In the alluringly subheaded Apradhini: Women Without Men, the late Hindi writer Shivani turns a spare and elegant eye towards the lives of women on the fringes of their societies: prisoners and mendicants, domestic helpers and viragos, those whose existences are rarely registered as anything other than pitiable ciphers or outright contradictions. Shivani, however, seeks them in more liminal spaces, quite successfully avoiding the tropes that usually jaundice narratives of subalternity. She seeks them, most of all, in the liminal space of conversation: of what one woman will say to another when no one else is around.

It’s necessary to mention upfront an issue that does the book a disservice, however. We understand, if only from a brief note somewhere on the back cover, that this collection of sixteen sketches is a mix of non-fiction and fiction. One surmises upon reading that the book’s final section, of three pieces, contains the short stories, if only because of a detectable nuance in tone. But no indication is given otherwise as to which category any given piece falls into. This is a glaring oversight, doing justice to neither the author who compiled or created these stories nor the women whose lives they are. To deny credit to the former for works of the imagination is less grave, however, than to deny the latter the basic dignity of being read as a person and not a character.

This begs the question of whether one must approach the reading of what is presented as fact and what is presented as fiction differently. The succinct answer is yes – good literature will illumine the world no matter which medium it appears in, but to pass off the imagined as the experienced is an act of questionable integrity. The decision of Shivani’s estate, translator (her daughter Ira Pande) or publisher to make no distinction between works of fiction and non-fiction is a pity, casting unnecessary confusion over a book of tremendous strength and sensitivity.

The women we meet in these pages, these eponymous women without men, would have suffered at the hands at a writer concerned with sensationalism or self-interest. They could very easily have been rendered one-dimensionally as superficial objects of pop or pulp, driven by their sexuality and selfishness. But Shivani etches them so delicately that even the most lurid of their stories is full of empathy and nuance. We meet several of them behind bars, most often for murders. A few, like alms-seeking travellers Alakh Mai and Rajula, live without address. “There is no jail on earth that can shackle a free spirit and no spirit so free that its feet cannot be bound in chains we cannot see,” writes the author, and this line underscores the spirit of the collection on the whole. Unsentimental yet compassionate and peppered with enjoyable, slightly humourous moments without becoming tasteless, Apradhini’s most victorious effect is that it assigns such importance to the vagaries of fate – how arbitrary it is, in the final reckoning, that one is only someone who reads about such lives, and not a person whose life such is.

And not, for instance, the deeply sensual Muggi, who left a trail of fourteen conned husbands behind her before falling in love with the fifteenth and who eats terracotta to assuage her sadness. Or Janaki, who helps her brother-in-law murder her husband as he sleeps in the same room with their children. Or Alakh Mai, a child-bride who pushed a buffalo, her husband and his mother over a ravine before turning to the spiritual life, the only option available to her. Or Deshpat, who enjoyed the power of being a gangster moll till the love of one piece of gold ruined her life. In these lightly-etched but strikingly powerful vignettes, we feel intimately connected to their lives, and appreciative of their agency – not, as would have been the case with a more emotionally manipulative author, feeling badly for or towards them.

There are, however, a few pieces that miss the mark. The first is “Ama”. a recollection of the author’s own mother; in this instance, the subject seems to cut too close to the bone and thus comes across as slightly too maudlin. But the more notable failure is that of the three pieces that consist of the book’s final section and are most likely to be fiction, two – “Shibi” and “Dhuan” – are both about high class courtesans who fall from grace. This line of storytelling carries far too many shades of regressive, parochial cautionary tales on female immorality – a big disappointment in an otherwise obviously feminist collection.

Thankfully, the book closes on a less judgmental and far happier note: “Tope”. Ironically, one of the book’s most notable figures is hardly a woman without men – the flamboyant and excitable Christina Victoria Thomas rabble-rouses right from “the historic time when she really spewed fire and brimstone” all the way into old age. Fiction or non-fiction, heroine or harridan, we could always do with more women like her.

An edited version appeared in today’s Hindustan Times.