All the lives we never lived: Tabish Khair reviews Jenny Bhatt’s ‘Each of Us Killers’

An accomplished collection of stories informed by a sense of community, its possibilities and failures

January 23, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated January 24, 2021 10:20 am IST

There are good reasons to celebrate a successful new collection of short stories, perhaps more so in countries like ours, where the short fiction form remains vigorous. Until a few decades ago, in languages like Urdu, Hindi and Bangla, it was the short story that set the tone and had the largest readership. Also, nationally and internationally, it was the short story that, along with poetry, stood at the heart of most literary movements.

The commercial and, increasingly, critical dominance of the novel form in recent decades — and I say so despite being a novelist — is almost a kind of aberration, and it has deep ideological reasons.

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Different personas

For one, the short story allows a community to form. Like poems, short stories thrive in anthologies. The novel is an inherently monopolistic genre whose success is tied to the commercial structures of capitalism: you cannot imagine an anthology of novels. That is why novels have seldom led to literary movements of the sort that are associated with poetry and short stories. The novel enables many things, but, contrary to critical belief, it does not enable literary community.

Jenny Bhatt, the author of the 15 stories collected in Each of Us Killers , is an accomplished translator from Gujarati and has championed short stories in her Desi Books podcast. She is surely aware of the above, and related, factors. Her stories, in any case, revolve around different kinds of relationships. They are informed by a sense of community, its possibilities and failures. The blurb tells us that Bhatt “has lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland and the US”, and this is reflected in her stories, which are located in the American Midwest, England, and Gujarat. The stories set in Gujarat cover both urban and rural scenarios, and they form the bulk of the volume.

Most of the stories revolve around some relationship — enabling or exploitative, successful or failed, surviving or unravelling,

voluntary or forced — and are often, but not always, narrated in the first person. Bhatt’s ability to assume different personas seems to work best in those stories that are located in the urban middle class, even though she deserves praise for trying to cover the underbelly of India. The title story, for instance, is an indictment of our inhumanity in the context of caste and other atrocities enabled and condoned by privilege.

However, for me, it is the stories largely set in the West — such as ‘Return to India’ — or stories exploring the Indian dream in urban Gujarat — such as ‘The Prize’ and ‘Pros and Cons’ — that work best. It is here that Bhatt gets under the skin of her characters with an ease that is difficult to achieve when creating characters beyond the pale of capital and caste.

Return to India

In the latter cases, the stories, though sculpted and interesting, seem to have weaker endings, perhaps because our middle-class perception of subalternity is already too heavily mediated. You need to be a Mahasweta Devi to overcome that limitation, for it is more a social limitation than an artistic one.

Nevertheless, Each of Us Killers is an accomplished collection. Bhatt is good at assuming personas and using lively, sculpted language that avoids the stilted, literary English often afflicting Indian English writing. Her stories explore the world around us, ranging from white American violence against coloured immigrants to rural violence against Dalits in India, from the aspirations of a yuppie Indian couple to those of a domestic help.

When she uses linguistic registers in her English, it is done with restraint and accuracy, and not just for effect — as when a yoga instructor describes a rich young woman with a crush on him as “too dhinchak for me”.

This is a collection of stories to welcome, more so as it is by a writer who is aware of the possibilities of critical community afforded by the short story form. It is time to get back to short stories.

The writer is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.

Each of Us Killers; Jenny Bhatt, 7.13 Books, ₹1,805

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