On Writing ‘That Face, Like a Harvest Moon’
19th December, 2012 was a day of many horrors and of facing some bitter truths. On that night, in India’s capital city, New Delhi, a girl was brutally raped on a public bus, tortured and thrown out into the freezing night to be left for dead. The girl, Jyoti Singh, did not survive and her consequent death led to some of the largest demonstrations in India, in recent times. People protested in different parts of the country and several other Asian countries, questions about women and how society views them, or ought to view them; their dignity and freedom became the single most discussed subject on Indian media.
I followed the news in the UK, and was very disturbed by what was going on, and I had the familiar feeling of helplessness that this was life, and this was normal in India. That girls had to be careful, that their safety was their responsibility, no matter what. I started to read literature that would help me understand the problems of women, to find a platform that didn’t condemn women who chose to speak out, who chose to live their lives according to their beliefs. I read Gloria Steinem, Chimananda Adichie and followed the One Billion Rising campaign: ‘the biggest mass action to end violence against women in human history’. (http://www.onebillionrising.org/about/campaign/one-billion-rising/)
The story of Manju was the age old premise of a woman who had suffered in her youth and kept quiet about it, internalising all the anguish and pain. It was an incident so terrible that she was scared to even think about it. She had been brainwashed to completely disown that period of her past. But ironically, she got caught up in a similar situation and had to finally face up to what had happened in the past, as well as what was happening in the present. I also wanted to show that how with changing times, thought processes change and what was not acceptable in years gone by could be perfectly acceptable now.
Manju was not happy when her daughter married an Englishman. She saw him as an alien being, quite sure she would never be able to communicate with him. But through the years, she found that she had grown to love her son-in-law, and that she admired the honest relationship her daughter had with her husband.
This was not what she had experienced as a child. Her father, although much loved by her, was strict and ‘the man of the house’. Through Manju, I tried to explore the different roles of a woman, a mother, a daughter, a grandmother, a mother-in-law. But where was she, Manju, the woman? How did she see herself? Were her thoughts influenced by what society dictated a woman of her age and social background? Could she let go of her demons, her terrible secret and accept what life had to offer at present?
These were the questions I wanted to explore, and I wanted to walk in Manju’s shoes. It was not difficult for me to do that, as growing up in India, I had seen and faced many situations that required me to take a step back because I was a woman. But I wanted Manju not to be cowed down by what had been engrained into her psyche, but to be forward looking, and accepting changes: be that with her grand-daughter’s situation or her relationship with her son-in-law.
The title is inspired by a Hindi phrase, chaand ka tukra, a term of endearment usually for children, that literally means ‘a piece of the moon’. It is a reference for the one Manju loves, for the one she loved and lost, and the one on its way.
It was a difficult subject to write about, but it gave me, as a writer, hope and power to change things for the better. If only this was as easily done in real life.
Susmita Bhattacharya’s debut novel, The Normal State of Mind, was published by Parthian in March 2015. Her short stories have appeared in several journals and magazines in the UK and internationally, one of which has been nominated by Structo for the Pushcart Prize. Her short story, ‘The Summer of Learning’, was recently featured on Radio 4.
You can read Susmita’s short story ‘That Face, Like a Harvest Moon’ in Issue Six of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.
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© Susmita Bhattacharya, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.