Madhulika Liddle has written historical whodunits, and articles on travel and cinema but is best known as a short story writer. In 2003 she was the overall winner of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Short Story Competition. The previous year she received Honorable Mention for another story in the same competition. Silent Fear won the Femina Thriller Contest in June 2001. My Legally Wedded Husband and Other Stories was published by Westland in 2013. Woman to Woman Stories was published by Speaking Tiger in 2017
I preserve. I nurture. I elevate.
Review by Arvind Passey
I was helplessly spell-bound and I’m sure, like the author, ‘I loved it all. I love travelling, so I was happy just’ reading and ‘drinking it all in.’ The stories in the collection took me into little nooks and corners of strange minds and unknown perceptions and I loved going there. From the unlawfully wedded husband to the co-traveler who could hear the bucket clanking – right there in front of him where nobody was standing! From the discreet Mr. George to Varun and Deeksha to Verma ji… all characters who enter stories carrying their own surprise gifts for the reader… and why just praise mere mortals, even the lowly phone with the ability to capture sound bytes enters with its own mind and plan, almost like the howling waves of Tranquebar do… and you, as a reader, like and wait for the next twist in the next story!
Yes, the twists are what dominate the stories of Madhulika Liddle… they’re just there as if they could not have gone elsewhere… they belong to the story. The story would somehow not remain the story it is unless you actually transport that twist and weave it in the story. And even as you, as a reader, go along with the characters on a drive from Pondicherry to Tranquebar in one of the stories, you know the twist will be sprung at you somewhere at some turn. And so you calmly read the delicious and effortless prose that she writes…
The drive from Pondicherry to Tranquesbar is three hours, and you see Tamil Nadu in all its many colors. There are crowded towns, all charmless and cluttered; there are major temples – Chidambaram, for instance, which Taatoo told me we must stop at on our way back – and there’s the countryside. Green-yellow paddy fields, fringed with serrated rows of toddy-palms, their fan-leaves sticking up like old toothbrushes into the deep blue skies. Little roadside ponds… No, I’m not here to tell you what the twists are or were, nor will analyse if the twists were correct nor get into the morality or immorality of them… I’m here to simply tell you that if ever your mind wishes to be excited and wants to move out to savor some wild moments like the lawfully wedded wife did, you’d agree with this:
My heart was pounding, but I was suddenly feeling deliciously wicked too. Adultery can give you an adrenalin rush.
‘Ah!’ you’ll say with a nod, ‘so I know where all the excitement and twists and the turns are emerging from.’ I will simply smile and tell you that each of the twelve stories in the collection follows a different path in your life and fill it with anticipation. The anticipation that will keep you on the edge of your chair until you reach the last sentence of the story!
Let me also admit here that I did not read all the stories in the collection at one go. Nor was I in any hurry to get over with and then reach out for another book. The first story that I read, and it wasn’t done in a chronological order, made me keep the book aside and let the cold wickedness in it settle down in my heart. For days I just thought of what happened… it’s a mere story, my mind said, but look at what happened. Look at what… well, it was then that I decided to let each of the stories come to me after a gap and, believe me that was the best thing to have happened. The charm of holding a book with stories that make the nerves tingle and send telegrams to other parts of the body doesn’t happen every time. Yes, the plan could’ve flopped if the other stories failed to keep up with the expectant tempo that the mind now sought – but it did not happen, not even once.
The stories in the collection ‘entertain, amuse – but always end with a twist in the tale that leaves a few goosebumps.’ So be prepared to emerge like the misspelt and untidy little note that Hourie showed in one of the stories… or like the moonlit cropland, grey and dim, each field with its own scarecrow from On the Night Train… the stories move along with deceptive simplicity and as you tell yourself that this one reminds you of what happened with one of your friends, it snaps back at you with the suddenness of an angered bitch taking her peaceful nap in the middle of your path! Well, it is then that you begin to go deep into your own life to ferret out incidents that may have turns and twists… this is the sort of effect the stories have. I’m afraid this book might just be responsible to give us all an entire generation of writers who write on the fiendishly clever way that the macabre in life hides behind poetic dawns and sensuous dusks! Each story confidently says: I preserve. I nurture. I elevate. Yes, every spine-chilling moment does, in the end, elevate a reader to some place where he becomes more perceptive!
Is there anything else that I want the reader of this review to know? Yes, I want to tell you not to trust these stories one bit. They will reach out for your insides with their cold and clammy intent and not weaken their hold until you listen to what they want to say. And then you too will conclude, like one of the characters in one of the stories, finally said:
See what I mean? Trust is a dicey thing. You can’t be too careful about whom to trust.
Here is an audio clip where Madhulika Liddle reads one of the stories in the collection:
Number 63 – A short story written by Madhulika Liddle
Diwakar Narayan commented on Arvind Passey’s review: Nice review, Mr. Passey. The collection of short stories are not to be read at one go, for somewhere you become biased with one or more stories and over-read or reject some of them.
Arvind Passey replied: Thank you, Diwakar. Well yes, short-stories do create a specific frame of mind, a mood, and the mind is never happy to hop, skip, and jump from one mood to another too fast. The mind just wants to float in that emotion for a while, soaking in that feeling. So yes, I’d agree with you there that short-storied need to be read with time-gaps.
Sororities with the Whispered Promise of Shared Secrets
Review by Sucharita Dutta-Asane
The title of Madhulika Liddle’s 2017 collection, Woman to Woman Stories, draws us into sororities with the whispered promise of shared secrets. One could think, conveniently enough, of images culled from life, literature, movies – the murmur of shared afternoons, coffee table chat, restroom gossip or the giggles, chatter and tears of a morning spent amid pickles and spices drying in the sun, the aroma mingling with the salt and tanginess of the telling and the sun-warmed terrace… woman to woman. Yet, the title beguiles, for the book’s cover lays out a warning within this seemingly casual – the shadow of death, of violence, of abuse, of beauty that could slip through the fingers any moment. This then is no book of snug tales; these are stories of being a woman, of beauty and hope perhaps, but primarily of the underside of her life and lived experiences.
Woman to Woman Stories is Madhulika Liddle’s shout out to listen, and to listen with care, with humour when needed, with compassion, anger, love, empathy. These are stories told without frills, as in ‘Ambika, Mother Goddess’, not an unusual narrative, the kind that screams out to us daily from television screens and newspaper headlines – the rape of a minor in a nondescript alley of her city. Her life, it is obvious, was never hers to live, a continuum from her mother to her and to her new born daughter. The narrative doesn’t overtly ask the question but leaves its shadow in the reader’s mind, a question that rises to the surface with frightful intensity because of its possibility: will Ambika’s daughter live a similar narrative?
The initial stories are told with an apparent simplicity that shouldn’t fool the reader. As one progresses into the collection, the stories are less innocent, the emotions more tangled, complex. Told primarily from the perspective of a child at play, ‘Mala’ meanders through a house and the spaces that surround it, hinting innocuously at human lives and their equations, with just a sliver of a threat hanging around it. When the threat materialises, it is conveyed harmlessly but leaves behind its resonances, the discomfort stronger for the casual way in which it is inserted into the structure.
‘Woman to Woman’, the title story, is built up to reflect the secret, inner selves women carry, the narrative playing out between two unlikely characters, half the story couched in the cinematic detailing. However, it is in ‘Collector of Junk’ that the writer’s stance shifts and seems to merge with that of the character. Told with a meander and gentleness that enhances its poignancy, this is the story of a woman as a collector of other people’s sorrows and troubles, a “collector of junk”. Here is also the writer – the accumulator and segregator of human lives and emotions, of the detritus of their very being.
These are stories of Everywoman, of the lives we live and those we leave behind – in our past, in hovels and bungalows, on snow-capped bloodied mountains, in buses and bedrooms. These are stories we know, but we choose to remain deaf to their whispered secrets and stifled screams. However, it is not only the poignancy of suffering that determines the tone in this collection of 12 stories. In the deliciously titled ‘The Sari Satyagraha’, pathos turns to humour, to the welcome sound of chuckles, perhaps the most tantalizing story in the collection, one that reminds the reader of the writer’s earlier collection, My Lawfully Wedded Husband. Unlike a few other stories, this allows the reader to take off where the writer leaves, to insert meaning between the lines, among the chuckles that rise naturally to the throat and spread across the pages.
One of the joys of reading a short story collection that imposes no chronological compulsions is to pick and choose how one reads. Reading Maplewood after ‘A Sari Satyagraha’, the chuckles dry up in the throat. Maplewood’s dark tones lurk within the rooms of this house, among the trees that offer no solace or shade, in the description of ages and cultures colliding, grating. The house seems to swallow the character, as the past subsumes the present, one pushing the other out in constant conflict. Here, trees and nature and history are seen to be vicious and devouring, but the end is different; it swivels and turns and readies for a new beginning. Here too, the story is told through its details, acutely observed, drawing the reader into the cloistered life of this colonial mansion and its mistress.
Madhulika Liddle’s stories remain true to the form, to its terseness and brevity, even as she probes deep, scouring the surface of everyday living to look into its crannies. The last story, ‘Poppies in the Snow’, lures us into thinking of the narrator in gendered stereotypes, only to reveal the full thrust of its implication at the very end. There is almost nothing in tone or tenor to give away the narrator’s identity, wiping out gendered expectations from love and revenge. What matters here is a voice seeking sanity as it recounts a tale of insanity; the twist at the end normalises the abnormal in a setting where nothing is impossible or unimaginable.
As a writer of short stories, of the popular Muzaffar Jang series set in 17th century Delhi, and of travel articles and a blog on cinema, Madhulika brings to the collection her varied interests, blending the precision of the short story with an eye for detail, compassionate humour and an understanding of places and the people who inhabit them. The writer’s ability to insert twists – a split second decision, the age of a rape victim, a sudden perception, or an event that threatens to turn the tide – raises many of the stories from the quotidian. While some of the stories might seem similar to one another, the settings, covering different parts of India, introduce variety and underline the universality of the female experience. At a time when the MeToo campaign has taken hold of the world’s imagination, this is a timely collection that speaks of women’s lives on a wider canvas – child abuse, bride trafficking, societal and familial expectations around pregnancy and child bearing, adultery, death, motherhood, militancy and terrorism – and to anyone who would care to stop and listen.
Link to the source:https://kitaab.org/2018/06/29/book-review-woman-to-woman-stories-by-madhulika-liddle/