By Salini Vineeth
For a woman, making a choice is never easy. Be it a simple choice like going on a vacation or a bigger one like taking up a demanding career, or returning to school after having kids. A woman often feels guilty for putting her happiness above her social and familial obligations.
So, what if a woman decides to defy social norms and lay claim to her happiness? What if she decides to spread her wings and fly? Will she be pulled down by society and her own self-doubt? Or will she soar?
The three protagonists of Gurugram-based doctor and writer Dr Shalini Mullick’s debut novel, Stars from the Borderless Sea (INR 325, 2022), step out to claim their happiness and carve their identities, no matter what society thinks. The book is a collection of three novellas, Sayonee, Humsafar and Humraaz.
Geetika was thrust into an unhappy marriage due to patriarchal customs. The first novella Sayonee portrays how a gentle Geetika turns her life around after many tragedies shake her up.
Rachna, a doctor, had started her marriage on a happy note. A tragedy soon strikes, and her husband turns emotionally distant. The second novella, Humsafar, is about how Rachna holds onto hope and builds a meaningful life and career.
The third novella, Humraaz, is about Mahima, who is stuck in an abusive marriage. She puts up with this for a while, but with resourcefulness and hard work, she rediscovers happiness.
The common trait that connects these protagonists is their unwillingness to be passive witnesses to their lives. Shalini observes, “These women faced unexpected challenges and tried to rise above them. But they needed to do it within many constraints. Constraints of society, family, of practicality, among others. There would also have been other factors – including their own conditioning, their own vulnerability.”
Interestingly, the book is slotted in the romance genre, though the stories do not follow the usual fairy-tale romance plot. “Life has no guarantees, and the happily-ever-after is not a given. Love is often described as riding off happily into the sunset. But it can also be finding shades of yourself and each other. The love stories of these women are integral to their life journeys,” the author observes.
All three novellas portray love outside marriage, a subject that comes with a warning sign in Indian media. Our popular culture is eager to show how extramarital relationships result in the doom of those involved. They often depict the characters melting in the crucible of self-loath and guilt.
But, the author says, “Love needs no labels, nor will it confirm to any that we try and give it. It transcends all constructs and stereotypes – geography, colour, race, social hierarchy, age or gender.”
Further, Shalini follows her protagonists’ intrepid journeys without judgement. She believes that, “A reader is a mature person with their own lived experiences. Leaving space for the reader to interpret the characters and emotions lets them feel the story instead of just reading it.”
Shalini, who is respiratory pathologist by profession, writes nonfiction, poetry and fiction. Her short stories are regularly featured on online platforms and have been published in anthologies including eShe’s Everything Changed After That: 25 Women, 25 Stories.
Shalini has won two Orange Flower awards for short fiction in 2022 and for writing on LGBTQ+ issues in 2021. The mother of two believes in telling stories about women who take charge of their fate despite their vulnerabilities and constraints.
“Giving my women protagonists the agency in their choices, showing their journey of empowerment, is a conscious decision. As a woman author, I strongly believe that creating such characters and telling their stories is immensely important. These stories are a reminder that women can live life on their own terms even within the constraints of society,” she says.
Salini Vineeth is a Bengaluru-based author of four books and freelance writer.