The planet called earth has been a lonely place for the women. You move across the continents and across the societies and can see that the fair sex is treated more as some sort of asset than as normal human being. Some societies, we feel, places the women on a higher pedestal but that too is a ploy of the male-centric society to control the feminine power. In India, it must be remembered, the Ganika and Devdasi systems were also an acceptable part of the same society which refers to women as Devi. In some societies, especially in the Middle East, women are supposed to be the gifts of God, so they should always be kept gift wrapped. The various kinds of burqas and veils were invented to keep them covered.
The sound of women’s loneliness and the eagerness to break free from the manacles of the male-centric social norms reverberate in many of the stories of this collection of short stories by the seasoned author Namita Gokhale.
‘Life in Mars’, the opening story, tells us about the aloneness of Madhu Sinha, a widow and a mother of three ‘duplicitous sons’ who have virtually abandoned her. As she is fighting with her solitude and a debilitating illness, the arrival of Udit Narain, a young man who feels chasing a girl or a job is sheer waste of time, suddenly ignites a desire to live her life again. The author describes the dilemma as well as the eagerness of a middle aged woman while planning to enter in to a new relationship. The title story, The Habit of Love, also has a widow as the protagonist. But unlike Madhu, the main character of this story is not alone and has her daughters by her side but that doesn’t stop her from grieving perpetually for the loss of her long dead husband. When she goes on a vacation with her daughters to Nepal, one of her daughters, after seeing the mountain peaks, asks her: how does a mountain know it is a mountain?’ Discomfited by the question she travels back to her happy days and thinks of her husband who might have given a perfect answer to this question. And there she realises how she has internalised the pain she had received by losing her husband and how ‘the habit of grief’ has created walls between her and her daughters. The opening sentence of this story is very thought-provoking and it reads: The habit of grief can be as insidious as the habit of love.
There is another outstanding story that comments upon the position of a woman in our society. In ‘Love’s Mausoleum’, Malika is deserted by her husband for not bearing any child for him. She visits Taj Mahal and discovers that Shahjahan had built Taj Mahal for his favourite wife Mumtaz. And , she is outraged when the guide explains to her about the tombs built outside the Taj Mahal by emperor Shahjahan for his two other wives because (unlike Mumtaz) they were childless. Time has changed, but not the attitude of male chauvinistic society, she angrily thinks.
There are two stories which have two famous female characters from Mahabharata as their protagonists. In one story, Kunti tells us about her dilemma to reveal that Karna is her son. Kunti as mother craves to hug her first born but the fear of social stigma is so huge that she let her son go. What if Kunti were a man? In the other story a maid servant of Qandhari, wife of king Dhrutrashtra, tells us about her queen’s struggle as a woman, as a wife and as a mother. In both the stories, Kunti and Qandhari are not portrayed as the larger than life mythological characters but as the regular women who have their own set of dreams and insecurities.
Each of the thirteen stories is written in Namita’s signature style.