The Women in Cages: Collected Stories by Vilas Sarang, Penguin Books India.
Even many dedicated readers know little or nothing about Vilas Sarang, a talented writer who is equally at home in Marathi or English. This neglect may be in part because Sarang’s writing style is largely influenced by Western writers like Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, even Lewis Carroll, rather than rooted in any obvious Indian tradition. Perhaps the surrealism and absurdism that runs through much of Sarang’s work, together with his interest in European modernist themes, tends to alienate some Southasian readers. For the unprepared, after all, the content of the stories can be very unsettling, even offensive – particularly for those for whom religion is taboo as a subject.
Many years ago, this reviewer was struck by a short story titled “An Interview with M Chakko”, which told of a strange island somewhere in the Indian Ocean where the titular protagonist had once been shipwrecked. On the island, all of the women only had half-bodies: those with only lower bodies were the Ka women, while those with only upper bodies belonged to the Lin class. Through Chakko’s experience living with a member of each class, the nature of the sexual arrangements on the island are discussed. “It seems to me,” he notes, “that the half, the partial, gives something that the whole, or what appears whole, doesn’t.” The reader never learns whether the author meant to project the island as real, or simply to accept it as an elaborate fantasy. Although the name of the author of that tale had never registered, finding The Women in Cages allowed for the unexpected rediscovery of M Chakko’s strange tale – along with a host of Vilas Sarang’s other delights.
Sarang’s short stories are simply but compellingly written, and the variety of themes covered are often infused with fantastical elements. In “The Odour of Immortality”, a prostitute – with the help of a tantrik and the blessings of Lord Indra – grows dozens of vaginas all over her body, to allow her to service her customers more quickly and make more money. A second story echoes this precarious connection between sex and worship, when a man wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant phallus, and is eventually mistaken by religious villagers to be the severed lingam of Shiva. At one point, Sarang tells the reader about a particular Ganesh festival, where clay statues of various deities come alive and escape from their worshippers; at another, a vulture is refused treatment at a bird-hospital because of his carnivorous ways.
Perhaps most enthralling in The Women in Cages is the way that the author plays with the divide between the conscious and the subconscious, moving indiscernibly from one to the other. In “An Evening at the Beach”, for instance, a character named Bajrang joins a group of mourners at a woman’s funeral pyre. Looking at the assembled group, he speculates that they might have killed the woman in order to have a bonfire with which to warm themselves on the cold night. It is the sort of morbid mind-fantasy that many readers have created at one solemn gathering or another – especially when they are emotionally distanced from, and perhaps a bit bored by, the proceedings. In Sarang’s hands, however, Bajrang gets so involved with his mental drama that he proceeds to act it out: stretching his hands out in front of the pyre fire, even turning around so he can warm his back. The other mourners, of course, are incensed.
This aspect of Sarang’s storytelling is interesting particularly in how it lets the reader in on the writing process. Here are explorations of the dual worlds that many writers simultaneously inhabit: the real world with its relatively mundane daily routines, and also the embellished one, where the writer is constantly analysing that which is happening around him, creating and fleshing out alternative scenarios. Some of Sarang’s own characters emulate this dynamic – as though they are writers with ideas for the next novel perpetually floating around in their minds.
Sarang has also written explicitly about writing, some examples of which are included in the epilogue to this collection. The author laments the undervaluing of “the guerrillas of prose fiction” – meaning the great short-story writers – as well as the lack of a sustained tradition of short-story writing in Indian fiction in English. “We do not have unitive collections which may serve as primers for budding writers,” he asserts. “Does Indian English literature hope to produce a War and Peace before it has attempted something like [Leo Tolstoy’s short stories] ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ or ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’?” He observes that, at its best, the short-story form is capable of achieving the purity and perfection of the finest poetry – which is something the novel, however great, cannot accomplish. “The strength of the novel is length … But this precludes the kind of intensity and concentration – the ‘critical pressure’ – that most art forms strive for.”
This pure intensity is on show in many of Sarang’s own short stories. The Women in Cages offers a fascinating entry point into the work of this provocative writer.