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