Every writer, sooner or later, comes to be identified with writing that is unique to him. If not like fingerprints then certainly like a signature he invents for himself the moment the hand feels confident to wield the public pen. I had read a short story by Ashay Abbhi in ‘Chronicles of Urban Nomads’ and I just finished reading his latest collection of stories and poems, ‘The Inevitable’, leading to these thoughts. I realize that while yet in his salad days of writing, Ashay has found certain motifs and themes around which he has built a comfortable space for himself; a space elegant in sober shades of mood and maturity of thought.
There is much that is appreciation-worthy in Ashay’s book.
‘The Inevitable’ is structured differently from the usual. Each story alternates with a poem. Which means we have a piece of poetry preceding as well as following a story. I wasn’t sure if this was a good idea, since mixing drinks never ends well for me. However, I realized gradually how the poems in the book act as driveways subtly ushering us into the full world of the stories to which they lead. Often, the reader is able to draw connections between them, marrying story to poem, or both to a particular thought hanging heavily in the air. Whether we consider poems as interludes between the stories or stories as breaks between poems, this book’s experiment of plaiting two different forms of writing worked for me, especially because Ashay remains loyal to treating certain specific ideas in myriad settings.
Opposites attract Ashay enough to become constant motifs in his writing. And how he juggles them! Where there is death there is expectancy of life, maybe beyond. Where hopelessness lurks there hope tip-toes too. And where there is the stink of violence there is the fragrance of love. At an emotional level and through the intensity of his writing, Ashay involves the reader such that what sounds like a death knell could just turn out to be a temple bell. Thus, while his poems and stories often leave you sad, with a lingering hurt in the heart, each affirms that hope abounds – be it in the form of love transcending life or an endless wait coming to a crashing close. ‘Into white, from the grey, I’ll take you away’ and ‘little of life is left to live, little is there to die with me’ are two lines from two different poems which find resonance throughout the book.
The voice of the narrators is mature, composed and hence felt through the otherwise simple use of language; which, as a vessel for conveying and generating spookiness, shock, suspense and sadness requires no floral imprint through Ashay's pen. There is more tell and less show, true, but the ‘power’ of his narration lies in how he owns his readers, and especially in the closures, which don’t twist but touch instead.
Most of the stories and all of the poems are first person narrations. Trouble is, while we know there is one ‘I’ who wrote this book for us, who are the various ‘I’s telling us their tales or their thoughts? And that’s where the book becomes so open to interpretation as would delight a literary mind. Who is ‘I’? What kind of a person is he? What are his beliefs? I enjoyed exploring that ‘I’ in each piece, and wondering if Ashay has laid bare his heart-and-soul to readers, albeit in the guise of characters who range from wayward travellers to vegetable shop owners, street-dwellers to apparitions walking on desolate roads, office goers to a wife ‘sipping tea but swallowing her tears’. Their lives. Their loves. Their losses. Angst-ridden ‘staring unconsciously, into the nothingness of everything’ yet musing at another ‘I wished there was something I could do to help her, but I too was miserable’. And then their context, which I call “holes in the wall”, where no pen usually ventures. Hungry, tired, sick, cold, alone and angry. The author has to have observed them, talked to them and felt for them to have managed this. There is no other way.
What is also fertile for interpretation are the ideas expressed in the poems. There is a constant presence of something beyond life but we don’t know what. Is it God? Peace? A force of divinity which is conspicuous by its absence in the cruel and meaningless lives he portrays? Or does Ashay mean transcendental love, and deliverance from earthly sorrows? The book opens with an “invocation” to the power of Imagination - ‘Imagine it says, Imagine I will … Imagine the rush, Imagine the thrill … Imagine the last, Imagine the nil, For Imagine you must death, to live until’ and not just follows this to the end but makes the reader follow it too.
A few things which may not work for some.
For one, the stories in this collection are not short stories, per se – those with a beginning, a body and an end and adhering to the five essential aspects of the traditional form of the short story. They are nuggets of thoughts converted into episodes or scenes, much like what is popularly printed as short stories these days.
For this reason, the characters in the stories don’t usually flesh-out, with particular traits, tastes or quirks. We identify them as types, and identify with them because of how their streams of consciousness are depicted and how their thoughts become ours. For me this works wonderfully to give the idea of existence itself a universal consciousness bound by a common thread of life and death, pain and joy. However, those who enjoy collecting memorable characters as “friends” may not be able to do so here.
Also, while there is a hint of light at the end of the tunnel, the dark tunnel here lasts the duration of the book, and sometimes overshadows those slits through which hope is being blown in. Most stories leave you contemplative, the sadness echoing in your minds way beyond the reading. This is this writer’s skill to convey and impress an emotion with such intensity. But for those who look for butterflies and rainbows, happy endings and dancing, this book might come across as “heavy”. Even philosophical.
Interestingly, male narrators predominate the scene. Those who want the female voice being equally represented may notice this. Or some may notice it anyway, like me. And two stories were completely predictable. Not a huge number considering the total, but there.
PS - I would have liked a table of contents.
‘The Inevitable’ is the kind of collection that you open not just to read what’s in there but to leave with food for thought. To interpret and wonder, and re-visit ‘The Yellow Wall’ or live ‘Just Another Day’; to wish ‘The 9th Cross’ away or enjoy your ‘Love for Tea’ or ‘Coffee at Midnight’. Or maybe by a lonely window you will wish for someone to say ‘I’ll Take You Away’. I will not say there is something for everyone here, but I can say with confidence that the sombre notes and ripe themes will find takers in many who like to mull over their books way after they have ended.
Thought-provoking and sensitive writing by a writer who holds much promise in the literary world.
[This review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]