Review: The Blue Women by Anukrti Upadhyay
Short stories about real women and their complicated relationships with the world and with themselves
Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, in the introduction to Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman once wrote, “If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.”
And why just Murakami? Neil Gaiman and Ali Smith, among others, have all spoken about how underrated the short story is. The abruptness of the text, the brevity in its creation, and the evanescence of the idea, is what makes the form different.
The reader gets a glimpse of the form at its best in Anukrti Upadhyay’s debut collection of short stories — The Blue Women — which delves into the familiar space of real women and their complicated relationships with the world and more importantly, themselves.
In 12 stories, Upadhyay creates 12 different worlds of wonder, each not so different from the other, and yet each independent in its own being. In imagining real women charged with realistic issues, she weaves in hints of believable magic realism.
The stories intelligently address a myriad of social issues like violence against women, everyday sexism, and mental health. It is all done in very delicate yet complex narratives.
In Sona, for example, a 16-year-old girl is obsessed with her mother’s second husband. An adolescent just beginning to transform into a woman, and on the brink of sexual awakening starts resenting her mother. Funnily, Sona is a science scholar who believes in the power of experiments that prove what’s right and wrong. Though she feels imagination is imprecise, she lives in an imaginative world and believes her mother’s partner reciprocates her feelings. Among other things, the story touches on issues of body image and unstable self-esteem, which if unaddressed, plague young adults.
The men in the book are described exactly as how most men are. They want to be better but often end up not being so. Their empathy, their concern is limited and burdened with conditions. They have their best interests in mind, but for some reason, it all falls short.
In Dragons in the Garden, for example, when Anita is worried about sending her son for a play date to a notorious family’s house, her husband dismisses her apprehension with “a woman’s thing” comment.
In Dhani, a modern architect couple argue over the infestation of tiny frogs in their 1BHK flat. The husband claims that seeing the creatures was a figment of his wife’s imagination, something that’s just “in her head”.
Made in Heaven explores Ujla and Pankaj’s arranged marriage. Pankaj learns of his wife’s wishes and interests that she keeps hidden from him only after she meets with a serious accident. Her personal diary reveals all the things she never had the courage to say to him – her love for classical music, her desire to not have a second child. It’s only when she’s in the ICU, struggling to stay alive, that he realises how Ujla has been carrying the weight of his expectations. Giving up her own PhD, moving to Singapore and starting a family because that’s the right thing do and because that’s the perfect wife that Pankaj expects her to be.
The titular story — The Blue Women — deserves a special mention. The protagonist is a female cab driver who prefers longer, intercity routes (Mumbai-Pune) and unusual working hours (early mornings and late nights). She does so to avoid taking on “blue women” passengers – women who seem perfectly normal when they board her taxi, but appear physically battered, bruised, and disfigured, bearing a faint blue flame like glow around them in her rear view mirror. They seem destined for a sad end.
Upadhyay’s stories are terrifyingly beautiful with a precise clarity amid the chaos that makes each one extraordinary. With great story telling and every ingredient that a reader looks for in literary fiction, this anthology is a clear winner.
Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.