Short Stories Books

Review of Anushka Jasraj’s ‘Principles of Prediction’

Borrowing words from her MFA thesis advisor, Anushka Jasraj says in an interview, “The connecting theme [in a collection] should be that you wrote them.” The 13 stories in Jasraj’s debut collection inhabit widely diverse worlds, characterised by melancholia, volatility and dysfunctional realities. Each of them challenges your perceptions and pushes the boundaries of the imagination until you give in and let Jasraj’s deft craft steer the path.

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Leaving home

The bizarre is the ordinary in these worlds. Sita has been practising twisting her limbs into a jalebi shape so she can leave her three-year-old marriage and join the Kohinoor Circus (Circus). Her prized possession is her great-grandmother’s eyeball preserved in a glass jar which she was given as a present on her 13th birthday. School-going Cassata, named after her dead grandfather’s favourite dessert, steals blouses, homoeopathic medicine, baby strollers (Elephant Maximus). “She even tried stealing the usefulness of things by taking the tops off salt-and-pepper shakers, seats from bicycles and steering wheels from cars.” Did she nick the “ugly miniature pug” from the Vodafone ad and an elephant, both for the sake of love?

Why not

In Feline, a private detective has to decide whether to tell her client that her ex-boyfriend’s mood graph showed more frowning pandas than grinning ones while they were dating, or to get involved with the ex-boyfriend herself. She settles down to answering private questions for strangers on Quora instead.

Review of Anushka Jasraj’s ‘Principles of Prediction’

The collection revels in incongruities. Why would the wealthy weatherwoman’s mother take off with the neighbour’s gold jewellery? Why does a woman who went to New York on her honeymoon and replicated a Damien Hirst artwork in her house, sleep in a tent with a lion and its tamer? Jasraj taunts you and asks, ‘Why not’.

The absence of time, place and identity markers compounds the disorienting effect of these unusual situations. The more you try to grasp at principles of prediction, the harder you fall. Surrender to the free fall and Jasraj might throw you a parachute eventually.

Raw emotions

At the core of these tempestuous stories are moments of sincere, raw emotions. In Numerology, a father and daughter try to redraw their relationship after the death of the mother, fumbling awkwardly. In the eponymous story, the protagonist is found on the kitchen floor with her head in the refrigerator, “trying to cool down” a panic attack induced by the buzzing egg-timer.

In Circus, the wife leaves an incomplete goodbye note for the husband because she can’t find the right word — “one that explains the emptiness inside me which is also a kind of nourishment.” In Elephant Maximus, Cassata, a “well-known figure in Chor Bazaar”, loses control of her bladder when she is punished at school for falling behind on homework. Numerology and Elephant Maximus dazzle, riding on the strength of their delightful child protagonists.

Jasraj writes queerness into her characters as easily as she writes emotions. Her characters could be juggling both the fairly conventional sex life of a married woman and sexual fantasies that would put them at extreme ends of the spectrum. Jasraj doesn’t brand her characters’ sexuality, allowing them to flow and negotiate with the reader.

Jasraj has made her mark as a short story writer — two of the stories here, Drawing Lessons and Radio Story, were Asia regional winners of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her stories grip and baffle you in equal measure. Was Cassata a storyteller extraordinaire or a notorious thief? What is the answer to Dahlia’s cryptic clue — “that which is a beggary, if measured” — in Notes from the Ruins? Jasraj, aware of the cost at which the satisfaction of closure is achieved, prods you instead to revel in the multiplicity of openings.

pragati.kb@thehindu.co.in

Principles of Prediction; Anushka Jasraj, Context, ₹499


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