Short Stories Books

Series of thumbnails: Latha Anantharaman reviews ‘The Banyan and Her Roots’

There is a diversity of South Asian voices in The Banyan and Her Roots. The durable, predictable themes of our world emerge — small rebellions, forbidden or simply problematic love, the indifference of power, and the tug of family ties against the siren song of opportunity — but there is little to justify the lavish promotional quotes on the cover. Still, disappointment is the lot of any reader of a short story collection, since we will inevitably disagree with the particular taste of the compiler. Perhaps it’s best to remain politely silent on the sub-par stories in this lot and pick up some that have pith to them.

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Towards hope

Neeru Iyer’s Moonwalker, about a porn actress’s renewed friendship with her suicidal brother, overcomes the clutter of Michael Jackson references to give us a story arc that bends faintly toward hope. It has a tight cast of sister, brother and mother who reach tentatively towards a reconciliation.

In The Flyover, Saadia Azim draws the pulsating scene at a newly-built flyover, with debris being cleared before the inauguration and young Babon gathering with other migrant children who have been schooled in situ. They have gathered for a festival with balloons and a promised lunch, and some of them will recite poems, sing songs and win prizes. The chief guests smile and take phone calls, and their patient schoolteacher gives the families their last instructions. Only then does Babon realise that life will not continue in the way he imagined, in his sari-walled home with his mother, with cars whizzing past above on the flyover. The actual builders of the new marvel are all to be cleared out, like the post-construction debris. It is the second time Babon and his mother have lost their home, and we know it certainly will not be the last.

Meghna Pant writes what we know will be a harsh tale just from the title. You can’t put the words “oleander” and “girl” together

Series of thumbnails: Latha Anantharaman reviews ‘The Banyan and Her Roots’

without forecasting murder. The narrator is forced by Taiji, her aunt-in-law, to terminate one pregnancy after another because the foetus is female. She finally prevails in carrying a girl child to term during the same months that Taiji approaches death. But when the child is born, is it the tiny screaming life that is possessed by Taiji or is it the narrator herself?

Iqbal, My Brother is Pakistani author Sonal Arshad Siraj’s portrait of a boy who parents his younger siblings, and the little brother who is the shining hope of the family. He takes wing and flies, and is there anyone who expects him to come back again? The story is told with powerful economy, almost in the manner of freeze frames that capture family moments.

Slow anguish

In The Water Level, C.V. Balakrishnan describes the hours before a river floods. Moideen Koya, having eaten his fill and settled in for a nap, is alerted by his workers that the water is rising. His mill, his truckload of new rice, his home and his family may all be washed away. Nearby, a destitute Soumini is also about to lose all she has, her own life and that of her infant. Balakrishnan tightens the two threads of his compact narrative till we too feel helpless in the face of an approaching disaster.

And what happens after a disaster? Bangladeshi author Selina Hossain’s The Cyclone Survivor is a stark snapshot taken among the ruins. Halima, opening her eyes to daylight amidst the rubble of her life, has lost her husband, her daughter and her home. But she must face still more — the eyes of men who have scented an opportunity. Pakistani author Zoya Anwer’s The Missing Man takes the aftermath a bit further, to the anguish a family feels when a man has been taken away by the authorities and no one will tell them where he is. The anguish slowly becomes an everyday feeling, something almost banal. We’re left with an unfinished tale, as the family is too.

Of the 25 stories in the collection, the best can be praised as readable, the reader’s reward an occasional mild shock or nod of recognition. We are unlikely to seek them out again, but the dutiful reader may stock this with similar volumes that attempt to represent in a thumbnail the lives of a huge swathe of humanity.

The Banyan and Her Roots; Edited by Jad Adams, Palimpsest, ₹500

The writer is author of Three Seasons: Notes from a Country Year.

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