The stresses of city life, its wily promise and surprise betrayals…
Janhavi Acharekar’s stories could well be designated The Art of Listening, so keenly does she give ear to all the incidental horrors that befall people’s lives; the violent disruptiveness of road, rail, motorcycle accidents, the intrusions made on personal space (in the concrete jungle, and alas, in the wilds), dislocation and homelessness, the fleeting nature of relationships. What she hears, she dutifully records in a deadpan voice. When sustained in pitch many of the stories come alive with understatement.
Mumbai has been a favoured setting for many writers, from Salman Rushdie to Anita Desai. Vikram Chandra, Rohinton Mistry and, most recently, debutant Murzban Shroff have given the city its due. Janhavi Acharekar writes without sentimentality about the stresses of city life, its wily promise and surprise betrayals, or as one character in “Botox and Buttocks” says, “The treadmill only reminds you of life in Bombay where you’re running all the time but getting nowhere.” The themes may be familiar: the phoniness of the art world and Page 3; poverty (Aravind Adiga gave drivers desires); eve teasing (Manjula Padmanabhan’s acidic story comes to mind); an educational system that’s either effete or oppressive (Cyrus Mistry); but some stand out, like cherries, some remain as cameos.
Is this to do with how we perceive a short story?
As Jhumpa Lahiri indicated in the Wall Street Journal, after the publication of Unaccustomed Earth, in March 2008, “Personally, when I sit down to read a novel or a Chekhov story I’m seeking the same thing: I’m seeking that same rich portrayal of life in words… people don’t regard short-story collections as substantial. They think of them as a chocolate box, an assorted thing. You present it, and readers can say, I like that one that was my favourite, I like the orange cream. Whereas with a novel I think they regard it more as a thing of substance, an entrée, if you will, they don’t pick it apart in terms of the mashed potato part of it and the peas and the meat part, it’s all this thing in concert.”
Classifications abound in this collection — Mumbai Montage, Mumbai Medley, Mumbai Symphony — but even without them, one would go straight to “A Good Riot” or “The Storyteller”. The story deftly revisits the post-Babri Masjid riots of 1992-93 in Mumbai, the brutality is unflinchingly described, the pun on “bruised temple” remaining as organic as a wound.
The stories set in the beauty salon bring to the fore all the vicarious satisfactions of knowing someone else’s wretched predicament; quite accurately (“Nose Job”). “They swarmed upon the girl like clucking hens hoping to share a grain of rice”, regaling the miserable client with other far worse pre-wedding mishaps.
This is sharp and self-assured, but like “Virgin Wax”, the stories-within-the-story, each so complete and elaborate, distract from what is implicit, such as the lack of privacy in Mumbai’s housing and the absence of aesthetics, the business of beauty and the tawdry aspirations it breeds.
“Birthday Party” hints at imminent tragedy; the “stories retold by the person whose birthday it is to entertain his grandchildren, being a way of showing the passage of time. They are great to hear, and retelling them is a way of retrieving the past”. “Driving Mr. Dasgupta”, while taking a leaf out of Aravind Adiga, who has lit up the life of the underdog, and Lavanya Sankaran too, whose Bangalore stories gave backseat driving a new interpretation, opts for an amusing plot twist at the end.
Stories this short feel called upon to compress, pack it in for impact. But there is enough here for spinning out fine into several more volumes.
Window Seat: Rush Hour Stories From the City; Janhavi Acharekar, HarperCollins, Rs. 250.