Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories by Vandana Singh

The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet And Other Stories
Vandana Singh
Originally 2008, I read 2013
206 pages, speculative, short stories, satire, social commentary
Found: Kolkata Book Fair 2015

The first Zubaan book I picked up, this collection of short stories is a brilliant addition to the Indian speculative fiction genre. The stories in this collection fall everywhere in the speculative fiction spectrum, including magical realism, hard science fiction, and anthropology-based science fiction, as well as a few that don't seem to have much to do with speculative fiction at all!

The Stories

  • "Hunger"

A housewife who would rather be reading science-fiction novels is stuck preparing for a fancy dinner party (ostensibly her daughter's birthday party but actually a networking event with the higher-ups in her husband's company). Meanwhile, she worries about the next-door neighbor's ill and neglected father-in-law.

  • "Delhi"

Aseem has the strange gift of being able to see through time: as he walks around Delhi, he catches glimpses of the people and buildings from the past and from the future.  One day he is contacted by an organization purporting to tell him the meaning of his life, which apparently has something to do with a picture of an unknown girl.

  • "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet"

Ramnath Mishra's retirement is rudely interrupted when his wife suddenly announces one morning, "I know at last what I am. I am a planet."

  • "Infinities(available online from Clarkesworld)

An old math teacher, Abdul Karim, is obsessed with understanding the infinite, a dream encouraged by the angels that he sees out of the corner of his eyes.

  • "Thirst"

Susheela is a housewife with all the accompanying responsibilities and a small son. But there is a history of madness in her family - her mother and grandmother both disappeared, and now she herself is dreaming of snakes.

  • "Conservation Laws"

Gyanendra Sahai, a new addition to a run-down Lunar boarding house, announces his true identity as a member of an early Mars exploratory team.

  • "Three Tales from Sky River"

A collection of three legends from human civilizations spread throughout the galaxy, including one about the Medusa, a parasitic organism that looks like hair.

  • "The Tetrahedron"

A strange object appears in the middle of a busy road in Delhi. No one can explain what it is, and strange things keep happening around it.

  • "The Wife"

After 23 years of marriage, Padma's husband has left her alone in rural America. Her thoughts go back to an inexplicable childhood experience.

  • "The Room on the Roof"

When the room on the roof of the 13-year-old Urmila's house is rented by a sculptor, the girl expects her life to magically change.

Home and life in India

One theme that repeats in a majority of these stories is the idea of home: whether home is a place that exists, and whether you can ever really return to it. In "The Tetrahedron," for example, people enter the strange structure and are found months later, wandering in the desert with no memory of what happened. In "Infinities," the main character is at home, but because of communal violence home is no longer what it used to be. So is it still home if it has changed so much? What is home, really?

Another theme is a common one from current Indian discourse: the status of women, especially housewives living in their in-laws' home (see my review of English Vinglish for another example). In "Thirst," the young wife Susheela finds her actions restricted by social norms. She has to prove that she is a suitable wife for her husband, and must act with a certain propriety to demonstrate that she is not like her mother and grandmother (who, rumor has it, went insane). When she finds strange desires creeping into her dreams and her body, she tries to resist and repress them to fit in. But in the end she discovers a family secret: her mother and grandmother did not go insane, but they were actually Nagas! I loved the way the author incorporated Indian mythology into this story: what seems to be a tale of mental illness and lust becomes a lyrical tale of ecstasy, and about balancing one's responsibilities with one's desires.

In the title story, the main characters are an old couple. With their children out of the house and the husband retired, the wife finally finds time to spend on her own self-discovery. She is a planet, inhabited by tiny beings! Her husband does not believe her, first thinking that she just wants to make his life miserable and ruin his retirement, and then wondering if she has gone insane. In a complete role reversal, he suddenly has to take care of his wife, something that he is not comfortable with.

The Collection

"Three Tales from Sky River" were, for me, the most enjoyable in this collection. Similar to some of the stories in Ursula Le Guin's Hainish Cycle, Singh has imagined what form folktales would take in societies strewn around the heavens. How would these societies remember their human origins? And what would happen if another human suddenly appeared in these isolated societies? Of all the stories in this collection, I recommend this triad most of all. 

I highly recommend this collection of short stories. They are a wonderful contribution to the flourishing speculative fiction genre from the Indian subcontinent, and also provide another angle on the role of women in present-day Indian society. 

The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet is available in the US from Amazon and Indiebound, in the UK from Amazon and Hive, and in India from Amazon and flipkart.

Further Reading: 

"Cry of the Kharchal," a short story published in Clarkesworld 
"Ruminations in an Alien Tongue," a short story published in Lightspeed
"Wake-Rider," a short story published in Lightspeed
"Life-pod," a short story published in Lightspeed
"Somadeva," a short story published in Strange Horizons
"Ambiguity Machines: An Examination," a short story published on
Read interviews with the author on her website

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