Short stories occupy a precarious space between flash fiction and novels. Where flash fiction can get away with the depiction of a moment in time and novels span lifetimes generally, short stories are expected to perform from the first line and provide a sense of change within the limited canvas available to it.
In her debut collection of stories titled Polymorphism , Indira Chandrasekhar has played with the short story form. So there are stories that focus on a moment in time as also stories that follow the lives of characters through their lifetime, like a longer narrative.
The stories vary in length, with the shortest story taking about three-and-a-half pages while the longest takes about 13 pages. In the former, news about a pregnancy turns life around for the narrator while in the latter, pregnancy and childbirth bring about unforeseen changes. Family dynamics, especially relating to the presence of children, is a recurring motif in many stories, almost a loose binding that holds this eclectic collection of 19 stories together.
The first story in the book, which also lends its title to the collection, starts with an incident that becomes the canvas to detail the uniqueness of the main character.
A thief riding a scooter robs a woman out on a walk of her handbag. Her arm gets dislocated and we learn that the loss of the bag also means the loss of medicines she’d kept in the bag. What were the medicines for, and what is the significance of her injury?
As the story progresses you realise that these questions don’t matter because the narrative has moved on purposefully towards other realities that the reader must process.
Chandrasekhar’s command over craft and the narrative is evident in the way the story goes ahead without pausing or flagging at any time.
The author dips into her background of science to place her narratives in fresh landscapes as she talks about loss and grief, obsession, infertility, poverty, privilege. We read about embryos that grow inside purple coloured boils, neighbourhoods that are expanded by cutting and inserting a piece of land, a world where the government introduces controlled breeding to increase population.
We are introduced to characters that seemingly inhabit a normal world yet find themselves in the midst of strange situations, surreal and unexpected.
In the story, ‘Lennard-Jones Potentials’, the narrator, one of the twin girls born out of a petri-dish union, wonders about likely names for her discarded sibling-embryos. As the girl ponders the reality of her existence, the author provides the explanation for the title of the story.
“Her heels, however, made distinct pear-shaped marks on the floor, as they were shallow energy wells rooting her temporarily to the ground. Ma has shown her pictures — contour maps of energy wells. Lennard-Jones Potentials, she had called them; that’s how lizards attach to surfaces, through really weak bonds, minute attractions between molecules. I am weakly bonded to the earth, Kanaka thought.”
Abuse, bullying, the subtle ways in which the caste system operates, exploitation of privilege by urban dwellers are some of the other themes that the author explores in the book. In ‘Should I Weep’, the anguish of a child who’s picked on by students as well as teachers, is told against the background of the demise of a teacher.
The writer subtly talks about patriarchal attitudes and the different ways in which abuse may be surreptitiously perpetuated in the stories, ‘Intensive Care’ and ‘The Perfect Shot’.
One of the most interesting stories that I kept going back to was ‘Any Day Now’. A young woman returns to her paying guest accommodation to reconnect with her host when her life hits a bleak turn only to realise that her erstwhile hostess has undergone a transformation and she must now distract the woman from the woes of her domestic help towards herself.
Stories with a sci-fi background appear in between those that deal with other issues.
The frequent hop between genres is a bit disconcerting. However, the excellent command of the author over the narratives helps the readers enter the different landscapes quickly.
As the title indicates, the stories in this collection deal with the many kinds of transformation that can happen as a result of unforeseen circumstances, instances when the matter and manner of change are governed by both internal and external forces over which the characters have very little control.
Chandrasekhar’s subtle and nuanced narratives throw light on deep relationships formed beyond the bond of blood, reflecting on the diversity and versatility of human interactions. Polymorphism is a beautiful collection of short stories that any good lover of fiction will enjoy.
The author is a writer and poet. Her short stories have been published in many magazines and journals.
Polymorphism; Indira Chandrasekhar, HarperCollins, ₹350