This themed collection of stories explores the grey spaces in our relationships…
Short stories, let's face it, aren't a fashionable genre any longer, especially for Indian (or sub-continental) writing in English. Publishers prefer the novel, attended by glamorous launches and author interviews. In recent memory, apart from Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies, 1999) and Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, 2009), no major author can claim to have debuted with a collection of short stories. No wonder then, in that scenario, anthologies that bring together various authors are the best we can hope for — and even these are rare.
Yet, even published novelists can surprise when you meet them in an anthology, one among many similar or dissimilar voices. Consider Jaishree Misra, author of six novels (including the historical Rani, on the Rani of Jhansi): I found her last few books a tad too long, as if the author had fallen in love with her characters and didn't want to part with them before it was absolutely necessary. Misra's so-called “commercial” talent sparkles, however, in “A Pair of Bangles” one of the 30-odd short stories that make up Why We Don't Talk. It's witty, funny, insightful and, at six pages, just the right length.
One of the hoary vindications of the rise of the short story in the early part of the 20th century was the dearth of time among readers. So pressed for time were they, thanks to rapid industrialisation and the inclusion of women in the workforce, that readers supposedly began to prefer their literature in instantly digestible nuggets. That justification, however, doesn't quite work for Why We Don't Talk: The themed collection works like a kaleidoscope of mirrors reflecting inter-linked concerns of alienation, ambition, insanity, dislocation, heartbreak and loss — and also familial bonding and pure wicked humour — and is best consumed at a stretch.
Common to all the stories are secrets and silences, the grey spaces in relationships that are prey to imagination, interpretation and speculation. More than one story, interestingly, deals with the precariousness of mental balance. Vandana Chatterjee's “Fog” traces the breakdown of an army wife's sanity as she becomes obsessive about invisible mice in her new apartment in Lutyen's Delhi. “The Middle Path”, Srinath Perur's slice-of-life story about a neighbourhood's resident lunatic makes up for its unoriginal premise — the lucidity of the supposedly insane — with the writing style, which is refreshingly unpretentious.
As is the much-reviled Chetan Bhagat, in “The Cut-Off”. If you've turned up your nose at his popular novels, this short story sums up exactly why he's the first author young Indian non-readers pick up at airports and railway stations. Simple, conversational, eminently easy to read, yet empathetic, the story deals with the all-too-familiar post-school scenario of high expectations, low marks, and thwarted dreams. The happy resolution is a please-all, but becoming to the story.
Anjum Hasan is another major Indian novelist — if to a completely different readership from Bhagat's — who is as comfortable with different forms. “Good Housekeeping”, one of the most disquieting stories of the collection, revisits Hasan's favourite themes of rootlessness and disorientation in the story with Ayana and her mother Tara John, who confuse moving ahead with moving away. Resolution arrives — or does it? — when Ayana comes full circle to the Bangalore locality where she spent her childhood.
Though the stories are mostly set against urban backdrops and in contemporary times, the few historical and rural tales stand out. Especially noteworthy is Jahnavi Barua's “Sweet and Sour”, a lovely, heart-warming story set in Assam about the accidental bond between a straitlaced mother-in-law and her misunderstood daughter-in-law. Barua is one of those rare Indian authors to make an impression with her debut collection of short stories, Next Door, and in “Sweet and Sour”, she shows she is entirely comfortable with the form.
Marital relations are once more in focus in Crossword Vodafone 2007 award-winner (for A Girl and A River) Usha KR's “Head Hunting”, but the story about a super-successful match-fixer whose methods are never articulated by her respectable clients is somewhat marred by the predictable ending. Madhulika Liddle tries to pull off a double twist in “One Night's Work”, a tense, atmospheric sketch of a scam, but the primary surprise is again undermined by the foreseeable clincher. Madhavi Mahadevan's “Sweet Dish”, on the other hand, avoids the traps of sentimentality in a horrific post-mortem of that urban phenomenon, family suicides. In its spareness and impact, it has few equals in this collection.
The anthology takes its title from Shinie Antony's story, again an interesting exploration of silences. Though Shashi Deshpande's foreword has little to do with what follows, credit is due to Antony for the compilation of the writers for this collection: It is a well-thought-out mix of established names and newbies, and each author's take on the theme is unique. By its very nature, the anthology makes for an uneven composition but, taken together, it is gripping reading.
Why We Don't Talk, Compiled by Shinie Antony, Rupa, p.239, Rs. 295.