liberating – she discovers her true nature, and learns that no story is ever “just a story”.
As this suggests, a running theme is the resisting of straitjackets and the finding of new possibilities. In Kiran Manral’s “Stone Cold”, a statue comes alive and shows a flesh-and-blood woman named Diksha – a resident of a sterile, strictly monitored dystopian world – one important dimension of being human. (Both Diksha and the statue in different ways escape their shackles or pedestals, even if only once in a long while.) Samhita Arni’s “The Demon Hunter’s Dilemma” – about a woman hunting a creature called a pisacha on her guru’s instructions – is an allegory, very relevant to our time or to any time, about the end of innocence and gullibility, about facing the possibility that the things you were brought up to believe were wrong and that your parents or masters may have their own failings. And even on the primordial island in “Rulebook for Creating a Universe” – supposedly a place that exists before anything has come into being – there are “rules”, which decree that a girl must never be allowed to stitch a sun, a girl must not go into the lotus fields…you get the drift.
At the same time, there are reminders that rebellion takes different forms depending on context. “Tara and I are definitely not thrilled about soya pulao,” says the narrator of “Bahameen”, yearning for a beautiful bone broth and angry at vegetarianism being thrust on her by a goon squad. “I've become vegan,” announces the narrator of “Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party”, which offers a neat, witty inversion of the “transgressing girl” trope: in this case, a “chudail” decides that she is done with drinking kitty blood and wants to “go straight, wear formal clothes, go to an office, buy an apartment, marry someone nice”. But of course, in both stories the characters face disapproval.
Among the pieces I found particularly engaging were “The Girl Who Haunted Death”, “Gandaberunda”, “Gul” and “Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party”, but picking favourites is a child’s game, given that there isn’t really a weak link here. A few small missteps or instances of awkwardness, maybe: though “Tridevi Turbulence” is one of the most fun stories, it ends with a pedantic footnote about the polluting and drying up of the river Ganga – a subtext that the engaged reader should be able to decipher without being spoonfed thus. Ruchika Roy’s “The Gatekeeper’s Intern” has an enthralling premise (the survivor of an accident that killed her parents is contacted, months later, by a “gatekeeper” who invites her back to the world she had briefly entered while in coma), but the story becomes a little over-expository, too much “this happened, then this happened” instead of letting the conversations lead it forward organically – perhaps the idea lends itself to a longer, less rushed treatment.
But on the whole, this is a stimulating, multilayered book, driven by imagination, style – and, understandably, anger. “Rage was her magic … Rage was her rose-garden” we are told of the protagonist in Venkatraghavan’s story, and this is true of many other pieces. In both “Apocalyptica” and “Earth and Evolution Walk Into a Bar…” the persecution or rape of helpless children becomes fuel for the protagonists’ wrath, and for the sense that everything must be rebooted wholesale, nothing more moderate will do. “The world has already been destroyed a thousand times over in just the last second,” Parvati tells her husband Shiva during a fierce monologue in “Apocalyptica”, “It crumbles to meaningless dust whenever a God turns away.”
So there is anger at the plunder of the natural world, there are allegories about how “male” ways of doing things have taken so much out of the earth without giving enough back, there are glimpses of new spaces marked by rose gardens, lotus patches, puppet shows, angry tattoos. But there is also humour and detachment, the capacity to hold back and reflect on the nature of storytelling – on the role it can play in weaving new worlds or turning universes inside out.
[My earlier Scroll reviews and author interviews are here]