Unbox Zindagi

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 13 April 2019

At a literary event in the city, short stories written by Gauri Deshpande and Elfriede Jelinek were read out by Theatre Group 001 artists. A report

Several small groups of women were waiting in the lounge of a city auditorium, for the cultural event to start. Surely, that’s not an uncommon sight, especially in Pune. What made it a curious affair was the subject of the programme that the women had queued up to attend. Theatre Group 001, comprising Manjiri Paranjape, Gauri Lagoo and Vandana Bokil-Kulkarni, were going to read out stories penned by Indian litterateur Gauri Deshpande and Austrian Nobel Laureate, Elfriede Jelinek on Thursday evening. 

The programme titled Goshti Gaurichya Va Jelinekchya has already caused a ripple in the city’s cultural and literary circle, and it was testified with the presence of art critic Dr Shyamala Vanarase attending the event held on Thursday evening.

Those who are well-versed with late Deshpande’s writing and views know it is well nigh impossible to classify her writing. She wrote on women, but rejected the label of ‘feminist writer’, as rightly pointed by Kulkarni in her introductory piece. Deshpande, who was granddaughter of Maharshi Dhondo Keshav Karve and daughter of anthropologist Irawati Karve and academician Dinkar Karve, talked about marriages, but her protagonists hardly ever settled ‘for a happily ever after’. The largely middle class women in their 40s-50s thus piqued our interest. Deshpande’s heroines, even now in the so-called progressive, liberal, modern world, would stand out, perhaps isolated. Firstly, because they had a mind of their own. Secondly, they were always swimming against the tide, trying to be responsible for their choices. How would the traditionally rooted women relate to Deshpande’s writing and her protagonists? 

Austrian Jelinek is no different. Perhaps a stranger in our midst. But her heroines, they are all present, within us. We just need to scratch a little deeper. 

Jelinek’s writing stems from different stimuli. She wanted to vomit out words, because she could no longer contain them in. She was born to a Czech Jew father and a Roman-Catholic German mother and the latter forced her to study music and become an artist. The pressure was insurmountable for Jelinek, who was also assisting her psychological ill father. Jelinek developed anxiety disorder and stayed at home for a year, unable to step out. She turned to writing as a therapy. When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004, she couldn’t attend the ceremony, because of her disorder; she was afraid to fly. But her writing is far from being confined. Deeply layered, sprinkled with self-deprecating humour, piercing writing on love, sexuality, it doesn’t adhere to social stereotypes.

Jelinek’s short story Paula written in 1975, read out by Lagoo, left the audience numb. A 16-year-old girl/woman discovers that she has conceived and instead of it being a joyous occasion like we have been fed, Paula worries that she might lose her figure. And, yet she embraces motherhood, being beaten up by her husband, who whiles away his earnings at the liquor den. Day after day, she brings him home from the den, glad that it’s evening and not at the crack of the dawn. Glad that she has the energy in her to bring him home, despite the growing baby bump. The weight gain bothers her, but she can’t do much about it, nor about her fading looks. One wonders if she wants it? Does Paula feel trapped by these beauty notions? Why does she turn to prostitution to buy some toiletries...When Lagoo reads out, ‘Mazya ghatasphotanantar (divorce)’ you suddenly sigh in relief, glad that she has taken the reins of her life in her hands. But, there is more to follow...

The first story of the evening, Christop Barobarcha Ek Diwas, penned by Jelinek and read out by Paranjape, paints a wintry October day before us. The heroine is outside a cinema stall, watching a man, admiring his good looks unabashedly. We all know the male gaze, checking us out, top to toes. So when the girl admires a boy, him being aware of her, she on the brink of excitement and admitting so without any qualms — is it different? It’s more than that. It’s about accepting your feelings, even if they are intense. Always, always the feelings for opposite sex are couched in insipid terms, set within a context of love, courting, marriage and so on. Christop, the boy-man does tread the familiar path of pandering — becoming a couple, discussing breakfast, buying new curtains, driving down their (yet to be born) kids to his mom in the country... yawn! The heroine kicks him out. 

Deshpande’s Ohoti and Aata Kuthe Jashil Tolambhatta take two episodes from a mundane married life. Aata Kuthe... has a woman talking about her decision to get married. The world thinks that she is walking down the socially accepted path. She gets married because she has done her MA and is not sure what to do next. Also, Dhananjay asks her, ‘Will you marry me?’ She then tells us that their marriage could be considered ‘modern’ for their time, because they had a court marriage and instead of going to Mahabaleshwar for honeymoon, they visited a jungle lodge.

In the first flush of marriage, deliberately or indeliberately, one partner makes an unkind remark, that results in a festering wound. The heroine says, ‘Shiklelya shanpananacha ek badhir thipka manachya kopryat kayam rahila’. As years go by, she takes up a job, and then gets into an adulterous relationship, but she doesn’t think that this man, a novelist, and their affection for each other, has anything to do with Dhana and her. They are different people, unrelated, she says, and chucks out the guilt. But guilt is persistent in its chase... and well, the climax is ironical, typical of Deshpande’s writing. 

Ohoti is again a tale of marriage. We all think what can a marriage offer, besides being limiting to the people who are wedded together. Here, Raja and Vimala have come to warn their friend, of her husband’s predilection towards Nirmala. ‘He has married Nirmala’, Raja says in a sudden rush. ‘Take a moral stand,’ he urges her.  

“Nirmala...he has married Nirmala. Ram must be really self-conscious about his looks in our marriage. Why else would he marry Nirmala, she is so ordinary..,” she wonders. 

On her own, her brains insists on presenting the tell-tale signs, his disappearance on and off, the disappearance of his clothes and so on. When Ram returns, he tries to tell her something, but she fends him off, giving him no chance to speak the truth. When Vimala calls on Monday and asks, ‘What have you decided?’ she replies, ‘What should I decide? My husband hasn’t told me anything?’ A lot is ignored and unheard in marriage. 

The subjects, the stories are well-crafted and universal. But they reach out to us more effectively through the narrators, who infuse them with tenderness and love and speak as the characters would, telling their tales. Jelinek’s works were translated into Marathi by Maithili Dekhne-Joshi and Sai Kulkarni.

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