Stories that are better when sampled with a break after each.
If there is one thing more enervating than being in love, it is having to listen to the young talk about it. I don’t know how old Annie Zaidi is, but she’s certainly on the wrong side of 35, or even 30. And I have to laugh when I read
She was old enough to know how to deal with a little flippancy from a harmless, suffering man who was hitting forty.
Ooh, that’s the dangerous age, Ms Zaidi. (Other dangerous ages are 41, 42, 43… 39, 38, 37….) Or later, about the same hero,
It was odd how he barely noticed girls these days. They were attractive. But the shape of their legs, their length, their muscle tone, their arms… everything was different from what he was used to. He was getting old, he told himself. Too old for this sort of young woman.
I am reminded of how Isaac Asimov, in an early story, mentioned “the paler emotional surges of the late 30s”. His more experienced editor wrote back saying he was in for a delightful surprise, and Asimov much later ruefully acknowledged how wrong he’d been. Also, it’s said of Moses when he died at 120 that “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated”. I believe the latter phrase is a euphemism, and in the Hebrew it really says that he hadn’t gone dry. So all you young fogies, beware how you dismiss our appetites, or you’ll have to eat your own words one day.
I’m glad the short story is again enjoying a vogue in the land of its birth, for the short is more than a five-finger exercise. It is at least a ten-finger. There is little to carp about in Zaidi’s first collection, so let me carp about that little. When the writer has obviously taken great care with word-craft, infelicitous usage appears a greater sin. I was brought up to abhor ‘alright’ and ‘upto’. ‘Flirt-mate’ sounds even worse, and how about ‘discontent’ as an adjective? It’s important for a short to begin well; the first sentence of the first story is:
She was fifty-seven, going on fifty-eight, and the thought that she would be retired soon filled her with despair.
Which clause is that “soon” qualifying? Another story begins,
Here she was, running behind schedule as she stood in the bathroom….
The humour is unintended, I’m sure, but these stories could do with more. The first 13 stories adopt much the same, unvarying, reportorial tone that soon begins to smell a little of preciousness. It’s better you sample them with a break after each, as reviewers cannot do.
Zaidi begins with a bang, offering us three or four well-written, well-posed, original stories. She then short-changes us for a while before coming up with a good clutch again at the end. But I’m not discontent: Seven out of fourteen is money for jam. In the failures, you can make out formulae, stereotyping, and plain laziness. The successes whirl you along. Better, they make you wonder about your own story.
Modern stories are not meant to be well-made, so you often get no more than a hint of the outcome. I don’t want to go into details, thus I won’t tell you how the first story is about being in love with love, and is very good indeed; or how brilliant the one about the researcher in love with a dead policeman is; or how I was disappointed at the ending to the story of the reluctant groom, till I reflected that the greatest gift of love is forgiveness. The last story, of two 26-year-olds from Delhi up in the pahar, is more than charming. It’s strong as well, and built on dialogue more than any of the rest. Zaidi has a good ear.
Her sensibilities are overwhelmingly urban, and that’s her strength. Urban, and upper-middle class:
He knew… she struggled with a fish knife and couldn’t use chopsticks.
When she leaves this milieu, she’s out of her depth.
Love is a many-splendoured thing, and any splendour — or misery — can go into making a love story, but one thing I wanted here was humour. Speaking for myself, much enchantment lies in laughing at the same things. That’s one trick Zaidi’s missed: The knave of hearts sometimes gets away with more than the queen (can).
Love Stories # 1 to 14; Annie Zaidi; HarperCollins; Rs 350.