Short Stories Books

Familiar but new: Review of Vivek Nath Mishra’s ‘No One An Outsider: Varanasi Tales’

In this collection of stories centred on Varanasi, Vivek Nath Mishra could be saying with D.H. Lawrence, “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!” His characters seem to stand still while events and life move through them.

The sincerity of his writing perhaps comes from his close involvement with his subjects. Mishra deals with heavy themes such as violence, death, sexual trauma and abuse in sparse, utilitarian prose. The lack of drama adds gravitas. By not allowing his characters to dwell on traumatic events, he shows how normal such incidents have become and how desensitised to them we are.

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In the titular story, Varanasi is presented as death’s waiting room, where friendships, love, infidelity, families all dissolve in the inevitability of the final journey. The haunts in which Mishra sets his stories are familiar but the stories themselves are new.

In ‘A Less Painful End’, he talks about the sin of being born poor but beautiful. Anju, the attractive daughter of a vegetable vendor, must endure the attentions of the men around her. We are shown the reality of a society that is less concerned with the death of her poor father and more about the supposedly illicit ways in which she had supported him.

‘Plunge’ is the portrait of a man who quits his job to daydream about an imaginary garden and devotes himself to finding it.

‘A Fake Lotus’ revolves around an old woman overcoming her lifelong phobia of lotuses. It harks back to the unpleasant journey of her childhood where her fears had been leveraged and used against her. In ‘Smell of Leather’, we meet Subba, a butcher, who, in the aftermath of a lynching, is too traumatised to carry on with his profession. In a poignant ending Mishra makes him identify and sympathise with the very agent of his sorrow.

However, Mishra’s prose has its weaknesses — for one, it could be tighter. Awkward sentence constructions lend unintentional ambiguity to the powerful stories. Despite this, none can deny the power of Mishra’s voice. One hopes to read more from him.

No One An Outsider: Varanasi Tales; Vivek Nath Mishra, Hawakal Publishers, ₹250

The reviewer is a freelance writer and illustrator.

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 11:56:05 PM |

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