Vandana Kumari Jena day job is an officer in the Indian Administrative Service. She is also a writer. Her novel “The Dance of Death,” was published in 2008. She contributes middles to the leading newspapers of India. Her short stories have appeared in innumerable anthologies, including “Black White and Various Shades of Brown,” “India Smiles,” and the Chicken Soup for the India Soul Series. The Incubation Chamber is her first collection of short stories.
The Many Dimensions of Estranged Spaces inhabited by Women
Review by CHAMPAK CHATTERJI
Somebody has written rather facetiously of the communists that since the future had already been determined for them, all that remained was altering the past. Memoirs by civil servants often slip into the latter — revisiting and revising the past.
Vandana Kumari Jena is a civil servant who has served as the director-general of the national literacy mission. Although, there is time for her to write her memoir, she has, in the meanwhile, penned a collection of twenty-four short stories which explore the many dimensions of estranged spaces inhabited by women. These spaces are like the oxbow lakes of life.
The title piece, “The Incubation Chamber”, is a bitter-sweet tale of surrogate motherhood. A woman rents out her womb to raise money for her daughter’s eye-operation. When the time comes for the biological parents to take the baby away, the woman is psychologically drained. When she is overwhelmed by the pain of being separated from her child, one realizes that emotions are not for rent.
“Kumbh and Thereafter” is about the abandonment of old women. The theme of mothers being stranded in Mathura and Vrindavan when they are old, infirm and unwanted is a theme familiar to Calcutta. “When the Flesh Weakens”, on a similar strain, is about Shalini Tai, a woman who is abandoned and then discovered in an old-age home thousands of miles away from her own house.
“Courage and With Due Respect” deal with issues such as divorce and foeticide. They explore the bifocal world of izzat that comprises of both family honour and female propriety. Jena however does not delineate izzat to the realms of male-female constructs. Rather, she explores the nuances and the fragility of its meaning in exchanges between women.
Jena’s protagonists deserve note. In “Obsession”, the protagonist conspires to unite her husband with his daughter from an earlier marriage after several years. “Testimony” shows a mother testifying against her own son in court as justice is seen to trump over blood.
Estranged places exist in the physical world as well as in the realm of the mind. Jena’s women — abandoned and disabled, afflicted with AIDS, confined within a house, victims of rape and drug abuse — inhabit these spaces. They are all around us, visible and yet invisible, corporeal but voiceless. It is this in-between world that Jena explores with a rare understanding and empathy in a book that is a fine read about women’s unusual journeys.
“Each story is an experience someone somewhere has lived through” – http://anitadesais.blogspot.com/2014/11/book-review-incubation-chamber-by.html
One Rotten Apple and Other Stories.
Stories Truly Representative of our Current Milieu
Review by Atreya Sarma U
One Rotten Apple and Other Stories, the latest collection of stories by master storyteller Vandana Kumari Jena, is as engaging as her other two – The Incubation Chamber (2014); and The Future is Mine (2015); the novel, The Dance of Death (2008); and In the Middle (2015), a collection of her middles published in various leading newspapers. Though naturally very busy as a senior bureaucrat in the IAS stream until she retired a couple of years ago, she succeeded in indulging her passion for creative writing with her poems and short stories finding place in over 20 anthologies.
All the 26 stories contained in the collection are page-turners, told effectively and in crisp language, thanks to Vandana’s savvy about the technique and ingredients of a good story, and every nicety and nuance involved in the craft.
The stories are a true mirror to the things happening in the contemporary society with lifelike characters and situations; and they bear a testimony to the author’s keen observation of the outward happenings as well as her ability to probe the minds and hearts of the characters. Otherwise she could not have constructed and developed the plots and woven the stories with such a seamless dexterity. While some of the stories have a single plot, there are many that are imbroglios, having multiple plots. And her narratives are succinct sans any superfluous or extraneous encrustations or embellishments. If she mentions a particular thing, it would have a definite link to the story.
The title story is ‘One Rotten Apple’; and a ‘rotten apple’ means a person with a corrupting influence. Apple belongs to the rose family; and a rose comes with a thorn. So also, the society has its good and bad, and the people have their highs and lows. We have lots of bad or rotten apples amidst us, and we have to be very wary of them, for one bad apple spoils the whole bushel, and sometimes it would be too late by the time the mask comes off them.
A number of inter-personal, familial and social aspects provide grist for the mill of the stories in the collection.
The guiles, callousness, hedonism and selfishness in a society with its rampant neglect and defiance of ethical and moral values across the board irrespective of any type of social stratum are seen in the characters.
Some of the stories show how in the name of personal freedom in our excessively epicurean and globalized milieu, people, especially the youth allow themselves to be led astray and eventually get into avoidable and unpleasant troubles.
The stories also make room for those unfortunate individuals who are hit by double and even multiple whammies in their lives.
Not tuned to identify themselves with the interests of the society at large, some of the people tend to cover up even the grave offences, though aberrant and sometimes unwitting, of their near and dear ones.
We have stories dealing with connubial differences, break-ups, compromises, reconciliations as well as unfaithfulness.
There are love triangles and perfidies. Everything is fair in love and war, it is said, but the distinction between the fair and the foul; between love and lust gets blurred with some of the characters. We have also cases where brides and grooms outmaneuver and ditch the other by taking advantage of the American laws.
We also see how marital discords or illicit relationships lead even to remorseless and cold-blooded murders. Situations come to such a pass where even DNA tests are demanded to determine the parental identity of the children concerned. Then there are problems arising from sexual deficiencies, forbidden pleasures and surrogate births. And we have, of course, the proverbially crafty mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law. Our hearts grieve over the woes of the vulnerable lot in the discordant families. Our sorrow multiplies and we can’t hold back our blubber when we see the plight of some of the families that are dished out a plateful of miseries but only a spoonful of happiness, that too across generations.
While the deep-rooted prejudice against the female child continues, some of the parents ruthlessly thrust their failed high ambitions on their children. And some of the parents don’t have a wisp of conscience to smother their physically/mentally disadvantaged children to death. This may prima facie seem incredible, but going by the daily rash of media reports, aren’t we so inured that no type of horrendous or wild incidents sounds strange or repelling? Also, we come across well-meaning people, who caught on the horns of a dilemma, resort to suppression of facts or suggestion of falsehood so as not to disturb a sensitive situation or cause a personal or domestic havoc where their own dearest kith and kin are involved.
Coming to our youth, quite a number of them are inveterately addicted to vices like smoking, drinks and drugs. Thanks to the brazenly politicalized unions, a good number of college and university students have become past-masters at hatching any Machiavellian plot and counterplot.
Some of the stories go back to the Partition times and move on from there, but with the violence, loot and rapes still continuing to haunt the victims.
All of us know that the public places are no longer safe either on the roads for the commuters/ drivers or in the parks even for genuine couples. The incidence of ‘freak’ road accidents due to absent-mindedness or drowsiness or drunkenness or dreaminess of the drivers or due to violation of the traffic rules either brazenly or on the sly is not infrequent.
Molestation and rapes have become so easy all over and all the time, with the culprits in most of the cases going scot-free; and the trauma of the impregnated victims can never be mitigated. (When such tragedies occur, instead of dispassionately going to the root of them and addressing ourselves to the task of doing away with such crimes, we try to further exacerbate the situation, by kicking up political rows about them.)
The genocidal tentacles of terrorism have so spread that no honest writer can ignore them as a theme. How some of the terrorists wear an innocuous mask, easily mingle amongst us, employ alluring stratagems and operationalize them, is the theme of some of the stories.
Our society has its quota of caste and communal conflicts, most of them not spontaneous but insidiously contrived ones. We have forces, covert or overt, that are on the prowl to communalize any type of strife and foment troubles; all the same, and thankfully, there are souls who drive sense and sanity in the people against such impulsive tendencies. We have a story where one Maj. Kabir Khanna, son of a Hindu father and a Muslim mother grows up with humanity and respects all religions equally. There is also a Muslim butcher boy and a Christian girl. When a frenzied Hindu mob near a temple goes berserk against the Muslim boy, it would be interesting to see how a saffron clad Swami reacts.
The stories also show that branding any particular caste or community wholesale as this or that will be unfair, fallacious and unrealistic.
In spite of the all-pervading bad and ugly, we have still people with positive qualities like empathy, sympathy and accommodation, as some of the stories reflect. Otherwise, our planet would have already turned into a humongous graveyard.
And a few stories are so uncanny that they seem to contain “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” A few stories like ‘Dead End’ are rather eerie, leaving it to the readers to try to crack the mystery. A couple of stories are open-ended. There is also some exotic flavor, American and Albanian.
The blurb of the book reads:
“Frailty, thy name is woman,” said Hamlet, and indeed, women, stereotyped as being simple, kind and compassionate, lead multi-layered lives. This collection of short stories draws upon the vulnerabilities of women as well as their strengths, and celebrates women’s various shades of grey. The stories, which often end with a twist, will resonate with people of all genders.
And the stories, without exception, testify to the above statement. But the stories are as much of men too in all their hues as of women.
The titles are pithy and evocative, and I would like to mention only a few just to serve as a peephole – ‘Blood Lies’; ‘The Greedy Girl’; ‘Love Thy Neighbor’; ‘Sleight of Hand’; and ‘Alms and the Woman.’
The stories are so meticulously woven that suspense has been kept up until the very close. No doubt, there is a message underlying every story, but it is very subtle, getting conveyed only through the development of the story, but not through moralizing spiels. Kudos to Vandana Kumari Jena, and let’s hope for many more creations from her fecund pen in the times to come.
Review by Zoya Ejaz
Driven by love, a woman is willing to be a terrorist, unwanted by her husband after giving birth to a mentally retarded child, a mother smothers her own child to death.
Adultery, murder, rape, motherhood, terrorism, lust, sexuality, the trials of women and their responses have been explored and brought to life by Jena.
The women in Jena’s stories are real, complex creatures, strong with a steely ferocity. The grey of these of women being celebrated. You cannot question their actions, only accept them. Would you do the same thing if you were placed in a similar situation? Would you act differently? One Rotten Apple has stories that will resonate with all and be enjoyed by all genders.
The stories are multilayered and textured, the endings unexpected. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for characters with spine and person.
Review by Varsha Verma
If you love short stories, then this is the book for you. Crisp and captivating – each story unfolds an unexpected turn, revealing a new dimension to the female character, breaking all stereotypes. Each of the 26 stories in the book seem so real; characters are taken from modern life, sometimes, we can even relate few of them to people we know. When you pick up this book, there will be no dull moment. There are no unwanted boring details, the stories are short and to the point.
All in all, an interesting collection of short stories, each depicting the vulnerabilities of women as well as their strengths, besides celebrating the various shades of grey in them! Each story has a twist in the end, which resonates in the mind of the reader.
Review in Book Review
One Rotten Apple is a collection of quick short stories that are not hard to connect with.
The characters are intense and fleshed out. The settings and plot building are done on very simple circumstances, yet delivering raw truths of life.
The author has crafted characters that expose both their strength and weakness. There were few stories that haunted me even after I finished it. Betrayals one such story where the end resonated in me long after I closed the book.
Judge Not turned out to be my next favorite. The stories are pretty unique, they deal different people and different issues but never giving up on human morale.
The writing was amazing since it is not easy to captivate a reader with minimal descriptions and settings. My other top favorites are Blood Lies, Deathwish, and If Only.
The book is a masterpiece of raw human emotions.
I am glad I read it and I highly recommend it to all.