In a 1990 interview with the Paris Review, Margaret Atwood said, “Men often ask me, ‘Why are your female characters so paranoid?’ It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.” Her words resonate with many, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo revelations last year. Indeed, occasionally over those turbulent few months, it felt like the relationship between various genders would always be marked by mistrust and paranoia. Turning the tables on their (mostly male) abusers appears to be one function that some of the stories in Magical Women serve. This short story anthology, edited by Sukanya Venkataraghavan, writer of Dark Things (2016), is about what it means to be powerful and magical, especially for a woman. As Venkataraghavan writes in her Editor’s Note, “We need to tell these tales embedded in our culture and imagination, about magic we have forgotten we possess, or are told we don’t, because the world is afraid of a female who knows she is powerful.” And so there are stories like ‘Gul’ by Shreya Ila Anasuya, ‘Gandaberunda’ by SV Sujatha, ‘Earth and Evolution Walk Into A Bar…’ by Sejal Mehta, ‘Tridevi Turbulence’ by Trisha Das, Venkataraghavan’s own ‘The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden’ and ‘Apocalyptica’ by Krishna Udayasankar, in which a woman (or women) takes back her power, even if it means following a path of destruction.
Which is when it starts to get a little exhausting. Anger is a powerful emotion, but it seems a little reductive that a show of female power should occur mainly within this paradigm of violence and retribution. Indeed, the weakest stories in the book are those where female rage and vengeance are the only things driving the plot. ‘Gandaberunda’, in particular, feels like a missed opportunity because it never escapes the confines of its admittedly excellent concept to acquire a full-fledged, multi-note plot. Contrast it with ‘The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden’, which, by the end, becomes a moving tale about how anger can transform from a barren emotion to one that drives a person’s creative side.
The best stories here are the ones leavened with wonder and a sense of humour, and which allow a little room for love and softness. So you have the delightfully mad and blackly funny ‘Grandma Garam’s Kitty Party’ in which interesting things happen at a gathering of witches. Tashan Mehta’s ‘Rulebook for Creating a Universe’ is the most captivating story of the lot, for creating an immersive world even as it tells the tale of a girl who asked inconvenient questions.
The imaginative world-building attempts in many of the stories is admirable, but they frequently come off as laboured. We know that stories are sometimes the best vehicle for messages, but when the message doesn’t form an organic part of the story, all it does is break the illusion.