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Bijnis Woman (Photo: Twitter)
A woman's desperate late-night horse ride to her married lover's mansion, a tale-telling ex-soldier whose final journey becomes embarrassing, a piquant encounter in a red-light area and the like make Uttar Pradesh not only India's most populous and politically significant state but also an unmatched repository of some uncommon tales of common people told and re-told with relish among family and friends.
Collecting over a dozen of them, ranging from the macabre to the miraculous, from the unspeakable to the uplifting, and featuring humans at their best and worst (more frequently though) is Bollywood writer and director Tanuja Chandra.
These stories, heard during holidays during her childhood, especially those entailing visits to relatives along the length and breadth of sprawling Uttar Pradesh where they were a staple, always "stayed" with her. This, she says, was because "there was something different about these odd tales, something unusual about the experiences of my rishtedaars, their neighbourhoods and communities".
And there is definitely something odd in some of these stories which can veer off into unexpected — and even shocking — tangents or create an atmosphere of high expectation before fizzing out without much ado, for real life may not always have neatly delineated endings, leave alone happy ones.
But mostly all of them will leave you astounded at the boundless and inexplicable mysteries of the human condition and relationships, as well as the dynamics of a bygone era.
A large number of the stories are about women, especially those trapped in abusive or empty marriages or worse, robbed of any chance of happiness by stultifying tradition, or never given much chance (but there is at least one smooth, heartless operator too).
In this strain, "Atta Chakki" is frankly gruesome in its strange ending, "The Don Life" most confusing (but having a satisfactory karmic comeuppance for the male character) and "Pilkhhuwa Waale" symptomatic of the condescension some women face some time or the other in their marital or family lives.
But among them, as in "The Tea Stall", there are women who strike out boldly to chart out their own life course — though it is the heroine's mother who proves to be the real heroine, in her own way.
As noted, there are some like "The Soldier", which though amusing in their own way, leave you rather bemused when they end, and some are frankly puzzling and apparently pointless.
On the other hand, some hit a nice high — "Bijnis Woman", which gives the collection its name, has some points of resemblance with W. Somerset Maugham's frequently-anthologised "The Verger" as it relates to hard commercial work, while "The Guru" has some interesting patterns of redemption while rather neatly subverting the roles of family and orphanages in raising children.
They are more in this vein, like "The Fortune Teller" with its twists and a supernatural but most karmic ending, and the short but power-packed "The Accidental Meeting".
Chandra, who is best known for co-writing Yash Chopra's epic "Dil Toh Paagal Hai" and directing "Dushman" and "Sangharsh", admits that while most of the stories are old, "they aren't older than the history of human relationships".
"And relationships, though they change, remain as always a web of emotion, tapestries of love and sorrow, registers of desire, anger and jealousy, greed and lust, generosity and sacrifice," she says.
Chandra holds it was "extremely important to write these stories down before they were lost forever" since they are as important as the histories of monarchs, wars and politics as a "record of ordinary people who lived through their own unique times and circumstances" and "leave us enriched with the taste of a world close to us in lifetimes, but already so far away".
In this, she has mostly achieved her aim, presenting a selection that will not fail to move readers of all types.
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