By: Shobha Rao
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Flatiron Books (March 15, 2016)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
I first came across Shobha Rao’s work in this past fall’s Best American Short Stories which included Kavitha and Mustafa, a story about a young Indian woman in a train that was attacked by bandits. As she does in all of her work, Rao deftly combines the ordinary with the extraordinary. Although the setting is the Indian border at the time of the Partition, the readers are confined to the single train car in which the characters are trapped. We feel the heat of too many people in a motionless box and see the women silently trying to hide their jewels in their shoes. The heroine is in many ways an ordinary person who has led a sadly constrained life. She has never had any kind of power; the only way she can even say her last goodbye to her husband is by pressing her head wordlessly against his knobby shoulder, and yet she seizes salvation when it comes in the form of two pebbles, a length of twine, and a smart little boy. Grounded in one humble detail after another, Kavitha and Mustafa ends in a kind of triumph that could be read as a love story to all the impoverished Muslims and Hindus who struggled to survive during a violent era. Neither the woman nor the boy is an allegorical figure, however; Rao has created intensely real people with a dignity that demands that they be seen as individuals.
Almost all of the stories in this collection involve escape in one form or another, escape from a brothel or a bad Manhattan marriage, from a camp for widowed women, from the unbearable sadness of having lost a child, or from prosecution for the crime of murder. In many stories a terrible moment comes when the characters realize that the more or less settled lives they had imagined for themselves are no longer possible. It is worth quoting at length the thoughts of Renu who looks at the Shivalik mountains and remembers how she had once imagined that,
The Shivaliks would stand like they always stood against the morning sky, whipped and creamy like clotted ghee, and that the dandelions would bend like baby’s heads in the northeasterly wind, and that she would be a farmer’s wife, with its days of toil and earth and anguish, measuring the rains as one measure sugar into a teacup, with care and constancy, and by the spoonful. And she assumed something further: that her destiny was like the small stream that ran at the edge of their property. That it would flow — diverted at times by a fallen branch or a pile of rock, true, and thinned in the dryness of summer while abundant in spring, undoubtedly — but that essentially and always, it would flow, and be tied, deeply and incontrovertibly, to the destiny of the man to whom she clung. . .
In that moment Renu realized one last thing: that nothing she’d imagined of her life, of her destiny, would ever come to pass. Not one thing remained. Not one, except — and these she saw as angry, open mouths gnawing at the tender twilit sky — the Shivaliks still stood.
After her moment of shock, Renu begins to act. The wild new destiny she creates for herself is nothing at all like the life of a farmer’s wife. Unreflecting, unsentimental, entirely amoral in any conventional sense, her life bursts forward, not like a small stream that could be diverted by a mere fallen branch, but like a torrent, finding any weakness and then knocking down all obstacles.
Desperate circumstances and a powerful desire to overcome them do not always make for easy moral decisions. Complex situations call for complex and often distressing responses. We want to cheer for a little girl who finds the courage to face down a gang of threatening boys, but it’s hard when she intimidates the bullies by crushing the leader’s pet bird to death in her hand. The stories take on even more layers of meaning when a friend or enemy in one story reappears in another with his own burden of tragedy or desire. The characters in An Unrestored Woman are good and evil and everything in between. They battle demons within and without, and they don’t always win. Still, a great spirit pervades every story in this collection. The little girl who crushed the bird poses a question to herself when she faces a crisis as an adult.
I wondered if I could be that girl again. Was defiance temporary, like a gust of wind that lifted you once, then set you down? Or was it always there, inside of you, like a small dinghy tied to the harbor of your heart, waiting, at the ready, to launch?
Every story in this book launches. It’s a thrilling collection.