In the opening of Women Who Misbehave, Sayantani Dasgupta recalls the movies and television shows of her childhood in India. These stories, she writes, were filled with men portraying vengeful sons, chivalrous brothers, beneficent heroes, and the women on whose behalf they acted. Dasgupta tells us that she wrote Women Who Misbehave as an antidote to the mother-sister-lover archetypes of her youth. She populates her stories with jealous frenemies, mercurial writers, adventurous teenagers, and lovesick rebels. These women, like the countless men who have preceded them, have virtues and vices, flaws and foibles. In crafting characters who are more than the roles set out for them by society, Dasgutpa demonstrates that, for a woman, the simple act of existing as a complex human being is transgressive.
The collection opens with “The Party,” a title that belies the uneasiness that suffuses the story. At the end of the work week, a weary woman unwillingly attends a party thrown by a former colleague. This colleague, newly married, is throwing the dinner party to celebrate her three-month anniversary, but as the story tells us, “You care neither for the occasion nor the husband.” Still, the protagonist shows up, and the night unfolds like a slow-moving train wreck. No ice for the drinks on a hot night in Delhi. Nothing but potato chips for an appetizer. Biriyani promised for dinner, but the cooking not yet commenced. The former colleague simpering at the new husband. The unnamed protagonist positively drips with annoyance and envy, and Dasgupta’s use of second person invites, insists, demands that the reader place herself in the protagonist’s shoes. As her exasperation with the evening steadily builds, the reader herself is forced to remember all the times she has thought less of her own life. Wanted more from it. Wondered what could have been if only she had been bolder. Yet in the final moments when our protagonist finally gives voice to her emotions and speaks out, she immediately regrets her choice. In this story, the misbehavior is apparent, but the punishment never comes to light.
Dasgupta largely eschews the familiar structure of transgression followed by punishment, resisting the easy morality tales within these pages. She avoids other tropes as well. In “The Reader,” a nervous ten-year-old girl marries a bored, balding grown man, and my stomach clenched with the first scene. I steeled myself for the cruel in-laws and alcoholic, abusive husband to come. Instead, the titular reader enters a loving, nurturing home, where her clandestine literacy earns the respect of her new husband.
While some of Dasgupta’s misbehaving women escape punishment, others suffer gravely for their misdeeds. “Shaaji and Satnam” unfolds surreally like a sordid tale on a true crime podcast. A headstrong teenager colludes with her forbidden lover to make a bloody escape from her constricting family. The trappings of her domesticity—the tea she prepares every morning, the floral sari cocooning her body, the daily visits from the milkman—pave the way to her new life. But in the story’s sequel, “If Only Somewhere,” we learn that this new life is no better than the old one. Her hands tied by the bounds of patriarchy, Shaaji has simply shifted the source of her oppression from a strict but distant father to a suffocatingly possessive, vindictive husband.
Indeed, most of the women who must answer for their actions are ultimately victims of a patriarchal society. A young woman yearning for love finds herself trapped in an abusive marriage. A child bride fearfully hides her literacy because men don’t want wives with too many ideas in their heads. An Indian-American grad student and a white single mother throw mental barbs at one another based entirely on the qualities each embodies that society tells women they shouldn’t. They perpetuate upon one another the cruelties they have endured at the hands of a judgmental world.
Just as in her debut essay collection Fire Girl, Dasgupta’s prose is alive with sensory detail. The reader can smell the fresh earth after an unexpected rain, hear the lusty cries of street vendors, taste the crispy sour spicy puffed rice of a homecooked meal, see a purple dawn blooming like a bruise on the horizon. Most of her stories are set in India and center Indian women, and this is where Dasgupta shines brightest. Her Indian characters are vividly drawn, expressive and idiosyncratic and at times surprising. By contrast, her white characters, despite their rich backstories, feel one-dimensional and archetypal.
As an Indian-American woman who grew up in the present-day United States and, by virtue of when we emigrated, had a home life firmly rooted in 1980s India, I was shocked and thrilled by the Indian women in these stories. Here were women who had premarital sex, who put their careers first, who married men their families disapproved of, who went to parties and had friend groups with tangled incestuous love lives. Here were women just like the women I know stateside. Here were women like me. Reading Dasgupta’s tale about a child bride, I thought of my own great-grandmother, who was married at thirteen. I never asked her what that was like. I never knew if she, like the girl in the story, was a reader. The tittering gang of girls in “Miss Josephine” made me wonder about my mother’s adolescence in south India. Did she and her friends have a favorite bakery in their village? Did they wonder about the life of a mysterious outsider?
Like Dasgupta, I spent my girlhood envisioning myself in the roles of the adult men around me. When I have a job in an office, I used to say to myself. When I drive the family on a road trip, When I decide where our family will move next. I used to catch myself in these thoughts and redirect them. When I am the mother, I would correct. When I cook the food for the family. What I didn’t realize then, and what Dasgupta drives home with this collection, is that the imagining is the point. The more we put ourselves in places where no one like us exists, the more the world opens up to us. The more we see all the things we may be. The more we learn that to exist, to simply be ourselves and make the choices we want to make, is to misbehave. And as we learn from many of the stories in this collection, misbehavior may not be so bad after all.
Chaya Nautiyal Murali is an Indian-American pediatric geneticist and Pushcart Prize-nominated personal essayist. Her work has been featured in SFWP Quarterly, Barely South Review, Aster(ix), Entropy, and elsewhere. She lives in Houston, TX, where she is at work on her first collection of essays.