Updated: May 6, 2010 19:05 IST

A bunch of blooms

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A refreshing collection of fiction, prose and verse that explores moods and relationships…

It is one thing to gather a bouquet, and quite another to conjure up a bunch of surprisingly different blooms, that satisfies because of its variety and freshness. Penguin's First Proof 5is a gathering of personal voices that explore moods and relationships, challenges and statistics through fiction, nonfiction and a pinch of verse.

Stunning start

It begins with the stunning story of Ruma, prostitute by day, housewife by night, an activist who yet surrenders to the pressures of husband and family. Bishakha Datta's straightforward prose brings alive the paradox in the life of a woman whose sacrifices may never be recognised by society as we have it today. Samanth Subramaniam's “Hunting the Sailfish” culls tense drama through minimalist narrative, reportage that simmers beneath the surface. Hemingway's ghost looms over us because of the subject, philosophy and sparseness of expression.

What follows in the nonfiction section is a quick-fire portrait of jungle-king Veerappan, his interactions with people he's kidnapped. And an interesting sketch of Kutch with its paling borders of landscape, language and people, followed by a very objective study by three women of women who want to have “fun”, the problems they face while occupying space without “purpose”. Editor-in-chief of The New Indian ExpressAditya Sinha's brutally frank forays into family history and latent homosexuality can only result in his being forever persona non grata with a clutch of rankled relatives. Vamsee Juluri's study of non-violence and “Munnabhai” examines the proffered meaning of Gandhi's heritage and its scope, concluding that cinema is still its one faithful follower. Satnam's sojourn in the Bastar jungle is next, along with communist guerrillas, an account of the routine life of militants, with mild, off-the-cuff observations: “A fortress-like structure had been erected with tree branches and bamboo, where the guerrillas practise destroying such fortifications”.

And so to fiction.

The first offering is K.R. Meera's “Ave Maria”, a brutal glimpse into the debris of Kerala's Communist ideology, the fault lines left behind in families. “The Imaginary Friend” tells of a man and his little cousin, a train journey that shows how the mind can make or break. “The Brass Tumbler” follows the tradition of classic Hindi fiction, the story of an heirloom whose history mirrors (or causes) a family's upheavals.

Exquisite stories

The two stories that follow are gems. Completely different in tone and setting, they scream out the need for love and freedom, of belonging and recognition, women's outpourings that yearn for choices within the patriarchal claustrophobia. Bakul Mukhtiar's tale of an extra-marital relationship is sparse and evocative, like the room where the liaisons take place. And Swarnalatha Rangarajan's “Hiranmayi” is a tale lushly told, of an era gone by, child marriages and dark rooms, stark lives lit by hope, wives abandoned by terribly traditional in-laws.

Relief comes with Cheryl-Ann Couto's “Slim Pickings”, hilarious and acutely observed, a warmth that dissipates unbelievably in the echoes of an old tragedy. “The Last Supper In Delhi” is elegantly told, of high living in the Capital, of art and partying, surprise end to a year-end celebration. “The Dining Table” is the story of memory and family, and “Bankru't” takes place in Indonesia with discussions about West Bengal's politics and economics, finally reaching an unexpected twist which can only bring resolution.

Radha Nair's “A Grand Repast” takes an admiring look at an uncle in a Kerala household, a connoisseur whose fanatic enjoyment of cooked fish is a celebration of life.

Poetic takes

Manash Bhattacharya's three poems use sudden words and conceits, juggling up images and whimsical insight to commemorate love. (“But I remember how you had first/ stirred inside my head like a child/ in a sick mother's womb.”) And Radha Sinha's two poems conclude the book, straightforward and resonant: “Love songs remind me of you and I when we weren't us./ We were mad, free. We were our children./ Now all they do is remind me of what we'll never be.”

First Proof 5is a book worth returning to, though one wishes someone had given it a second proof-reading.

First Proof 5, The Penguin Book of New Writing from India, Penguin, p.218, Rs. 250.

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