Wednesday, 14 September 2016

A mixed call on 'Curtain Call'

My feelings for ‘Curtain Call’, 20 short stories compiled and edited by Rafaa Dalvi, are mixed. Juicy apples and bland oranges don’t mix. It’s true that most anthologies with works by first-time authors tend to swing between the good and the average, thus. That they introduce us to new writers and fresh writing is an undeniable benefit, as is reading some memorable stories! While both these positives hold true for this multi-genre collection, what is also noticeable is that the editor’s claim of only ‘quality writing’ making the cut rings hollow a few stories into the book. 

Good things first! Eight stories stood out for me, for reasons unique to each. 

The Stage Leads   

His Leela’ by Karthik begins with a man snapping at everything that is amiss around him, while his wife finishes off the household chores to escape to college. ‘Do you have no respect for your husband?’ he bellows. We watch the wife closely. We feel her silence, her submission, her patience. But only until Karthik turns the lens towards her husband - the brooding man who stands looking at a dark tower he ‘resented deeply’. The wife is forgotten, as the reader is welcomed into his innermost recess – where a past of unfulfilled dreams gnaws at his insides. Where his misery stems from. And which he habitually uses to repel people and animals. And then suddenly, Leela walks in, becomes ‘his Leela’ and unknowingly turns this couple’s lives around. From what seemed like the picture of many homes at the start to one which ends on a beautiful note affirming a different kind of friendship and love, Karthik’s story is written with much sensitivity and understanding. It removes the curtain from the mundane, scratches the surface of human bitterness and shows us how hope to feel new and see oneself anew always exists.   

If ‘His Leela’ is like a slice of our middle-aged lives, one hopes ‘Office Visit’ by Bruce Memblatt is just a bad, though very creative, dream! Short snappy sentences and microscopic details introduce us to Rosie, a twelve year old girl who is sitting before Gloria, the school therapist. Rosie’s ‘obviously rare maturity’ patiently discussing ‘the futility of it all’ hints at something mysterious. Whispers about ‘old souls’ and ‘old bones’ pique curiosity to dangerous levels. Till Gloria screams – ‘How are you possible?’ and we scream with her. Cruel in his quick pace and without letting the fantastical grip loosen around our necks, Bruce manages to suffocate his readers with the events in the room which follow this ‘cosmic typo’, this … Rosie. You’re left asking – Was Gloria herself in need of therapy? Did this really happen? What did?! And you know this was a story well-told, that’s what it was!

The Lifeless Living Sculpture’ by Bhavya Kaushik is different. It involves you with its intensity, saddens with its beauty and leaves you floating in an ocean of interpretations. A sculptor manages to create ‘a physical manifestation of my own thoughts, my obsession’ till the lifeless woman starts living! What follows is like a lover’s monologue – on yearning, obsession, patience and sacrifice. If you can ignore the ‘moral’ at the end of the story, this piece becomes an introspection into the relationship between an artist and his art, the pleasure and hope of creating and the despair that sets in when the work is ready; Ready to belong to the world as an entity in itself, and not just to the artist, who is by now left with nothing but empty hands and a heavy heart. 

Cooking up a Storm’ is a well-written story by Shawn Pereira, which draws you in from the word go. Meticulous detail, regular doses of suspense and no overt reliance on a twisty closure! That it is about the Italian Mafia made it run the risk of wallowing in images borrowed from cinema. But it doesn’t! Salvatori, who seems to have had his cook, the narrator’s father, killed is the object of the son’s revenge. So the son steps into Salvatori’s kitchen, serves ‘succulent meat’ and by a horrid turn of events, well, cooks up a storm. In just over four pages the author shows the many layers of truth and lies which powerful families live with, the assumptions their every action comes shrouded in and most importantly, the oft-ignored sensitivity and humanity that lies within.  

The most delightful pair of characters in the book are the two boys in the story ‘Boys will be boys’ by Dr. Roshan Radhakrishnan. All misgivings about feeding stag stereotypes are forgotten in loud guffaws as we see the incorrigible Renjith’s persistent ‘fatherly tone’ to make his colleague Sunil reveal the ‘private’ details of his date night. Their relationship, endearingly portrayed through jokes and hyperbolic references to cartoons and kings, paints an enviable camaraderie while yet reflecting on the wide mental canvas of the author. You want to read further because it’s super fun, and later because there is strip-poker happening too. In the end it’s Roshan who wins the hand! 

Sharath Komarraju’s ‘The Sitarist of Palem’ is not just one of the best-written stories of the anthology but also complex in its plot and subsequent multi-genre interpretation. It also stands out as a piece where context and setting are characters in themselves, with ‘Palem certainly needing cleansing’, adding to the whispers of conversion, Christianity and the eerie charm of something secret. A women’s wellness centre, run by Sister Agnes, is at the heart of the story and Lata, a mysterious overgrown girl reaching there one night, the pivot. What unfolds is at once reminiscent of human violence and yet has an unearthly, macabre feel to it. Says Lata - ‘Yes, what am I? What am I, woman? I was a woman five days ago, until you gave me that sitar to play. Now what am I?’ till the goosebumps on your hands feel like scales. This story plays with your mind and leaves you struggling for answers. 

The Last Rock on which the Universe Collapsed’ by Siddhesh Kabe is a highly inventive story which concludes with infinite profundity. It propels you into the future of space exploration with zany instruments but begins where ‘the most accurate frequency for a decoupling motor was calculated by an uneducated 13-year-old’. The author beautifully paints Capt. Anant Mahajan’s lonely life in space, whose only mission is seeking out ‘something … or someone’. The reader is soon suspended on an upside down motionless mountain, with a cabbage patch and a forgetful old man who confirms ‘God? That is good, an old concept, older than creation … and no, I am not God.’ This story transports you into its world with its creativity and opens itself to many light years’ worth of interpretation.  

Suresh C has to have been either a Manager, or one of those his Manager managed, to have written this very fun and true-to-life ‘Office Games’. With a unique sense of humour and well-fleshed out characters, the author writes about Arup, that young man from your own office with no fancy degree but a whole lot of grit, crawling his way upwards. Why? Because the girl he loves has a father who wants him ‘to double my salary overnight’. Beyond the amusing events of the story, and an unexpected revelation at the end, is a poignant sentiment. Of how weddings come with T&C and aspirations get killed by others’ expectations. Where parents may be ‘inflamed haemorrhoids’ but you cannot let them down. Where slimy imps like Piyush will sabotage your promotion. And where bosses often cannot discern how a cow citing experience of chewing its cud for 10 years cannot really run a dairy farm! 

Three other stories in ‘Curtain Call’ came in a close second, if you may. 

In the Second Row

A Crimson Affair’ by Rafaa Dalvi is a murder mystery with Birbal in the lead. Imagine lending your story to historical characters and ‘owning’ them, by endowing them with real and imagined traits. I liked the idea and also the simplicity at the heart of the mystery. It’s the telling that lacked in grip and finesse. ‘My Fair Husband’ by Renu Sethi is about a couple who ‘somewhere in the safe confines of their heart enjoyed the arguments’ they always get into. It’s a very real, endearing portrait of marriage, even after the husband dies and becomes ‘even more painful than before’. It’s a pity the events seem borrowed from the very Hollywood movie mentioned in the story. ‘Agent W’ by Rahul Biswas is a suspenseful and well-written story about senior RAW officers, moles and patriotism which is ‘no less injurious to health’. The narration is tight and the end surprising. But points in the story remind you of the many movies made on the subject. After all, how many of us can really know how RAW works, if not from the silver screen?

All other stories can be shoe-boxed together, according to me. They are for readers who primarily like twists in the end rather than the turns used to get there. Which is to say, the end defines the story for them, not how they got there. Such stories do not adequately involve the sensibilities of some readers. They do not linger longer than a gasp. Short-term entertainment, quite typical, often predictable, but then who is to say we don’t need that?  Here are those which cater to readers looking for a quickie.

In the Wings

Vivek Banerjee in ‘Mahua’ takes us into the thick jungles of Chattisgarh, for a survey for building  a dam on River Indravati. But the story is flat and predictable, and very problematic for ‘using’ Mahua the way it does.  An opportunity lost! ‘Mistaken Identity’ by Deepa Duraisamy is about two characters who meet over a train journey. While the author successfully manages to draw us into their relationship, typicality and predictability mar it. ‘Time after Time’ by Aniesha Brahma begins on a note of sibling love and ends on a supernatural one. But there’s much more that can be done with it. ‘Ablaze Within’ by Sanhita Baruah held the promise of showing us an unforgettable portrait of a prostitute. But while Razia’s stand at the end of the story makes you applaud, the story simply reinforces stereotypes through copied imagery.

Reminiscence’ by Mehek Bassi has a strangely nonchalant protagonist in search of an old man. Poorly executed where a story there was none, it even ends with a page-long moral. ‘Ookleeboo’ by Diptee Raut seemed so cute it made me wonder if a child wrote it, or a mother narrated it. But neither the conversational style nor the invention of Ookleeboo save the story from seeming under-developed and incomplete. ‘Another Chance’ by Ketaki Patwardhan is a very short story which explores the theme of ‘what if?’ time could be turned back? Again, diluted by predictability. ‘FLAMES’ by Amrit Sinha captures the innocence of school crushes. But while on the one hand his school-going characters are naïve to a fault, on the other they mouth (Amrit’s?) most profound takes on love and life. Contradiction, just like with the boy's abruptness in the final scene. 

Out of all the stories, it is ‘The Princess Bride’ by Ekta Khetan which remains the weakest link. The theme of a married woman ridden with self-doubt and thoughts of betrayal was a lovely one. Sadly, it fails miserably not just the idea of a short story but even the language it is written in. All stories in the book have their own grammatical problems, with fingers pointing at a lazy editor. But to print this piece full of appalling mistakes makes the editor a criminal! Usages like ‘gasped a breath’, ‘asleep off in his arms’; vagaries like ‘sleeping in absolute realm’, ‘work upon her intimacy with him’; mistakes like ‘them’ for single objects, ‘couldn’t help but got carried away’, ‘this ups and downs’, ‘gape of the neck’ and similar others turn readers into teachers. 

And so I think aloud ... A badly written story not just makes the reader feel cheated by robbing her of an otherwise okay experience but also does disservice to other writers in the collection, who have attempted and succeeded in delivering works which at least entertain. Of course, it all points to a larger malaise. The hurry to be published, the insistence that ‘simple is good’ and ‘complex overrated’, that rules of language are for the Queen alone and a lie readers and reviewers tell each other – that grammatical errors don’t interfere with the reading experience. Well, if they don’t then they should! Perhaps then the 'quality' we seek, as writers and readers, will be within reach. 

Rafaa Dalvi intended well to compile this anthology, give new writers an audience and introduce readers to some good writing and promising authors. He did all that! But we cannot ignore the lack of critical eye with which it has been done. ‘Curtain Call’ will find its readers, no doubt. Those for whom a book is an open-and-shut case, where characters needn’t involve them, trouble them, challenge them or stories be unforgettable in their layers, novelty and style. Some prefer that momentariness of relationship with their reading while others want books to remain open long after they have been read and shelved. Most stories in this anthology are for the former, not the latter.

'Curtain Call' by Rafaa Dalvi is a Half Baked Beans publication, 2016

[Review was commissioned by the editor. Views are my own.]

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Anya’s Lyric by Nikhil Kumar

I was born because of one man’s inability to read.

With these lines opens Nikhil Kumar’s ‘Anya’s Lyric’. If the gorgeous cover image couldn’t grip you with curiosity enough, these lines do. Not just with curiosity, though. Notice how in just a blink you have been welcomed into an intimate world by an ‘I’ who perhaps will tell all, beginning right from why that ‘I’ was born. The ‘I’ wants you to listen. The ‘I’ has a story. And you are already an audience even before you said yes. 

Nikhil could not have begun his book better. Everything that this petite book impressed me with is contained in its opening lines. The causality behind events which drive the story; the characters ordinary yet significantly identifiable by a singular trait; the narration personal, heartfelt and sad. Like this man and his ‘inability to read’, who is nameless yet has played a pivotal part in giving birth to none other than our narrator - Anya.

Anya? ‘A girl who couldn’t understand her actions’. You know, a ‘special girl’ who needed ‘a different kind of education’ along with the other ‘retarded kids of school, social rejects, all of us.’ This story is Anya looking back to those times when her ‘brain was incapable of grasping threads of reality and logic … Back then (when) it was scary’ as a grown-up who is only partially out of her ‘condition’ now because of…

Because of. Causality.

The relationship between cause and its effect is the defining aspect of this story. Rather, all the many stories within this story, plaited neatly into one. ‘Anya’s Lyric’ is a collection of fast-moving, very gripping events happening to an array of characters, with the various threads eventually and sometimes surprisingly crisscrossing each other. Like synapses in the brain! Those points of meeting, often between unrelated characters or unconnected events, help stitch Anya’s story into one patchwork quilt. Very symbolic of how a ‘special’ mind works and talks, wouldn’t you say? Trying to maintain eye contact but almost always failing to. Trying to converge to and thus convey one idea but through many, not entirely insignificant, diversions. 

No surprise then that the story in ‘Anya’s Lyric’ relies heavily on coincidences, to the extent that patters, as if predestined, appear. Nothing is as it seems, or won’t be a page later. But it was all meant to be, one starts believing. And Nikhil Kumar is cruel! He hurtles the story forward. With no breathers and intrigue a constant companion, the reader finds herself guessing what will happen next. 

What is happening? Disruptions. The well-established routines which each character had before are shorn of all comfortable predictability with a simple ‘but that day’ or ‘at the precise moment’ or ‘this had never happened to him before’ … leaving the attentive reader reading more attentively. These disruptions not just move the story ahead but also spell trouble. Like for the postman with the pink letter, who suddenly finds himself doing what he was not supposed to be doing. Suddenly. A Godot-esque meaninglessness and madness ensue. A sense of eerie providence envelopes all the lives bumping into each other, and not just Anya’s life – conceived on an odd day and born on a strange day too. 

Anya’s story, like the many others which meet it, is replete with a dreariness – a primal monotony of sadness featuring men and women we see every day; people on the road, in the fruit market, along railway lines, in temple queues, ‘dreaming of a better life’. Which makes the characters ordinary. Yet, Nikhil doesn’t let them enjoy their facelessness. By endowing each with a story of his/her own which in turn feeds his protagonist’s story, the author gives them a spotlight which an onlooker at a red light doesn’t care to. A lot of them have no names but most of them have been given something which makes them momentarily stand out in our universal studio of reality. We may only know them as ‘the woman with the mole on her left cheek’ or the man who had ‘never gotten greedy’ or ‘the pot-bellied man’ or ‘the boy with a twisted leg’ but we have been shown their lives and minds. Enough to make us realize they are products of the filth in our own backyard. In their hatred and crimes, their superstitions and greed, and their love and longing they are very real!

Of course, among all of them Anya is special. She has been given a voice. She narrates her own story. Now, when you begin reading you notice how Anya is a little girl struggling to make herself understood to the world. But, why does she come across as so articulate to us? Is this an author contradiction? Is it because she is hiding her clear head from those around? Or, is the story a looking- back, from a wiser point of view? When you are convinced it’s the third, you start noticing her clinical, disjointed way of receiving the gravest of situations in her life. 

‘Three important things happened to me on the twenty-ninth of February, the year I turned sixteen: I fell in love, my father died, and I fell out of love.

The matter-of-fact tone makes you sad. Her not knowing how to react right makes you see the terribleness of her situation. And yet you see beauty in all her staccato sadness. She keeps you close. Much like a lyric, her words are heartfelt, even when she is a ‘filthy girl, almost a woman, sitting in the mud and dirt and playing with sticks and stones’, ignorant in her derangement. She confesses to us how ‘I try to remember my story as best as I can’, so we know some things may not be as they seem to her. But then again, that’s the sentiment running below the complete story of ‘Anya’s Lyric’, all along. Of invisible eddies of fate becoming whirlpools and subsuming lives…

The role of language in portraying Anya’s mind was an important one. Even keeping all the stories tight and cleverly connected required craft (and craftiness). Nikhil Kumar has managed both well. Sometimes he’ll just show without telling, leaving the reader loitering around, guessing. At other times, he’ll revel in the repetition of words over the course of long sentences. 

In a forgotten part of town, where it was dangerous for respectable people to wander, stood a forgotten, derelict building, concrete-grey and falling apart at the seams, on the second floor of which was a forgotten apartment with a dirty blue door which had a Bugs Bunny sticker stuck on it by some forgotten soul, inside which, on the far room on the right of the long corridor, the man who smelled like milk just finished raping a forgotten thirteen year old girl who wore braces on her teeth.

Forgotten, and the author’s insistence to not let us forget. Similarly, ‘insignificant’ on page two is repeated so many times you realize those things are anything but insignificant. Phrases like ‘as he did each morning’ reinstate the idea of a routine, only to be broken a line later. Anya harps on the word ‘underdeveloped brain’ to show how acutely aware of it this protagonist is. Not a speck of dust or a hue of colour evades Nikhil’s eyes, and scenes are created visually though without extra embellishments. The end of every chapter leaves a thread dangling or a reader reaction unattended. 

There are a couple of episodes in ‘Anya’s Lyric’ which work well as back stories but in themselves are not very unique, and rather predictable. Thankfully, they are few and far between. But a graver problem appears when you are nearing the end of the book. Somewhere around there Anya appears to have gained clarity of thought, access to good vocabulary like ‘endorphins’, and sane responses to reality. It is too sudden to not ask – how come? Charitable feelings towards another girl in the book and a love angle with one of the boys also seem sudden in the last few pages. The book ends itself hastily, with an enigmatic scene in a shack on a beach, highly interpretative in all its vagueness and mystery but lost in effect if seen for just what it is.   

Anya confesses how ‘people are strange and I don’t understand them’. Nikhil Kumar writes this book to understand those very people, to present their stories within stories, wrapped in an all-encompassing connectedness that none of the characters can escape. This book is like ‘that part of town where the social rejects make their home’. You see how everyone is significant, yet no one is. How depravity is universal yet misery individual. And also how while ugliness is a constant in this needy-greedy world sitting on a social fabric full of holes, special souls like Anya just ‘sang my song through it all’. 

It is Anya’s Lyric, after all, and it must be heard.   

'Anya's Lyric' by Nikhil Kumar is a self-published book, 2016

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]  

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Once, as a Paying Guest in Delhi University

I came to New Delhi for my Bachelor’s Degree, as a wide-eyed girl who had miraculously got admission in Lady Shri Ram College. The heart was beating like it had already got free entry into the hip and newly opened The Sugar Factory next door. Or received a proposal from the dark haired Darcy himself! The head was more cautious in its celebration. Delhi was the size of a Kingdom as compared to my home hamlet. One lady in The Doon Club had told me it’s full of cheats, cheap women and madmen. ‘Be careful, beta. You know what you need to guard.’ And she had looked at my belt. My own main worry was grades. LSR inspired and thus expected excellence. And being a hard-working, above-average girl may no longer be enough to hold my own.

But what pooped completely what was a half-party anyway, was the fact that I did not make it to the college Residence Hall. Utni bhi achhi rank nahi thee, I imagined Belt Lady (from above) telling her Bingo friends. I had to look for a PG accommodation. My father was silent as a mountain, and as supportive. Only the best had to be picked. Safe. Comfortable. No compromises! That another girl from Dehradun had booked one in National Park, right behind LSR, was enough to judge the book by its marble floor and bathroom tiles which no other PG offered for miles. Three months’ rent was paid and a two-seater booked. Diamond fingers pointed us to the various facilities which were being offered to the ‘girls who are like my own daughters’, as my parents and I followed our PG aunty much like Pip did Miss Havisham. 

Alas! Soon enough it was evident this aunty had three daughters and no room for more. All promises made to parents-with-wallets started dying till they became invisible like the rajma in the gravy. That is, before the gravy ran out completely for those girls reaching the PG late. Just plain white rice in the common room, followed by jam with Parle G in the room. Room? A third bed had been shifted in with a girl on top. Now we three slept so close we could share one quilt. After all, where was the cupboard space to hold three separate ones anymore? Where will the books go? And reams of notes? Cold drinking water would often run out, specially during exams, but never for aunty downstairs. Always positive, she would instead show us the 6 pairs of shoes she got for nothing from the sale at CP. We girls would be torn between requesting for a cold water bottle, or asking for the shoes! 

If life inside the PG wasn't exactly comfortable or conducive to studies, the walk to and from college was downright unsafe. With a shady Hotel V next door and a desolate nallah with pants-down men hissing and pissing inside, it wasn’t for nothing that the area was called The Rapists’ Paradise. So the “freshers” would wait in college for other PG mates to get done with classes, and then we would walk back together. It never stopped the mucky comments from being passed or random hits-n-touches by bikers, but it softened the blow a bit. Plus, running alone down the road felt worse. It was when a friend walking beside me got dragged by her umbrella down the lane one lonely afternoon, with me helplessly running after a screaming her, that all the leftover mirth and fun, of late-night gossips about who has a boyfriend or who wears a padded bra and whom PG Uncle winked at, went completely bland. Completely.  

I decided that day I needed to get inside that Residence Hall. Thanks to the powdered-milk water and cornflakes I had for breakfast for a year to help put my soul into getting the grades, and my hosteller cousin who pushed me to it, I miraculously made it. I topped the internal assessments! Our Victorian Poetry class was interrupted when a hosteller (always late!) sashayed in with the news. My name was on the hostel list. The whole class cheered like I had battled a crocodile alone. I cried big tears. It had felt exactly like that! 

By the time my graduation was done and I became a post-graduate student of Delhi University, Arts Faculty, with some library-cum-bank-cum-canteen allegiance to Hansraj College, I knew what to expect when I didn’t make it to the Post-Graduate Women’s Hostel in the first go and took up a room in Malka Ganj. Meanwhile, Belt Lady (from above) fainted over her Bloody Mary just hearing the name of the place, and Mill gaya kamra bahut badi baat hai, yaar, remarked a senior in college. 

But was I really prepared, still? 

No beds. Only string cots. Four girls in a room with a broken window which let in not just the bugs and bees but also the hoots of prospective suitors downstairs, night after night. One fridge, but use at your own risk. Eggs vanished as did Pepsi and rosewater. (There were whispers that it was aunty!) One phone charging point and two cupboards standing on bricks. And a rickety gate and staircase keeping us and our Maggi all safely in. Itney paisey mein itna hee, please, the seepage seemed to say. Where was one to go anyway? Any kissa that would happen in a neighbouring PG accommodation and uniformed men would come to make us fill up forms, ask random questions, and leave. That fine day we would see our aunty’s face, properly, without a face pack, even as we thirstily stole secret glances at the chilled Roohafza she served the cops, teasing us right under their noses! 

Only a month of it and so I lived to tell the tale. PGW's latest list was up and I was in! That same afternoon, even before the glue behind the list which was put up was dry, I moved all my worldly belongings to its D-Block. One rickshaw, one superman ricky-bhai, one kilometre and 50 bucks later I breathed. 

All this was more than a decade back. I am that much older today, and enough to acknowledge that whatever problems beset students in their life at the university also shape them. Chisel them. Give them extra layers of hide for survival, stomachs of steel and a confidence to ‘manage on our own’ where once we were like deer in the headlights. It is only when the shit starts flowing out of the pot to enter your room, and there’s no water in the taps for two days, that you scream the loudest scream. To ask for what is right, and your right. That's exactly what's making news today and reading which made me write this.

Girls protesting against regressive and discriminatory hostel rules, rallies against the lack of basic facilities in colleges and fee hikes are headlines. Even though I read about them on a chair far removed from the broken, shared ones I studied on, I cheer and support these students’ demands wherever I sit. I applaud groups like ‘A Room of my Own’, trying to get accountability in the PG business. And I respect that they found their voices, which are only getting braver by the day. You see, it's not just about 'managing on your own', somehow adjusting. College is about finding your wings for life. And nothing should come in the way of that!   

I wish I were still a student of Delhi University. This would be my postcard to the VC. One among the 10,000 which reached him recently.
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