How many times have you found yourself sitting across complete strangers at a table in a crowded restaurant, trying not to eavesdrop, and being pulled into their conversation, and an unsolicited peek into their lives? How often have you wondered how a person’s deformity may have affected their life? It could be something as innocuous as a misshapen toe.
Think of the times someone you thought you knew well sent you into a tizzy by behaving in an unanticipated manner. It may have been a partner, a loved one, a colleague or your child’s classmate that landed that solid punch to the solar plexus and knocked the wind out of you.
Every now and then we are fooled by our perceptions of people. The truth is that none of us can ever claim to know another’s interiority—their thoughts, whom they love, what drives their actions, or what they are capable of saying or doing next. Few of us can predict the outcome of a relationship or what simmers underneath, and certainly not all the time. An invasion of frogs—real or imaginary—could break up a marriage. A woman could be a tigress when it comes to protecting her child who has been harmed, but strangely, not as fierce while dealing with her selfish husband. An evidently docile woman whose husband takes her for granted could have astonishing secrets up her sleeve.
Anukrti Upadhyay The Blue Women
These are the kind of characters you encounter in The Blue Women, a striking collection of short fiction from Anukrti Upadhyay. Lines between the real and the peculiar blur, characters oscillate between bright and grey spaces, teeter on the dark edge, trash about for some anchoring and often find it in the seemingly unlikely. What at first appears outlandish slowly takes the shape of the familiar, something close to home, and causes disturbance.
Anukrti’s gripping novels, ‘Bhaunri’ and ‘Kintsugi’ featured intrepid women who breached boundaries. The women characters in her latest offering continue to intrigue and captivate as they defy convention, pursue their innermost longings, wear many faces, and can be intemperate, unapologetic and obsessive about getting what they want. They are as much perpetrators as victims, their choices guided both by their free will and their circumstances.
The title story, ‘The Blue Women’, sets the tone for what is to follow throughout the book—the quirky, the surreal—where a woman cab driver gets visions of the death of her female passengers. It reminded me of the 1978 noir mystery thriller, ‘Eyes of Laura Mars’, though apart from the clairvoyance about the impending harm, there is much that is different. When her male passenger asks her whether her husband worries about her driving at night, she has the spunk to counter-question, ‘Doesn’t your wife worry about you travelling alone at night?’ Such is the mettle the women characters are made of.
Take the story, ‘Mauna’, in which the grief-stricken heroine is plagued by restlessness after her father’s demise. Through her eyes, you get a glimpse of her father, the kind of solid character you want to meet. As you begin to worry about this bereaved woman standing under the harsingar tree that her father loved, there is a startling twist to the story.
In ‘Insecta’, the protagonist M, like Abhimanyu, is surrounded by invaders, and while Abhimanyu had to fight the battle with humans, and only once, M has to do it night after night with creepy crawlies, till he reaches a point where both he and you look for resolution, but are left with untied knots. This is characteristic of most of Upadhyay’s stories. Both the players in her stories, and the reader, find themselves in a state of limbo.
Braided into these engrossing narratives are vivid portraits of trees, bats, frogs, insects, and dragons that add depth and an unusual perspective while reminding us of our interconnectedness. The author’s rich imagination takes you into realms that leave you both fascinated and stricken. There is no knowing where the real ends and the illusory begins. It’s a deftly woven network of the ordinary and the complex, and the apparent and the invisible, much like our own worlds. Like all good stories, these too hold up a mirror to ourselves, goad us to scratch the surface, and leave us shaken. Long after you’ve read the book, you may well have a big toe wiggling in your mind now and then. If that makes you uncomfortable, know that it is meant to.
Archana Pai Kulkarni is the Books Editor at SheThePeople. The views expressed are the author’s own.