It Begins at Home and Other Short Stories
By Sanjukta Dasgupta
Virasat Art Publication 2021
A deep grey eye on an orange hard cover says it all. Or does it?… Sanjukta Dasgupta’s second volume of short stories comprising sixteen stories are the multiple perspectives of a roving eye that is quick to detect the injustices and aberrations that normally go unnoticed. What emerges is a sensitive commentary on the hypocrisies of social conditioning without any attempt at oratorial or psychological manipulation.
Perhaps the most interesting development in the Indian English short story is the emergence of writers who devote themselves exclusively to the shorter fictional form. Poets as Keki N. Daruwalla, Jayanta Mahapatra and Shiv K. Kumar have published short stories with varying degrees of success. A number of women short story writers as Manju Kak, Bulbul Sharma, Neelum Saran Gour etc. have also made their debut in the nineties offering a first-hand response to life in contemporary India, generally the urban middle class – the stratum of society they know best.
Dasgupta, who began her creative journey with her poetry volume Snapshots, sets off with “Just Another Suicide” and “Bhajan Ram’s Last Night”, both stories underlining the plight of the marginalized – the poor woman Kalyani and the Dalit pig-farmer Bhajan Ram. However, as we proceed to “Hair-raising” and “It Begins at Home”, the urban-rural divide collapses with Dasgupta’s stark presentation of the abuse of women’s bodies. The former story based on a newspaper clipping gives a horrific account of the brutal killing of a village girl by a local ruffian whose advances she had rejected. “It Begins at Home” stands out in its portrayal of sexual abuse within the household and its consequent critiquing of the traditional family structure that seeks to ignore such atrocities. The response of the victim’s mother is no surprise when she tells her daughter: ‘…such incidents happen within many, many families. These are never revealed, never discussed, never reported. The family is a sacred space, dear Mimi.’ The dysfunctional family finds its symbolic portrayal in the dysfunctional sexuality of the abused who miscarries repeatedly despite a contented conjugal life, thus deprived of the satisfaction of a complete, healthy family.
As we go further, the three concluding stories “Adjust”, “Retake” and “Freedom” reveal the myriad complexities of modern life, where despite educational qualifications and economic independence, middle and upper-class women continue to be at the receiving end – a view that is akin to the writings of Ashapurna Devi and Suchitra Bhattacharya. The stories explore and demystify the many dimensions of one of the most celebrated social liaisons – marriage. The veneer of romance is peeled to the core to expose incompatibility, faithlessness, contradictions and ambiguities. The helplessness of the woman who has been socially conditioned to think that her husband’s house is her only home finds a new dimension in the plight of the average graduate slum girl Mira who finds herself among ‘cruel strangers’, ‘locked’ into a prosaic, loveless wedlock causing her madness and despair.
Dasgupta’s keen sensibility fishes out memories of a past riddled with tales of pride and pain in the sight of the burning library in “Charred Dreams”, a violent enactment of the ideological conflict between the partition migrants from East Bengal and a post-independence generation that lacked both morality and vision. “Good Friday 1930”, likewise, reminds the reader of 18 April 1930 in the words of the renowned revolutionary Surya Sen (Masterda):
Never forget the 18th of April 1930, the day of the Easter Rebellion in Chittagong. Keep ever fresh in your memory the fight of Jalalabad,, Julda, Chandernagore and Dhalghat. Write in red letters in the core of your hearts the names of all patriots who have sacrificed their lives at the altar of India’s freedom. …Long live revolution. Vande Mataram.
Considering Dasgupta’s style, which is both racy and lucid, there are ample glimpses of her own orientation as a renowned English academic. There are references to Shakespeare, Kafka, Camus, Sartre, Tagore, Robin Hood, Hamlet, The Three Musketeers, etc. and there are characters associated with academia as Mrs Gupta (“Bird’s Eye View”) and Prof Suchandra Roy who tries to counsel students in distress (“Distress”), or when Dr Bose (in “Just Another Suicide”) mulls over the Greek origin of the medical term ‘hysterectomy’. Indeed, the wide range of issues that Dasgupta’s book of stories offers, only makes one aware of the disturbing trend of disintegration and alienation of the contemporary Indian social structure through discrimination, mismatches, generation gap, pitiless materialism and a general apathy, all of which ensure us an engrossing must-read.