Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Tiger Ladies by Sudha Koul

The Tiger Ladies: A Memoir of Kashmir
Sudha Koul
Beacon Press (2002)

The book is about a woman born in Kashmir, about growing up in the happy valley, about working in acursed dry plains of India and about getting older in blessed America remembering Kashmir. It is diasporic writing. It's about endings. It's about women making new beginnings. It is women's diasporic writing. It is about 'Tiger Ladies' to make these beginnings. It is about grandmothers, mothers and daughters. In a way it is about the past, the present, the future. When not a memoir it is a lyrical elegy to a world that is gone. And yet it celebrates life and the strange women that make life possible. A magical world occupied by women who have midnight baths in chilling water to conceive children.  A world where women tell stories of a sad god-woman whose husband offered her only guilty sex and mother complex instead of love. O yes, this writing is done with an alien reader in mind, so we have a really 'modern' and yet magical re-telling of the life story of Rupa Bhavani (1620-1721). It is about stories like that. About the  undercurrents, about the flooding and the resettlement. The class divisions, the economic divisions, the religious difference and everything else, in true Kashmiri tradition, is alluded to without any clear spelling out of chasms. Nehru and Indira and the famous family planning scheme of her son make an appearance and probably sum up 'India' experience in the book. The picture of 'Kashmir as it was' that gets painted which almost all of Kashmiri diaspora may find identifiable: the paradise that it was. Everything in the writing almost makes sense. is convincing and beautiful. By the end of it when some woman like Ayesha Andrabi is included in list of Tiger Ladies, you are convinced of the book's underlying theme of woman as harbingers of new beginning and as custodians of past.

I liked the book, the stories that women tell are always interesting, do read it for the nostalgia. It just that after reading this book I read two Kashmiri short stories that made Sudha Koul's memoir all the more interesting as these two stories offered a parallel image of good ol'Kashmir. We keep reading about how in old days woman on a Kashmiri street has nothing to fear, that people were nice and respectful.  Trukunjal (A New Triangle) by Rattan Lal Shant is a sort of love story set in Kashmir of what can be guessed to be late 1970s or the 1980s. In an incident presented in the story, a woman has her cloths torn off by a mob even as her husband tries to be a 'hero' beating a tongawalla who tried to make a pass on his wife. Pagah (Tomorrow?) written in late 1970s by Hari Krishen Kaul tells the funny sad story of two Kashmiri boys, two friends, a Pandit and a Muslim, who successfully manage to fail every year at school and hence stay in the same class of their government school for almost two decades dreading tomorrow because they would have to go to school again. As a kid, the pandit boy used to gawk at a 'convent going' pandit girl who later goes on to marry a nice pandit boy while our two foolhardy protagonist still worry about tomorrow. Sudha Koul's book is in many ways about the world of that 'convent girl' who went on to be the first woman Kashmiri IAS officer.

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