Luminous stories that question the validity of status quo.
First Love, Brinda Charry, HarperCollins India, Rs.250
Prize-winning author Brinda Charry both beguiles and disturbs with this anthology of short stories set against a backdrop she knows intimately — provincial south India and suburban America.
Infinitesimally subversive in flavour, these tales question the validity of the status quo by revealing how life and death, good and evil, puppy love and sexual obsession, innocence and its corruption, the “normal” and the deviant are but different aspects of the same reality.
Charry’s lucid prose, enriched by occasional bursts of lyricism is instrumental in lending poignancy to her repertoire of surprises. In her assured hands, the simple turns unimaginably complex without warning (“The Russians”), the frustration of aborted fulfilment finds unexpected reprieve in the luminescent glimmer of hope (“Shadow” and “Waiting for the Queen”), the twilight zone of the paranormal becomes as real as the quotidian it closely shadows (“Mr. William Graham: a Ghost Story”), perversity is the flipside of fairy-tale innocence (“The Pied Piper of Hamelin”), blind adoration, festering in secrecy, metamorphoses into vengeful hatred (the title story) and poetic justice is fraught with terrifying ambiguity (“Mallika” and “Wasps”).
Yet, the narratives are never unremittingly dark. Tenderness lies at their core and evokes a response deep within us. Perhaps, it has something to do with the author’s occasional choice of a child narrator (“The Russians” and the title story), sometimes two (“Mallika”), or of a childlike adolescent as protagonist (Sundari, for instance, in “Mr. William Graham: a Ghost Story”, an exquisite portrait of the unlikely friendship between a shy village bride and a reclusive Englishman mourning his dead fiancée). It certainly “gives a freshness of perspective,” as Charry herself avers, and it is a stylistic device that works to her advantage.
Her particular achievement lies, however, in the sensitivity with which she handles those narrative voices, both male and female, especially those belonging to children on the threshold of puberty. Her insights into their psyche are as keen as her interest in gender issues, nowhere more clearly illustrated than in “Mallika” — the tale of a eunuch in love exploited by a heterosexual — recounted, in turn, by teenage siblings of different sexes. Even the popular folktale of the Pied Piper treads dangerous ground here, unveiling, in the process, the sinister power of what we know as sexual aberration.
Their explosive potential notwithstanding, the abiding quality of Charry’s stories is restraint. Involving the interplay of undercurrents and nuances, they offer a fine chiaroscuro of insights, sometimes heartrending, often heart-warming.