Review: Defiant Dreams

Editor’s note

Although I have never met them, I know several of the contributors to this volume, mostly through the online Facebook group For Writers, By Authors. I was a beta reader of Radhika Maira Tabrez’s short story in this volume, Built From the Ashes. Anirban Nanda has beta read for me. When Rhiti Bose approached me about providing a free review copy of this book, I agreed because I could not buy the ebook on Amazon.com and wanted to read Radhika and Anirban’s stories. As a rule, I do not accept free review copies. I prefer to buy the books I review because it supports the author. But, I made an exception for this volume. Whether my review is colored by bias is for you to decide.

About the book

Defiant Dreams: Tales of Everyday Divas is a short story collection from Incredible Women of India, an online magazine that features life stories of everyday women. In 2015, Incredible Women conducted a short story contest called Stree. The contest had more than 100 entries from across India and beyond. 24 authors were chosen to contribute to Defiant Dreams.

 

Defiant Dreams was published through Readomania, India’s literary social network. Readomania has four divisions designed to encourage reading and writing: traditional print publishing, literary events, literary products, and its most visible division: Readomania.com. The website includes a portal for publishing short stories, author interviews, and contests.

The book is available on Amazon India, Flipkart, and at local bookstores throughout India.

The good

The stories are emotionally powerful. The writers connect well with the reader. The first few stories in particular ripped my heart out of my chest. But, for me, that emotional toll is a hard one to pay. I considered giving up, but then Sutapa Basu’s story relieved some of that pain. After that, the tone of the volume softened a bit, and I was able to enjoy the remaining stories.

The breadth and depth of women’s experience is well represented here. Like the writers, the women in these stories span India’s geographic and social spectrum. Urban, rural. Young, old. Rich, poor. Single, married, divorced, and widowed. While the media focuses  attention on India’s rape crisis, this collection allows readers to see and understand that the challenges faced by modern Indian women are far more varied and complex. Adultery, cancer, terrorism, addiction, widowhood, and adoption are just a few of the many issues raised in the stories. The women in these stories empower themselves in all walks of life. An ironing woman, fashion designer, housewife, and student all find a home in this collection.

I enjoyed that the writers didn’t place blame on the government or with men. They sought to understand the cause of women’s issues, and to see women lift themselves out of their situations. But, in doing so, the protagonists don’t trample on men to succeed. This volume is a study in equality for all. In a few stories, men were a critical part of the solution. In a country striving to move forward to improve the lives of women, it’s critical that men are part of the solutions. In this volume, they often are.

The target audience for this volume is Indian readers. But, as one of the editors, Lopa Banerjee, lives in the US, discussion of possible reception by foreign readers is appropriate. I don’t like it when authors are forced to change the story to suit foreign readers. I strongly believe that if we want to encourage readers to explore diverse stories, we must appreciate and respect the storytelling tradition in which the stories are written. And that means leaving some words in the original language rather than searching for an inappropriate English term. But, it’s a delicate balance. The editors did well including notes for non-English terms. Unfortunately, while reading, I didn’t know there were definitions at the end of the story. Footnotes might have worked better. In an ebook, linked definitions would be ideal.

The bad

The collection has two editors, Rhiti Bose and Lopamudra Banerjee. They have designed a great collection. The stories tell two narratives: one within the story and one within the book. But, while the collected stories are well chosen, at times, I could see two editorial hands at work. The difference is only occasionally visible, but visible nonetheless.

A volume about women’s empowerment will have its fair share of strong female characters. I was relieved when a few stories featured women who were vulnerable or villains. Such characters provided a good balance to the tendency to equate empowerment with strength. But, I did often feel like the endings were too happy. I tend to write happy endings myself, but even I felt that some were forced and cliched. Indian audiences love happy endings, and in a volume on empowerment, it makes sense that the women become empowered. But, with power comes a dark side: the abuse of power. I would have liked to see that explored a bit as well. Moreover, more stories with morally ambiguous outcomes would have added a nice shift of tone.

While these stories took on sensitive topics like rape and prostitution, I often felt let down by the euphemisms employed. Sex is an uncomfortable topic in Indian culture, so even including a story where one character is gang raped as an act of war is a brave decision by the editors. It’s important that the act not be sexualized, but the way it was glossed felt too light a touch. Bringing such acts into the light is one of the ways in which they can be conquered.

The verdict

Defiant Dreams from @IamReadomania @Incredblwmnofin is a strong collection about Indian women’s challenges.

The stories

As part of my review, I reviewed the individual stories on Twitter. Following the structure of my long-form reviews, I included one reply tweet for good, bad, and verdict feedback. If you are interested in learning more about the individual stories, you can follow the individual tweets.

Built from the Ashes by Radhika Maira Tabrez

It’s Not the End by Kirthi Jayakumar

She Chose to Live by Debosmita Nandy

Bidisha by Paulami DuttaGupta

The Drug Addict by Santosh Bakaya

A Safe Passage by Sanghamitra Bose

The Bride by Esha Chakraborty

 

Memories in March by Sutapa Basu

Unfound: Searching for Home by Vasudha Chandna Gulati

The Journey of Two Women by Deepti Menon

A Second Chance by Arpita Banerjee

Dharmambal by Bhuvaneswari Shivakumar Shankar

The 40s by Ramaa Sonti

Amlanation by Anirban Nanda

Please Leave Your Sex Outside by Aashisha Chakraborty

Tara by Geeta Negi

Anjali Chakraborty by Tanushree Ghosh Dhall

Yamuna Maa’s Hand by Mahesh Sowani

Once, For a Change by Moinak Dutta

Pregnant Dreams by Sridevi Datta

Second Innings of Ma by Namrata Chauhan

Here I Come Banaras by Avanti Sopory

To Be or Not To Be by Paromita Mukherjee Ojha

Some Porridge and an Eduction by Sreesha Divakaran

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