‘There are very few answers that will satisfy you in the end’

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 23 June 2018

Deepa Agarwal’s You Cannot Have All The Answers And Other Stories... is filled with interesting characters, some of whom lie deep within us. The author tells us more about them

Stories about women are many, but not all of them adhere to the stereotypical image of how a woman should be in Deepa Agarwal’s collection of short stories titled, You Cannot Have All The Answers And Other Stories... published by Niyogi Books. Written over a period of 20 years, and published in various publications across the country, USA and Australia, some stories in this collection have also won awards. 

Over to Agarwal... 

How is it to write about women, especially those who have gone against society’s rule?

Well…some of these stories are responses to the incidents that have raised questions in my mind from childhood. I recall an older girl in my neighbourhood who eloped and was hauled back by her father. As usually happens, she was castigated by one and all. However, she happened to have a sunny nature and didn’t seem to let it drag her down. She was compelled to drop out of college and would sometimes land up at our place to pass time. I struggled to reconcile this warm-hearted, bubbly girl with the reputation she was tarred with — of someone really bad. 

The mother in my story (The Back Verandah) is an understanding person who goes against the tide and acknowledges Kusum’s humanity, though in the end, the consequences are unexpected. 

Can you elaborate on a mother-daughter relationship?That’s never an easy  one. You have a couple of them in the book.

In our culture, we consider family relationships perfect and sacrosanct, despite what we see in real life. A mother is considered a goddess, consequently a lot of fiction side skirts the issue of mother-daughter conflict. Even in fairy tales, it is the stepmother who is evil, not the biological mother. 

But as we all know, in a society that is crazy for sons, often mothers emotionally reject daughters, because they blame the girls for the harsh words they have to face on their birth. Patriarchal norms also influence mothers to favour sons over daughters. 

Again, all women don’t have strong maternal instincts. And it’s a fact that many daughters too are uncaring, selfish and greedy. In The Crossing, you have the situation of a mother forcing her daughter to marry a man against her wishes. The daughter, Anuradha, leaves home, naively believing she is making a strong statement. But when her mother ignores her letter and doesn’t coax her to return, she is shocked. Her mother’s silence unnerves her: A silence like a still, dark well that goaded one to throw stones at it… Her mother doesn’t love her enough to want her to come back, she thinks. She was keen to get Anuradha married because she wanted to …to dust her hands off and be free of her maternal duties… It is the gap between the real and the Hindi movie image of a mother that I’m exploring here. 

In Doorways Without Doors, it’s the daughter who contemplates her guilt at not being able to take care of her mother in her old age — the mother who was emotionally dependent on her. A fairly common situation in contemporary times when so many children settle abroad and elderly parents have to make do with the hired help. The truth is, in most Indian families, it is considered a son’s duty to look after his aged parents. Daughters, even when they want to, are discouraged by spouses and in-laws. And yet it’s hard to abandon those bonds. 

There is a recurrent theme in the book that asking too many questions may not get you all the answers...Is that meant for the millennial women, who want to know everything?
 

You have raised an intriguing point. These stories, as I mentioned, have been written over a long period of time. Rather than the millennial women, I think I was trying to tell myself something. It was a restless, questing phase of my existence when I wanted more from my life than I could realistically get. 

It’s more about the romanticism of youth, when you are naïve enough to believe the world will change for you. It takes a long time to realise that you have to change to survive in it. 

Here, I don’t mean that you should let go of your dreams, but try to find a way around the rock in your path, rather than squander your energy attempting to lift it. And then…there is no mathematical exactitude to existence. There are very few answers that will satisfy you in the end.  

The Cradle Story has a little selfishness at its core. How is it to hold a mirror to our emotions, which are not always of the nurturing and selfless love?

Interesting that you noticed it. Someone else mentioned that there was something frightening about the seventh sister Meena’s determination to possess her brother’s cradle. This story was inspired by a neighbour’s account of a visit to Pakistan with her mother, who was one among a family of seven sisters that had to flee during Partition. 

She talked about how her mother burst into tears when she found that a neighbour had preserved their only brother’s cradle because she felt it was auspicious. I thought it was a terrific story, but it took a long time to fictionalise it. 

Now where my short stories are concerned, I don’t try to plot much, I let the narratives find their own path and the characters shape themselves. I originally imagined it as a story of communal harmony, but the seventh sister hijacked it with her grievances. 

So much of the writing process is unconscious and subterranean!
However, I feel it is important for a writer to hold the mirror to the core of darkness within us, which remains hidden beneath the veil of conventional attitudes. The truth is, women are not always nurturing and selfless.

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