The book “Ganga’s Choice and Other Stories” by Vaasanthi is a book of short stories that have been translated from the Tamil original.
In this collection of 15 powerful stories, set in different parts of India and abroad, the tales depict situations ranging from the problems faced by migrant labourers during a lockdown, to how women confront the social restrictions that constrain their freedom. The book features memorable portraits of characters and their intense struggle for dignity.
These short stories reflect the range and depth of Vaasanthi’s writing and shows how humanity redeems the individual and provides hope, even in the midst of adversity.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
Editor’s Note: The following excerpt has been taken from the short story “The Symbol” by Vaasanthi, with the original Tamil title “Chinnam”, that has been translated by Sukanya Venkataraman.
It seemed as if someone was standing on the landing. It also seemed no one was there. The sun had never managed to penetrate the landing, which stood beyond the four front steps and the small corridor. Not since this house was built. One needed to carry a lamp to see a visitor’s face. At least until the house was electrified. A small chimney lamp used to burn constantly in the pooja room for this purpose. One could only see a person’s face after they had moved into the courtyard beyond the landing. Now, it seemed someone was definitely standing on the landing.
Soundari Ammal’s back remained curved in her easy chair as she lifted her head and asked, ‘Who is that?’
No one visited unannounced. Definitely not strangers. They needed a certain standing to even step into Soundari Ammal’s house. Who might this be? Could it be Chellappa? If so, why was he standing on the landing? He would have taken off his slippers and quickly entered the house. Soundari Ammal covered her shoulder with her sari with some difficulty. She wore no blouse. It was getting extremely hard to insert her hand into a blouse. Anyway, hadn’t the blouse only been introduced recently? If someone came to visit from Chennai, she would ask Sabapathy’s wife Karpagam or their daughter Mallika to help her wear a blouse. Now it seemed like someone was standing on the landing. What could she do if someone visited out of the blue?
‘Hey Karpagam…Mallika…it looks like someone is standing on the landing.’ The words were soundless. Soundari Ammal felt a mild panic. Why wasn’t she able to use her voice? Mallika, Karpagam, Sabapathy. The words rose from the pit of her stomach and were buried in her heart. The clear bronze-like voice. The bell-like voice. The exceptional voice. What had happened to her much-acclaimed voice? Soundari Ammal struggled to say the words again and again. She could not utter a sound.
Someone on the landing…suddenly, she knew. Light spread in a circle, as if a curtain were lifting. Ah, our Dhanam. In her Benaras silk sari and traditional nose ring—her feet together, her hands outstretched, her face expressive.
‘Varugalaamo?’….May I come, to sing and dance? The song combined with tiny cymbals resonated and flooded her. Soundari Ammal melted. Her eyes filled and her head and hands moved in rhythm to the song. The song flooded from inside her and poured out.
‘May I come to stand beside you,
To celebrate, sing and dance
She forgot herself. Was there any holy sanctum higher than this? Dance, Dhanam, dance. How many years has it been since I saw you dance? When she looked up after wiping her tears, Dhanam had disappeared. There were some shadowy figures on the landing.
‘We’re late because the market was so crowded,’ Karpagam was saying as she entered the brighter courtyard. Soundari Ammal felt like she had been hit on the head. Her heart was flooded by an inexplicable disappointment.
‘Did someone come in search of me, Akka (elder sister)?’ asked Sabapathy.
‘No one came in search of you.’
‘Anyone came to see you? Did Chellappa come by?’
Soundari felt confused.
‘What is it, Akka?’
‘Nothing. I must have had a dream.’
Soundari felt a slow smile spreading through her. ‘Yes, it seemed so real. Who do you think came in my dream? Dhanam was in my dream in her Benares silk sari and lovely nose ring! She even danced for me. She gestured beautifully for “Can I come…?” Now that is what I call true art and dance!’
Sabapathy looked at Karpagam and laughed. ‘Karpagam, bring some coffee. Why don’t you bring those greens? Akka and I will clean the leaves.’
Soundari Ammal, still stunned by the apparition, stared at the landing. It was pitch black there. Had it been a dream after all?
‘Here’s some coffee,’ Karpagam’s voice and even her placing a bunch of greens seemed dream-like to Soundari. However, it seemed that the ecstasy she had felt on seeing Dhanam’s dance was real. Her stance, her gestures, her expressive eyes…ah, how could one call that a dream? The thrill she had felt was still apparent. Waves of music rose inside her, grew wings and took flight.
‘May I come…oh my lord…’
‘Akka, is Dhanam still standing there?’
Soundari, whose gaze was at the landing while cleaning the greens, turned her head and smiled. Sabapathy was intent on chopping the greens finely. She wanted to say something more about Dhanam’s dance but contained her enthusiasm. Sabapathy’s transformation amazed her. His mridangam playing when he was just eight had been stupendous. However, their father had insisted on sending him to school and killed the music in Sabapathy. A clerk’s job, marriage over 40, a school teacher for a wife, prestige, respect, and other such rubbish had suddenly taken precedence. It seemed like their very blood had changed now.
‘It must be 10 years since she died?’
‘I was talking about Dhanam Akka.’
‘Hmmm, even longer than that. She lived like a hermit in her older years.’
‘Yes, I’ve heard that.’
‘A man called Rangoon Sundaram was smitten by her music and dance. He showered her with gold and diamonds. Dhanam heard that he had faced terrible losses in Rangoon and was struggling for his next meal. She bundled up all the gold, diamonds and silver vessels he had given her and handed it over. It seems his wife was astonished and fell at Dhanam’s feet in utter gratitude.’
‘People like this too have lived.’
‘Of course! Enlightenment, Sabapathy. Those with enlightened knowledge are also compassionate.’
‘Have you finished cleaning and chopping the greens?’ asked Karpagam, her voice rising. ‘Mallika and Senthil will be coming in to eat soon.’
Soundari fell silent. This was Karpagam’s gesture to indicate that she had spoken enough.
‘We’re done. Please take it,’ said Sabapathy.
Karpagam’s toe rings tinkled as she walked towards them. The thali on her neck swung to and fro as she bent to collect the greens.
Excerpted with permission from the short story “The Symbol” from the book Ganga’s Choice and Other Stories, Vaasanthi, translated from the Tamil original, Niyogi Books. Read more about the book here and buy it here.