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Posted at: Jul 16, 2017, 1:26 AM; last updated: Jul 16, 2017, 1:26 AM (IST)BOOK REVIEW: ECHOES FROM THE VALLEY TRANSLATED AND COMPILED BY PARBINA RASHID.

Celebrating shades of womanhood

Despite an oppressive patriarchal setup, the women characters make an effort to negotiate their silences. Deeply touching, these tales evoke annoyance, rage and despair, but most importantly, these evoke consciousness

Shiva

Short stories are wonderful. With their clipped length, they have the powerful capacity to envelop myriad experiences and emotions in a uniquely concentrated way. When right amount of sensitivity and skill are added to this concentrate, the result is nothing less than overwhelming. Such is this beautifully crafted collection of eclectic, heartfelt stories from women writers from Assam. Echoes from the Valley serves 11 gripping tales, all dipped in rich Assamese aroma yet dispensing distinct flavours. Spanning generations, these stories trace the silences, struggles, and successes of women in different scenarios. 

The collection is thoughtfully divided into three parts – Mute Yesterday, Transitional Today, and Abstract Tomorrow. Mute Yesterday, as the name suggests, captures the era when silent obedience was the only language and gesture expected of a woman. The most striking aspect of these stories is that despite an oppressive patriarchal setup, the women characters make an effort to negotiate their silences. Damyanti, a poor Brahmin widow in Indrani Goswami’s Purification, exercises her will to bury the illegitimate foetus even as the priest wants her to do otherwise. Indeed, there are other forces like caste governing her decision; but she asserts her identity by being in active control of her destiny.

Carrying the same thread forward, stories from Transitional Today register the different degrees of dissent. It is a ‘silent protest’ in Rita Chowdhury’s An Incomplete Story: Pehi, a young widow, chops off her waist long hair and picks up her white clothes when her marriage is called off. It takes an overt form in Anuradha Sharma Pujari’s story, A Few Days in Banphool’s Life,  when Banphool, a manual scavenger’s daughter, hits the teacher with her slate and runs away. Her act of protest comes after a teacher asks her to clean the room when a fellow student defecates in the class. Similar strings are touched with Nuria’s realisation (The Glass Pyramid) that no man is worth leaving everything for.

Similarly, narratives from Abstract Tomorrow tackle issues like rape and extra-marital affair by being experimental in style and sensitive in approach. Juri Borah Borgohain’s Urge goes the mythological route to bring forth the objectification of woman in our collective unconscious. Retelling the Ram-Sita relationship from Sita’s perspective, the story not only gives voice to the unrepresented but also questions the misrepresentation of the ideal figure, Ram. Deeply touching, these stories evoke annoyance, rage, and despair; but, most importantly, they evoke consciousness as they remind us of the undying spirit of womanhood.

With this heightened consciousness, one is able to see through the regressive portrayal of intelligence and femininity as mutually exclusive attributes (Midas’ Tragedy), and suddenly the woman of “loose character” from another story seems to be a strong individual. Such is the connection between the stories that one cements the platform for the other, making the stories implicitly converse with one another. Parbina Rashid chooses stories that are nuanced, and with multitude of themes; however, she never loses the thread that joins them. It is also to her credit that despite being translated into English, the stories retain their distinct Assamese flavour. Assam is not only in the setting but also in the characters and style. The language is English but the texture, with the feel of earthy meadows of the east, is never compromised. 

Just as short trips are the best ones 

so too short stories are the most memorable ones. Perfectly blending potent with poignant, Rashid serves us a blend that is simple yet sensitive and hence, supremely satisfying. This collection, with its heart at the right place, 

subtly stirs your soul while it makes 

big splashes. 

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