Home » It enriches us when lives lived in the margins storm the page,says Poonam Saxena

It enriches us when lives lived in the margins storm the page,says Poonam Saxena

by thesquadron.in
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Who is interested in the stories and lives of old people? Almost no one. In our aggressively youth-oriented society, people above a certain age — old parents, grandparents — are firmly pushed to the margins. Which is why it is so gratifying to see that Hindi writer Geetanjali Shree’s novel Ret Samadhi, translated as Tomb of Sand and now shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, has as its central character an 80-year-old woman.

In her writings, Shree often shows a keen, playful interest in older people. In her short story March, Ma Aur Sakura, a 70-year-old woman, the mother of the narrator, visits him in Japan. Initially, she’s afraid of stepping out; suppose she gets lost? Over time, the son finds that his mother has started using the subway system, and making friends. She’s switched her saris for a kurta-pyjama-waistcoat. And as the sakura trees start flowering, she too is smitten by Japanese cherry blossom fever. Shree leaves us with an image of the mother dancing in a park full of blooming sakuras.

Other Hindi writers have written about older women, even if those stories, set in a traditional society in an earlier time, are not as joyous. In Bhisham Sahni’s Chief ki Dawat, Shamnath’s American boss is coming over for dinner and Shamnath wants everything to be just so. But what is he to do with his old, shrunken, balding, rustic, timid, unsightly mother? He tries to hide her away but the boss runs into her; and is charmed by her. Delighted at this turn of events, Shamnath all but bullies his mother into singing a Punjabi folk song for his guest. He promises the American that she will make him an embroidered shawl, despite his mother’s feeble protests that her eyesight is too poor and she can’t do it. Chief ki Dawat is a piercing tale that makes the reader deeply uncomfortable — partly because, aren’t Shamnath’s impatience and selfishness familiar?

One of Mannu Bhandari’s best-known stories, Akeli, features one of her most memorable characters, Soma Bua, who lost her youth overnight when her young son died. Her husband left not long after. To alleviate her loneliness, Soma Bua keeps turning up, uninvited, at neighbours’ homes on festive occasions.

Read an excerpt from Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand

She tells herself she is doing everyone a great service, helping them out. But when she waits in vain for an invitation to a distant relative’s wedding, the penny finally drops. The story closes in the gathering gloom of a winter evening, with Soma Bua on the roof of her home, eyes still fixed on the lane below, knowing now that the invitation will not come.

Krishna Sobti too wrote brilliant short stories about older women. In Abhi Uss Din Hi Toh, Sakunti is an old widow who lives with her grown sons and their families. On a cold winter evening, when everyone has gone out and she is by herself, she looks back on her past, the happy years with her husband. The family returns and she wakes to find her son by her bed. She thinks, I’m old now; it is time to say goodbye.

We know that women’s stories have long been neglected. But older women’s stories are so few as to be almost non-existent. That’s why they are so precious. They render visible the generations who lived largely unseen, their happiness dependent on spouses, then children, then grandchildren. Sometimes they render visible the women who lived differently, seeking a wider kinship or a different purpose.

In Ret Samadhi / Tomb of Sand and its first-of-its-kind Booker nomination, one such woman now has the world stage.

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