Book Review: It Begins at Home and Other Short Stories

Sanjukta Dasgupta, Virasat Art Publication, Kolkata, 2021

Sanjukta Dasgupta has been a scholar and an academic over her entire working life. Having taught English literature in its varied manifestations has seen its reflection in her very scholarly books revolving around literature, both English and Bengali, but she later shifted to poetry in the original and in translation and is now renowned as one the outstanding emerging English poets in the country. Her books include 21 creative and critical works and her first original works of fiction found fruition in Abuse and Other Short Stories published in 2013.

storyIt Begins at Home and Other Short Stories contains 16 short stories. They mainly deal with different forms of abuse and violence most of which are enriched by the author’s subtlety and restraint where she manages to get the message across without reducing them either into sob stories or gore. Each single story in the entire collection stands apart from the rest as it posits itself in a world distinct unto itself and distanced from the rest.

The plots, the characters and the manner in which the narratives unfold are generously dotted with Dasgupta’s famous black satire and sarcasm that not only lightens the darkness of the climax but also peppers the situation with her distinct brand of irony. Many of the stories are like sharp indictments against the upper-class Bengalis who do not like the very thought of their children talking in any language other than English.

In the first story, “Just another suicide” in a passage describing two very poor men returning from Kolkata to their village home in Canning, she writes:

Both of the took the evening train back home. They walked the one mile or so distance from the railway station  to their village in complete silence, except to remark when would there be some lamp posts with the bulbs intact to light their route back home, and when would trains start and reach in time. These were profound, philosophical questions and understandably, answers were not expected.(Page 12)

This is a wonderful blend of dry humour and sharp pot-shots taken at the powers-the-be whose development policies were always focussed on the urban, the affluent and the powerful.

There are frequent references to Tagore, Shakespeare, Toni Morrison and other literary greats but these do not intrude into the privacy of the subjects of her stories. In fact, they are generally used to point out, very subtly, that not all her subjects are well-read enough to recall links to these great authors to their own personal, tragic lives. These references are not to show her impoverished, struggling and trapped characters in a negative light throwing slanting hints at their ignorance but rather, to shed light on the cruel fact that a very large percentage of Indians are forced to lead a sad life filled with want and work and indignity with and without ever having heard of Shakespeare.

Her stories also talk about urban, educated boys and girls from powerful families changing the direction of their lives and opting for a career that will not take them anywhere great but will fetch them a handsome salary.  In the story Metamorphosis, a young man who wanted to be an outstanding career scientist, suddenly changes gears on the push by his wife for an insurance job. When his parents were shocked, his wife, Sonya, says,

“I have met his scientist friends and senior faculty members at the university. What a boring bunch they are. Please stop agonizing Baba and Ma. Please don’t spoil our moods. Let’s celebrate the freedom from research. I am ordering Chinese dinner. I am sure you would love to treat us.” Jayant Dutta smiled and nodded and cleared the bills for the night’s celebratory dinner. (Page 54-55.)

The title story, It Begins at Home narrates a scary tale of incest and abuse, a subject cornered into anonymity because of the socially and culturally constructed silence around it. But it is one of the cruel facts of life where, not even NGOs try to cut out the “cruelty” and strip the child victim of the imaginary feelings of guilt she suffers from. This is about a 13-year-old girl who was sexually abused by her own father in her mother’s absence, who bribes her with the promise of an Apple I-phone. Her mother insisted on not rushing to the police station on grounds that they would lose their “face” and lose their sole supplier of bread and butter – the child molester’s father himself.

The stories in this book go on to prove that torture knows boundaries. Nor can it be ascribed to a single political ideology or to one economic system. It transcends barriers of age, class, language, caste, community, sex and even family. The only strength that seems to create, sustain and promote the torture by one individual, or a group of individuals of another, is power. This power may be visible in direct action, physically, verbally or emotionally. The second face of power is seen in attempts to stifle an issue as it emerges. Or, in attempts to redefine or reshape an issue into something less threatening. The third face of power is the hardest to discern. This is used to manipulate people’s perceptions so that they are unaware of having a grievance. The history of oppression of children by parents and family is littered with examples of all three.

In a recent televised crime serial, a little girl who was being persistently abused sexually by her step-father, had no complaints. When finally, she was discovered suffering from an infectious ailment, the facts stunned the doctors who were treating her, the paramedical staff, the police and lastly, her own mother.

Surprisingly, other than the physical pain and injuries she was suffering from, the little girl of nine had no complaints. She seemed to be quite content being close to her step-father. She said the father explained to her that this was their secret of expressing love for each other that was not to be shared with anyone else! In other words, she had no idea that she was being subjected to severe sexual abuse since the age of five! This is known as the Child Abuse Accommodation Syndrome.

The last story in the collection, Freedom is written in the form of a letter by a 70+ old lady to her old friend in which she invites her to her resident for the weekend and tells her about the torture her life was. She was married with children and an affluent husband but harassing mother-in-law and though she apparently led a ‘fulfilled’ life, she says she never had any control over her life right through these 47 years of marriage.

The merit of this book lies in Dasgupta’s insistence on the complete lack of power among the subjects in her stories which often lead to a woman being killed for giving birth to daughters and then falling sick and the killing by the mother-in-law and her daughter are passed off as suicide and no one raises an eyebrow. The tragedy of these victims, men, women and children, lies in the sad truth that they do not even realise that they are being stripped of thinking, behaving, acting and dealing with their life’s problems and when they do, they have either passed on or it is too late to take action to change their lives for the better.

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author contributing to several digital and print media in India and beyond. She has authored 27 books and two more are in the pipeline. She has won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema twice. She lives in Kolkata.

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