It is hard to be a woman and be dispossessed of what is yours. Or even believe that those little things (from rights to books to public places) do not belong to you. In these times of hate and fire, a Muslim woman—a marginal among the marginalised—is more a labour than an identity. Such declaration can probably be the letimotiv of Nighat Gandhi and the 13 stories she’s collected in her new book, Waiting. An absent-minded reader may fall into this tome like from the top of a spiral stairs. Gandhi is not simply placing words and paragraphs one after the other, for the sake of art: she is organising a book that mirrors her own travels as a woman (as a Muslim, a Sufi, a mother,) defying the darkness around her.
From the dedication of the book, Nighat Gandhi claims a territory (Allahabad), as her prose claims slowly, painstakingly, the voices of other women, the same women generation after generation. No, she is not ‘speaking on their behalf’ or ‘representing’ them; the author of Waiting is reporting, like a chronicler does after a strenuous trip, a hard experience. She narrates much in the way Eduardo Galeano used to portrait the wretched peoples in Latin America he dared to visit and document for over six decades.
Sometimes describing exemplary women, sometimes victims and every now and then rebels and women in love. A pinch of honesty must be added here: the stories are of irregular quality. The directness of Gandhi’s style is not always as effective as in her articles published everywhere. Something is missing in Waiting, some passages are not compelling enough ... though the themes are just the same for fiction and op-ed.
One might as well say some of the stories are like the worn-out pieces of cloth you can find in any (Indian) kitchen, or like old table covers with small little holes carved by time and the threads undone on an edge. Those imperfections show not just in style; they appear because she is (sadly) narrating silenced known stories once again. Or, just maybe, like at court, Nighat Gandhi writes these stories to attest her claim before a reader judge.
In ‘Lingerie’, we witness how women are digested by that structural oppression many men still call marriage. The sadness and frustration it produces, like baggage over a woman’s soul that not even a white male therapist is able *-to discern. A raw text, not really captivating but then, again, art is not the end. In ‘A Stich in Time’ more of the same occurs. It could be that Gandhi tried to say too much here, out of a pattern, and she lost some focus, some of the threads.
Then ‘Shaming, Shaving’ comes in. A short walk around a matter that produces disgust, since we don’t remember when. An issue in fact disgusting, not by its nature but out of the obscure denigrated way men deal with it (and some women too) denying females any right over their bodies and menstruation; faking religion, exerting dominion like most religions do, to be sincere. A trio of short stories clustered, as ‘Slut Series’ is perhaps the highest point of the book. Elegant, ironic urgent and respectful. These are episodes dealing with more or less the same idea: women transcending their own (imposed) social condition one way or the other.
This need of transcendence happens too in ‘Panjpik Chowk,’ where unconditional love struggles to blossom, surrounded by moralistic pricks and righteous males. Love looking for a chance in the darkness. Lesbic love as real as any other, breathing beyond the illusion of normality. A love hidden as a treasure in the middle of this book.
But the reader should always remember Waiting is not about the other as an objective matter but about the difference in a sensible manner. Do not fall down the stairs. Nighat Gandhi is telling her stories with the knowledge of the insider, setting them up in scenarios where she’s been, as her characters have. Schematic or free in structure, with her short fictions she is trying a way for anybody to understand. The stories are not real and yet they happen everyday, everywhere.
If this book is seen as a travelogue to the feminine darkness women didn’t ask for, following this journey of the soul can also make you feel a bit much, like a curious boy entering his mother’s room on a summer afternoon. Looking for nothing, the kid will open drawers and boxes, he will look into the almirah and the purses too. Smelling, touching, discovering. Peeking into her inner world. In Waiting, though, mom is there too, patiently letting him dig and apprehend what constitutes her life.
Enters a man, old and lonely. ‘Sharmaji Shoes’ dwells in solitude, the masculine version of it. This old man feels the void created by women’s absence. The story is as simple as they come. The man is too, like an aged crying baby. And just then a line or two of tenderness with an old soldier, longing for his first wife, a symbol of romance and happiness.
‘Sunday Morning’ is another elevated point of Waiting. Through the eyes of young girl we see the tough life of Afghan refugees after the war; any war. You can see children starve and eat leftovers during Ramzan. You can see a girl selling eggs and growing faster to help her mother. You can see Satan sitting on the tandoor of a family cursed by the greed of others.
Idiotic men, fake love. You can find them here. And solidarity, in a peculiar way, displayed over the lines of ‘The Rapist’s Wife’. Unleashing her creativity, Nighat Gandhi reunites two raped women (one is his wife) in an improbable dialogue. She tries to build a bridge between both but the dialogue is rocky and it doesn’t help the story flow. Sometimes the need (of telling what is in her mind and heart) clouds the care for craft.
Close to the end, comes ‘Arzi,’ an exercise in loneliness. The narrator wanders in search of company, praying in silence to find someone. Getting an answer in a way, holding on to hope on several occasions. The atmosphere in this text being like a dream: It was a Thursday in March, a vague kind of day, neither Spring nor Summer. A tree I saw on my morning walk near the shrine had stopped me with its sudden greenness (p. 109).
Other stories deal with sadness and self-pity. The incertitude of what future will be for women alone (when children leave) or moving away from husbands and parents (even both.) Being alone, like a very well-known riverside where women arrive after half their lives have passed. As the protagonist of ‘Kick the Dunya’ knows, a point in a map full of unknown places: tired, bored, and boring, the emotions of a middle class woman of a certain age.
In the end, this is a book of travel testimonies (or something of the sort.) It’s only that the territories charted here seem to be remote, the landscapes look familiar and exotic at the same time: men do not cross them if not at times of war (of conquest) or looking for shelter, defeated. Women do, like convicts or prisoners of that war. The women created by Nighat Gandhi are in fact as real and invisible as those who live in this darkness every day, waiting, in Allahabad, Kabul or any Muslim village in the burning lands of Asia. Women waiting to be seen and heard, waiting for justice, for respect ... waiting for love.