Antony’s writing style is refreshing precisely because she has absolutely no interest in ‘feel good’ presentations.
There are 22 short stories in Shinie Antony’s Seance on a Sunday Afternoon, but for some curious reason, poetical or mathematical, they are interesting from No 12 onwards. The first 11 sound like verse elongated to prose, which is not to say that Antony’s poetry is dull or out of tune. Indeed, some of it is exquisite. It is just to point out the oddity of iambic in a short story.
Take No. 3, a story called “Opposites”. It is the outline of a woman’s life; adolescence, boys, college, affairs, men, more men, married men and so on. There is a meter to the writing, a rhythm that keeps you reading but makes you lose the plot.
Yet Shinie Antony is a gifted writer because four stories in this anthology are unforgettable. The first is the story in the title, “Seance on a Sunday Afternoon” about a man who wakes up one Sunday afternoon and contemplates suicide, but postpones it by a week to Sunday next, because, after all, what is one week between life and death. And why does he want to kill himself? The first sentence of the story is explicit: “Rontu (pet name) Mukherjee’s girlfriend had told him what she had been trying to say all of last month by not calling him, by not calling him back, by not being free to meet, by forgetting to meet, by standing him up because of a million other, more pressing engagements — fuck off!”
There is an auditory quality to Antony’s language and when the reading is rough it expresses the pain and passion of broken hearts, of how cruel people can be to those that they once loved and maybe still love. She wants to tell us that a broken heart is actually a broken heart, not an empty metaphor, but a grievous wound to one’s persona. She wants to tell us that a mind has no delete button to remove memories of love and passion and there is no such thing as ‘getting over it’, that that is an empty metaphor too, because a wound might heal but the scar remains, the gestures remain, the words remain, the smell remains, nothing can ever be erased.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the finest story is “Tapioca Nights”. It is about a woman in Mumbai whose lover has left her for a younger woman and, though the metropolis is huge, she is terrified of bumping into him by accident. She wants to be calm, nonchalant, indifferent when that inevitable meeting takes place because meet they will. And so it does. Some idiot back from the U.S. and not brought up to date on their break-up, books her and her ex on the same night for dinner. She finds out, too late, in the taxi, on the way to the restaurant.
The dinner goes well until the NRI idiot says that he will be back in India for their wedding. After a moments awkward silence the ex comes up with this response: “Marriage is such a redundant institution.” Her well rehearsed equanimity, her poise, her calm, is replaced in a nanosecond by a wild and uncontrollable rage and she lets it all go: “Yeah, better to fuck around”. They had given themselves away, says Antony, “in a time honoured way. With bitterness and brutality”.
Two other stories, “My Second Suicide” and “The Rent”, share the same viciousness towards the insensitivity of middle class morality. She shows us the meanness of spirit of a society that wants to suffocate romance, sexuality, friendship, passion and lust for no good reason. When you kill desire to maintain the status quo, you kill the spirit of life, she seems to say.
Focus on women
In particular Shinie Antony’s stories are populated by women who see themselves as failures. Many of them are older women losing out in love, being reminded of their age, not wanting to have children, going through a miscarriage and generally being thoroughly unhappy.
It is not a feminist angst, a rage against uncaring men, but something more like a distaste for being a woman, for being born the tough and unpleasant half of the human reproductive system.
Antony’s writing style is refreshing precisely because she has absolutely no interest in the ‘feel good’ presentations of a host of Indian writers busy interpreting middle class Indian virtues and vices to an Anglo-American readership across the seven seas. She seems to have enough trouble understanding herself. In a telling line in “My Second Suicide” the woman who attempts suicide says: “It is the spectre of this non-negotiable past that hangs between me and anyone who tries to read me.” Touche.