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SHEBA THAYIL

An uneven collection of 21 stories by South Asian women under 40.

21 Under 40, edited by Anita Roy, Zubaan,

Rs. 295.

SOMETIMES, it’s difficult to tell what you like about a story, more so, what the writer intended you to like. It’s like going to a poetry reading, sure that you won’t understand a thing in the tortuous mind of the uber intellectual who puts words like drawings on paper. But my poet brother has always said “That’s being lazy.” He says poetry can mean whatever you want it to mean, that if you get something the author didn’t intend, but if you get something, that is what matters.

I got something from 21 Under 40, even though the cover and title were execrable and I would have simply passed it by with a raised eyebrow in a bookstore: Words only matter if they catch you by the throat. In these 21 stories, written by South Asian women under 40, there are a quite a few hands at work; others need Cliffs Notes.

Well crafted

Tishani Doshi’s “Spartacus and the Dancing Man” was the sure literary piece, written in the tradition set down by Raymond Carver and John Irving, if tradition we must have, (the same that is echoed hilariously in “Award-winning Writer”, more of which anon). “Spartacus” is not just spare in tone and rich in detail, it tells of family saga in the best way, spotlighting the inherent sweet-sad layers within. Every word, every line is crafted and a thing of beauty.

Sumana Roy’s “Award-winning Writer” pokes fun at literary tradition as a young girl from a small town meets a famous writer. She wins him as a prize, and this is what she does, take part in competitions because she knows no one in the publishing industry, and no other way to get read. The writer, as is the wont of writers, uses her in his work, but it is the ending that is hilarious: Who is the small-town mind and who is the award-winner is the question that gets twisted into a pretzel, like intertwining DNA.

The best thing about Meena Kandasamy’s “The Suicide’s Inbox” is the title, because the story doesn’t live up to expectation: Adulterous love in modern India holds little interest unless superlatively written. And it’s annoying that we don’t know who the suicide is, the person with the inbox open gets the last word. It’s that damned ambiguous poetry thing all over again. Nisha Susan’s “Broadband and the Bookslut” is the kind if clever writing that is laboured, interspersed with what seems like gratuitous sexual imagery. Example, when bookslut meets potential online suitor: “Kannan would pass on if not captivated at once. She checked her arsenal of quivering arrows. At her disposal were the simple weapons of Nash, Nandy and Milligan, the more complex charms of pop culture and etymology…”, and the result is that “Words flowed like rivers of come.”

Poignant tale

How much more real, and empathetic is the lesbian in Mridula Koshy’s “The Large Girl”, so delicately drawn down to the last, grief-ridden sentence: “Do you miss me? A thousand and one chances will come and go in this small city, in this small world. I will never see you again.” There is sexual imagery in this story, too, but it’s bred into the waft and weave of the tale. Paromita Chakravarti, meanwhile, has obviously suffered the slings and arrows of office life, her characters in the “ideation chamber” of a TV channel are the usual scum we’ve all come across in our professional careers, egoistic, talentless, maddening. She draws them with skill, making “Instant Honeymoon” an instant hit with the reader.

But the auto driver in Ashima Sood’s “Everyday” is in no way recognisable, although the couple in Roohi Choudhry’s “Hammer Gang” is; from their desperation for something, anything that is different from what they have, to the small disappointments they feel in each other.

Ruchika Chanana’s “Hue and Cry”, about a girl who can tell when someone is lying because she sees lies as colour, is imaginative and well-written, no ambiguity, story well told, job done.

I get things like that.


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