The Blue Women, a collection of 12 short stories by Anukrti Upadhyay, is a riveting read, one where each story gives you a glimpse into an underlying pool of disturbing realities, emotions and psychoses. Sometimes those realities mingle with the preternatural, but for the most part, Upadhyay manages to suspend disbelief, and weaves tales that leave you with a sense of fascination and disquiet.
The Blue Women
Fourth Estate India
The title story, “The Blue Women”, sets the tone. Upadhyay has a liking for the device of the tale within a tale, where the first-person narrator listens to another character tell his or her story. In “The Blue Women”, the narrator gets into a taxi driven by a woman in the dead of night, and they get talking on the long journey from Mumbai airport to Pune.
She tells him about the circumstances that led her to become a cabbie and drive taxis at night. And then she goes on to narrate her strange and hair-raising experiences. On multiple occasions, she says, she had picked up women passengers who looked perfectly normal when they entered the cab. But a little later, when she happened to glance at them through the rear-view mirror, she saw that they had turned blue and very dead—some bludgeoned, some strangled, some bloated by drowning…
Though these horrifying visions were fleeting, they invariably turned out to be the augury of actual violent death. Days later, she would find out that these women passengers had been murdered in exactly the same way as she had seen them in those dreadful premonitory visions.
“The Blue Women” has an interesting ending, and also embodies the theme of patriarchy, and the violence that men often do to women, which recurs in many of the stories in this collection. Some women are able to fight back, while some others are extinguished by the heavy hand of male dominance. “Made in Heaven” is one such finely polished story which is told from the point of view of a pompous, self-centred, and entitled husband who believes he has an ideal marriage with a bright yet pliant woman.
It never occurs to him that his wife, the academically brilliant Ujla, can be unhappy with such a successful man as himself, or that suppressing her own wishes and aspirations at the altar of his ego has taken a toll on her spirit. He is blind to everything else but his own selfish interest and, hence, has no idea that Ujla has found a way to cope with her stultifying marriage by fashioning a secret life of her own.
The truth begins to dawn on him when bits and pieces of her secret life come to light after she has a fatal road accident and lies unconscious in hospital. But even at that moment, as he faces the perplexing realisation that his wife had passions and pastimes and thoughts and desires about which he did not have a clue, what preoccupies him the most is the inconvenience he would have to suffer if she were to die, leaving him with the responsibility of bringing up their little boy. It is a hammerblow of a story, presenting a trenchant picture of male entitlement and exploring how dysfunctional and empty a marriage can be when one partner (usually the man) is oblivious to and has no respect for the other’s sensibilities.
- The Blue Women is a collection of 12 short stories by Anukrti Upadhyay.
- Many of the stories embody the theme of patriarchy, and the violence that men often do to women.
- Set in urban landscapes like Mumbai, Singapore and Hong Kong, the stories are peopled with easily identifiable characters.
- One of the delights of this book is Upadhyay’s vivid and free-flowing prose.
“Dhani” is yet another tale of marital disconnect that unspools bit by bit during a conversation between a couple and a stranger, who happens to sit at their table at a roadside eatery. It transpires that the couple are on their way to get a divorce, but the husband is still at a loss to understand why Dhani, his wife, is determined to split up with him. He belongs to that storied tribe of insensitive husbands who are entirely out of sync with their partner’s thoughts and feelings. When the wife has finally had enough and wants to free herself from the dry rot of their marriage, the primary reaction of the husband is one of utter bafflement.
Upadhyay also dwells on gay relationships. “The Queen of Mahim”, for example, is alight with the sexual undercurrent between two women colleagues. The story quivers on the brink of love, on the edge of a possible sexual intimacy between these two women, before the might-have-been relationship collapses under the weight of a complex web of factors, and the protagonist, Kalindi, is left with a numbing sense of loss.
But it is not just adults and the complexities of their relationships that interest Upadhyay. Children with their fragile minds is another subject that the author turns her hand to in stories like “Sona”, “Insecta”, and “The Dragon in the Garden”. In each of these, the child protagonists suffer from serious delusions that lead them to violence. “Sona” and “Insecta”, in particular, are deeply disturbing tales, where the child narrators get sucked into the hallucinatory wormhole of their minds and careen towards total psychological collapse and homicide.
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The violent hatred that they bear towards their parents is chilling. Sona, who is 15, believes that her step-father is in love with her and comes to regard her mother as the enemy who needs to be removed from her path. In “Insecta”, a boy who is referred to as M, loathes his parents because they no longer seem to care for him now that he fails to get good grades in school. Once an avid collector of insects, M now imagines them crawling all over his room, and all over him, all the time. It drives him mad, literally so, and as his mind disintegrates, he hatches a plan to kill his parents.
Set in urban landscapes like Mumbai, Singapore and Hong Kong—cities Upadhyay knows well—the stories are peopled with characters that are easy to identify with. The travelling executive, the corporate hot-shot, the expat couple, architects, professors, the office gossip, sundry urban professionals—Upadhyay, who was once an investment banker, is on familiar ground here, and she sketches each of them with deft strokes. There are times when her effort to give a surreal and symbolic twist to her stories rings false, as it does in “Dhani”, for example, where the young couple who are on the verge of a divorce say that the flat they stayed in Mumbai was infested with minute frogs. Perhaps this is the author’s way of conveying the ugliness of a fragmenting relationship and the seemingly tiny daily annoyances with each other that finally wreck it beyond repair. But it does not quite fly.
One of the delights of this book is Upadhyay’s prose. Vivid and free-flowing, it is an apt vehicle for her imagination. In some stories, such as “Janaki and the Bat”, which flirts with the fantastical and describes an erotic connection between a young girl and a giant bat, her language attains a lyrical grace that is a joy to read. But perhaps Upadhyay’s greatest triumph is that many of the stories in The Blue Women leave you looking beyond their often surprising endings and wondering what happens to the characters next.
Shuma Raha is a journalist and author.