The prime merit about this book of short stories is that it is an insider’s account. Add to this, Cooper’s statement in the introduction on why “I do not feel comfortable in my own community” and why “I feel like a complete outsider.” This is an ideal combination for any writer — enough experience of being a participant, and sufficient detachment from his upbringing to be an observer.
Particularly interesting is his exposition of the socio-economic layers of his community starting with the chawl Parsis, the Baugh Parsis, the villa Parsis, and the privileged Parsis each with their intrinsic essences, commonalities and hierarchies. Cooper does not mince words. Referring to close relatives and the “cruelties they practised”, they were “monsters and witches” revealing the “sinister” side of human nature. We have run into these characters on the streets. They are our next-door neighbours. And they are not Parsi alone.
In fact, not all these stories are located in the Parsi milieu of Mumbai and Pune. Other middle class and working class groups — the Maharashtrian, Tamilian, Sindhi, Muslim, and Christian — are also put under the microscope.
Cooper’s stories are all character-driven, told in the voices of these characters. They take the reader right into the theatre of their minds; minds that are cavernous, swampy, or shifty as quicksand. But there is a sameness to the narrating voices that makes the telling monotonous. One gets the uncomfortable feeling that the voices are all Cooper’s; not differentiated enough to suit the peculiar natures of his characters. Would a woman in a brothel say, “Urdu was such a soft and dulcet language” (‘The Dance Lesson’)? More than likely it is the author’s thought.
As in his poetry, Cooper is deft with a turn of phrase and the inventiveness of language. He makes free use of Indian terms (there is a 10-page Glossary at the end) but often these are arbitrarily strewn around and do not rise from the individual’s speech rhythms. Not consistently. “These days everyone in Bombay wanted ‘exact change’ except waiters, barbers, hamaals and cab-drivers” (‘Mouthwash’). Why not hajaam instead of barbers?
There are exceptions. ‘144 Tughlaq Kutir’ maintains a believable female voice capable of introspection, explores generational issues, and moves at a natural pace. The title story is chatty, funny, tongue-in-cheek. And ‘Pestonji’s Tower of Silence’ features a memorable pet cockatoo — named Kekashroo — who engages Pestonji in, what would seem to him, a normal dialogue.
‘It Takes Two to Bhagdig,’ which at 43 pages is the longest story in the collection, has a well-handled and intricate plot about two con artists teaming up to make a fortune over some rare “missing” volumes of Raymond Chandler’s detective novels checked out of the library.
This collection has long been in the making — the earliest stories date from 1983 — and there is a predictably musty air about them. That itself is bound to charm many readers.
The Fuss about Queens and Other Stories;Darius Cooper, OM International Books, Rs 225.