When we talk about women, do we actually talk about women? Debates on misrepresentation of women in fiction have been doing the rounds for an embarrassing number of years. Last year, writer Whit Reynolds challenged her followers to describe themselves as a male author would, drawing many hilarious responses and opinion pieces. The number of movies and novels that pass the Bechdel test is still a pitiable low, so it is a joy that the new short story collection, Waiting, is by a woman, and of women.
Waiting celebrates womanhood in myriad forms. There is a woman who goes away to spend a month in Dharamshala, a depressed woman who fears she might jump to her death like her neighbour, and women who leave husbands to stay with their step daughters. Gandhi, whose idea of home is fluid and comprises Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, dedicates her anthology to ‘my city that will always be Allahabad’. However, the stories are set over different regions, often unnamed. Such an ambiguous setting is a silent proclamation in itself, that the lives of women remain the same, wherever they live. Here, a girl’s izzat (honour) is ’fragile as china and a man’s indestructible like steel.’
Gandhi establishes her penchant for humour and sarcasm early into the collection. In her first story, Lingerie, a new mother is unable to feel attracted to her husband. Her therapist, a man, suggests candle light dinners and dressing sexy and she thinks to herself “How can I explain the connection between housework and sex?” In Aab-e-Hayaat, a woman is at a mental block and longs for a quiet morning all to herself only to be interrupted by her family and domestic help. She is annoyed that she, not anyone else, has to respond to ′Will yesterday’s bhindi be enough for today’s lunch’, point out the hair on the bathroom floor to the cleaner and switch off the water pump. Gandhi teases our pretentious masks — one woman utilises the first class waiting room though she isn’t eligible because ’she looked respectable enough’; another woman dresses down to attend a lower middle class wedding. Some find friendships that help them endure, some, like the woman in Goodies, falls in love with a man who showers her with Guccis, Bulgaris, and Chanels and is ’respectful, never tried to talk over her, never attempted to mansplain and sounded sophisticated in his Oxford Cambridge English’ but has something to hide.
The stories glitter with details – women pouting to phone cameras, jhumkas dangling and devotees sweeping the floor of a sacred shrine littered with paper and plastic wrappers from emptied incense packets. While the protagonist of Lingerie thinks her obituary might read ’Her life was made up of details. Disgusting, unavoidable details,′ Gandhi’s fascination with the little things adds colour to ordinary lives in all her stories. Her teenage girl in Shaming, Shaving, longs to talk to her friends about periods, shaving and bra straps but is chided by her mother because these are shameful topics. Gandhi divulges the inadequacy of sex and menstrual education through snatched conversations between women.
Often the precision to detail numbs the reader into the deepest reality. The lesbians of northern Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan, in Panjpir Chowk are grateful for no electricity and TV. They’d rather savour the silence of freshly brewed coffee and caramelised French toast while the outside world is in chaos after the capture of Osama bin Laden. The security guards in Ladies Waiting Room, comb their hair, apply kajal and straighten their creases before they resume their shift. The hawkers on railway platforms shout out ‘Brade, Omlette, Cutlate, Cheeps’ to earn their daily wages.
Music oozes into many stories as does religion. There are poems, Urdu verses, qawwalis and Bollywood hits. Gandhi is a Sufi wanderer and repeatedly advocates saints as those who love mankind without discriminating on the basis of religion. Her women remark that fanatics ’are only interested in bombing the famous shrines. Whatever gets them in the news’. Gandhi ridicules the double standards where a man can leave his wife for another woman, but the abandoned wife is shamed if she helps a homeless beggar (Sluts).
Gandhi’s women have ‘other women in them’ who plead, protest and spurt out in fury. “Her protests have to be silenced. Life can’t be allowed to become totally chaotic”, says the woman who chooses to put her husband’s career ahead of her own. A twice-divorced woman decides to heed her inner voice, which she had ignored in her previous marriages, and walks away from her third wedding when she discovers her would-be-husband is a fraud. The Rapist’s Wife follows the wife offering support to the victim, reflecting on the solidarity among women in the #MeToo movement
Waiting stands out from other women-centred books because it is a depiction of not only strong women, but also weak, meek and flawed women. These stories offer no morals, but exist like lacunae, frozen in time. Gandhi’s characters are as real as the woman next door. They stir hearts, they are waiting to be read.