"Yes, my never-to-be-born daughter, I know this is all so true,
But the darkness of death is better than an unequal life that
lies ahead- you should know that too!
So sleep my little one...sleep for a while in my womb,
For tomorrow the same is going to be
re-christened as your tomb!"
- Can You Hear Me, Ma; Sagarika Chakraborty
A Calendar Too Crowded is creative collection of stories and poems regarding womanhood, and lost promises of history at granting an equal, if not an elevated status, to the women who give and preserve life. Why I call it creative is because of the very interesting layout of the book, which is divided into twelve parts coinciding with twelve months. In each month, the author has identified days which are celebrated internationally or regionally as days of importance with respect to empowerment or glorification of females, and a story or a poem has been spun around the essence of the same day. For instance, on February 6th, Italy observes Widow's day, themed around which, the author has crafted the poignant tale of a nameless little girl, widowed at the age of seventeen, whose entire existence was then considered an abomination, whose very identity became that of a witch who devoured her husband (Witch Without A Broomstick). To mark the Anti Child Prostitution Day, falling on April 4th, a story called Selling A Body To Gain A Mind has been included, which sensitively, yet sensibly dwells on the relationship of a prostitute and her daughter. Around 20 stories/poems have been presented in the same format, each of which narrate the story of a girl/woman dealing with numerous taboos and regressive traditions stifling their very existence on the face of our planet.
These stories needed to be told. There is nothing extraordinary about the simple narratives presented in this book except for the fact that as women, having observed the prejudices working against us in family, society and professional sphere, we can relate to these stories without even trying. A wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a lover - in each relationship, women have been expected to play an exceptional, glorious, self-sacrificing and tradition bound role. We all go through these different relationships. We all experience at some point of time the cumbersome expectations which each act brings with itself. If we are lucky enough to not have experienced any discrimination and suppression, we all know stories of our friends/colleagues/relatives who are undergoing unimaginable sufferings solely on the basis of their gender. The fairer sex has been relegated to the position of the second sex, with force and conviction and adamant refusal to change the status quo.
One of the remarkable things which Sagarika has done in her novel is to have highlighted the hypocrisy of progressiveness which entire mankind is proud of. By quoting again and again the example of Panchali, the author has enforced upon a reader's psyche the fact that how in the ancient times, which we understand as primitive, women were regarded as equal, they were respected, allowed their choice and their opinions held weight not just in domestic, but even administrative affairs. A systematic erosion of taken-for-granted equality has been brought about in preceding centuries, the ugly manifestations of which we see in cases of domestic violence, incest, marital rape, work place harassment, molestation, eve teasing, dowry deaths, foeticide, infanticide, child marriages, widow codes, sati pratha, honor killings, and an endless list of related issues. Many, if not all, of these issues find echo in Sagarika's stories. She talks of an aged widow wanting to settle down with a life partner at the age of where people expect you to wait out your death. She takes you into the mind of expecting mothers who seldom think of anything other than what is good or bad for the life inside them. She makes you meet a victim of trafficking and gives you a peek into her psyche with a melancholic rush of emotions. She explores the life of a woman who chose to be a homemaker when the heights of success were themselves knocking on her door. All this and lot more. A Calendar Too Crowded is an apt name for a book which emphasizes on the fact that each day in the life of a woman is a story worth telling in itself.
Where the book does not work for me is in the predictability of almost all stories. Not much of innovative content. The stories are more like musings. You can flow along, and know where you are headed throughout the way. An occasional mention of mythological and historical figures who stood out as women of courage and dignity is interesting, but I felt that the author made similar kind of mentions at too many places, which made things look slightly repetitive.Also, totally out of the ambit of literary criticism, I think the book is priced a little on the higher side. On the plus side of things, relationships were explored beautiful. I did shed a tear or two while being transported deep into the lives of women whose portrayal was sensible and believable. My favorite stories out of the collection, which I will strongly recommend to others as well are The Homecoming, Sisters By Chance And Not By Choice and Knowledge Beyond The Printed Letters. Finding An Ideal Mother For My Unborn Child was one story which was fresh in terms of both, the narration as well as the perspective. These stories rose above the helplessness, and spoke of nurturing relationships and able choices.
All in all, it was a balanced book. Great thought, but the potential of the book, I felt, was far more than what came out in the final execution. 2.5 stars on 5 is my verdict for this one.
P.S. - Having worked closely on issues of gender, and with young girls victimized by their own loved ones, I could not help but feel extremely happy about the fact that a young author put her heart and mind into coming out with something like this. This critique aside, I am quite a fan of Sagarika's spirit, and her lovely smile!