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Semeen Ali
‘You Cannot Have all the Answers & Other Stories’
Semeen Ali

Deepa Agarwal
You Cannot Have All the Answers and Other Stories
New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2018
ISBN-10: 9386906376
ISBN-13: 978-9386906373
Pp 186 | 350

Stories of women with their ups and downs in life

“Because what memories could that place hold for her, that place she referred to as ‘home’? For home was there, wasn’t it?”

In the first few pages of the book, the theme that runs across the book has been opened up. A sense of belonging – what we call home. Home can have various definitions. We define home as a sanctuary – where one can put to rest the other “ faces” one is forced to put on for the world; a place where one can be oneself or not as the book also attempts to tear away the stereotypes we have when it comes to defining what is called a home. For the characters of the first story in the book, home has various definitions – the nostalgia that one’s country can evoke to an old-fashioned cradle that was filled with memories. While the story has been put across in a very simple format, it is the theme that is multi layered. A sense of loss along with the struggle of growing up as women. The familiarity of an image – in this case that of one’s mother is at stake when the past comes knocking on the door. And one of the character’s in the book expresses her concern –

“I’m not sure if one really wants to know what one’s mother’s life was like before she became your mother. It interferes too much with the image that’s familiar…”

If one looks thematically at the short stories in this book, the themes have been dealt with in the past by writers like Naiyer, Masud, Manto to name a few – looking at how an individual psyche is explored but what makes this collection of stories an interesting one is how the author of this book has focused on women only – traversing through various ups and downs of life.

“… perhaps I’m not looking for answers – maybe, I want the question to remain a question.”

This line is the backbone of many stories in this collection. The characters in the book take a look inside themselves not to find answers but to discover that they cannot be tied down to the various roles that have been laid down for them. Maybe the unravelling of a question; maybe the solving of a problem is not the solution for the questions that surround them. There is a sense of fear that looms in the book- what if everything that one has strived for turns out to be a futile one? What if in the search for the meaning of one’s life- one is left with disappointment. From women who have lived the trauma of partition, to those living in the superficially idyllic conditions to the ones who have been walled off from the outside world in the form of institutions like boarding schools- this collection delves into myriad circumstances that an individual can face and what remains to be seen is how they cope with it. The stories do not have any definite ending and the title of the book – You cannot have all the answers – echoes every time one finishes reading a story from this collection.

There are echoes of Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaf in one of the stories but the story takes a novel turn to look upon the condition of women who are trapped in a marriage.

“In a lower voice she said, ‘But remember what your husband said…never venture outside these safe walls. You might bring a madwoman from the streets into your house…and find yourself.”

Mrs. Lal, the protagonist in one of the stories like Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway goes about the house prepping it up but at the same questioning her life, her surroundings and herself…

“…no one could ever dream that she could harbour such fancies. Worse, surely no one could believe or imagine that she had ever been young…”

And surely no one outside the world of these women characters can imagine a private life that they have long concealed from the world. The dichotomy that exists between the image they project and the self that is hidden away has been beautifully brought out through this collection of short stories. These stories are about women – some find stability in a chaotic world; while some are swept away by the structures they struggle to keep out of their lives. The book is a kaleidoscope – you will not find any particular colour dominating the others. Read in its entirety, the language of the book has been kept simple, the plot and the narrative structure mesh well with the depiction of the situations and the characters.

“Some stories begin at the beginning and some at the end. And in some, it’s hard to say where the beginnings is and where the end.”


Issue 79 (May-Jun 2018)

Book Reviews
  • Arpana Nath: ‘Aosenla’s Story’
  • Babli Mallick: ‘Contemporary Short Stories from Mizoram’
  • D S Rao: ‘The Gita – A Critique’
  • Jindagi Kumari: ‘Why I am a Hindu’
  • Malavika Kapur: ‘Song of India – A Love Story from WW-II’
  • Purabi Bhattacharya: ‘The Guru Who Came Down from the Mountain’
  • Semeen Ali: ‘You Cannot Have all the Answers & Other Stories’
  • Tasmina Yasmin: ‘Temporary People’
  • Sagarika Dash: Women’s Corner