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 na├»ve 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.]
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