Modern myths

Suparna Banerjee
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On the whole, a nice read, despite the uneven quality, says Suparna Banerjee.

Sanjay Chopra’s short story collection, Tale Spin is, on the whole, a nice read. The connecting thread that runs through the stories is that of mythology, the “in” theme in Indian popular fiction at this time. Most of the stories are wrought in two timeframes, a contemporary narrative being latched on to a mythological one with a thematic or situational parallel between the two.

The pervasive impression left by the collection is that of uneven quality. While some of the stories, like “God’s Hand”, “Men of the Horse” or “The Last Gurkha” are based on morally significant ideas, most others are slight, although enjoyable. Even in “Men of the Horse” the ethical dilemma posed before the protagonist by a choice between success and intellectual integrity fizzles out through a reconciliation between the two that turns on a sensational historical “fact” of uncertain veracity. Indeed, throughout the collection the author, true to the title, evinces a predilection for the proverbial twist in the ta(i)le that is potentially irksome, especially since it seems to stand in for an inability or lack of interest in developing adequately the human import of the situations the stories grow on.

Among the stories likely to linger a while in the reader’s mind for their thematic significance — apart from the ones mentioned above — are “Turache?”, “Putra”, and “Awake”, dealing respectively with the identity crisis of Darius, the Persian emperor, the endless battle of good and evil, and the effects of war on the soldier’s soul. The Buddhist sermon at the end of “Awake”, however, falls a little flat and consequently the “awakening” is less than convincing.

“Putra” is marred by being built on an absurd “mythological” premise and a somewhat immature handling. Another “serious” story that fares better is “Bata Shoes”, concerned, like “The Last Gurkha”, with father-son dynamics and the cowardice immanent in “heroism”. The more enjoyable stories are lighter in theme. These include “A sound Idea”, a contemporised ghost story, and “Twenty20”, a story built on the themes of cyber-warfare and hacking. “The Day Tina was Born” is a sensitive vignette of a couple’s loss of an only child and a subsequent adoption: one wishes the ending was better fleshed out.

The author has something of the gift of storytelling and can come up with interesting situations. He may consider venturing beyond fads and strange tropes to see where his abilities take him by trying to create out of the stuff of ordinary human life, a body of material with inexhaustible possibilities.

From the present volume we cannot say if he lacks the sensitivity or the imagination to discern the patterns of core human meaning in ordinary characters or situations: we shall know when he tries writing without the props provided him here by the estranging quality of mythology or by extraordinary situations and surprises.

If the author decides not to try this hazardous journey he would still be read: people need light entertainers to fill their time at airport lounges, for example, or while commuting to work by a train. Even then, however, he would need to achieve the ability to muster his “circus animals” better than he does here if he aims at the long haul. He has to eschew, particularly, hastiness in developing the lineaments of a story, and has to know how to add more texture to events and situations through realistic details so that his stories do not read like elongated synopses but as believable fragments of lived experience. And, although his language is adequate to his purposes here, it could do with more care. A little more linguistic discernment, for example, would save him from describing someone as both “articulate” and “glib”; and a less pervasive dependence on the register of American pop lit would lend more grace to his style.

Chopra has inventiveness and narrative fluency and is certainly no worse than most other first time fiction writers in the popular books market today. We shall wait to read a more evolved writer in his next book of fiction.



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