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Updated: April 7, 2013 10:57 IST

Degrees of joy and sorrow

Jai Arjun Singh
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Bittersweet stories about people who lived in Calcutta’s New Market area.

“This story you can tell. People need happy stories,” says a man named Amol at the end of the tale bearing his name in Jayant Kripalani’s New Market Tales. The lines, taken along with the context in which they are spoken, are pointers to the good-natured directness — but also the subtly bittersweet tone — of the best pieces in this collection. The narrator has recently encountered Amol, an old Calcutta acquaintance, in a Manhattan stationery shop, and found that he now moves around by wheelchair, having lost his legs. Amol refuses to say how this happened — “so many sad stories in the world... if people do not know one more, there will be no harm” — but he is also, improbably, eyeing advertisements for branded footwear. This seems pure whimsy, but eventually a pair of prosthetics enables him to wear the Gucci shoes he fancied. It’s a small triumph, but a meaningful one for the man in question, and this is reflected elsewhere in the book too.

Not all the stories here have conventionally “happy endings”, but there are degrees of joy and sorrow in them, and the informal breeziness of the telling seems to give more weight to the former.

Consider the tale of a young boy named Francis, a baker’s son who yearns to be a maker of jewellery. We are told (again, without being given the details) that Francis died very young, but we also learn that he achieved a measure of self-validation and appreciation in his short life.

The protagonists are mainly people who lived in Calcutta’s New Market area — including the “marketeyr bachcha” or the shop-owners’ children — in the 1960s and 1970s, and the first six stories, which take up close to half the book, are the ones I liked best. These are charming pen-portraits of a variety of colourful characters — people with quirks, dreams, and their own special ways of dealing with the world — such as the perpetually sleepy Rathikanta Chatterjee (widely known as Atiklanta, which means “so weary”) who goes to Darjeeling for a quiet holiday and finds himself, most unexpectedly, in the centre of a storm, as an abetter of local riots. Or the feisty Gopa, daughter of the owner of an undergarments shop, who learns practical lessons about business and life when she insists on being the first woman to “man” the shop counter. 

Running alongside these lives are traces of the narrator’s nostalgia for a time when horse-drawn carriages would clip-clop along at 10 miles an hour. (“Today, with all the fast cars, the crowds and the mushrooming of pavement shops, the average speed is five miles per hour. That is progress.”) But there is also a matter-of-fact portrayal of a cosmopolitan city, as in the candidly sexy “Mita” with its view of a Calcutta where old and new constantly brush against each other; where a married woman might show up at an ex-boyfriend’s place for a drunken sleepover and later, during a Hooghly ride in an ancient boat, tell him that her husband is having an affair with...her mother. The writing is mostly direct and minus frills, though Kripalani has a flair for description when required. (“He had a broad forehead over bright, inquisitive eyes, across which ran one black eyebrow, as if the Almighty had dipped his thumb in surma and run it across all the way from left to right in one stroke.”)

The copy-editing could have been a little more careful though; in stories like the long “Mesho”, there is incomplete and confusing use of quote-marks in a narrative within a narrative. Some of the later pieces, though pleasant on their own terms, feel — in terms of tone or subject — like they belong to a different collection.

“Zack’s” begins with a woman initially known to the young narrator only as Sati G, one of his mother’s more bohemian acquaintances — the owner of a nightclub with a salty-sounding “Sailors’ Night” – before resolving itself into a poignant story about a life transformed by political and social circumstances.

“Harish”, in which a man suddenly steps out of his old life and reappears with a different identity in another part of the city, goes on a bit too long, and comes to feel like a stretched-out motivational tale.

And “Anila” is an outright incongruous piece that appears to have been given a hurried New Market reference and included here just to make up the numbers. This doesn’t take away from the overall appeal of these stories though.

If you remember Kripalani’s acting roles in television and film — such as the perpetually drunk Francis (no relation to the baker’s son) in Trikaal, and more recently as a likable urbane parent in such films as Jaane Tu...Ya Jaane Na — you won’t have much trouble imagining him as their raconteur-author, reading them out in a reassuringly affable voice.

New Market Tales, Jayant Kripalani, Picador India, Rs.299.

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