As a form of literature, the short story is both cruel and generous. It allows the very best to shine, to conjure entire worlds in the space of a few dozen pages, as in a Maugham or a Dahl. In the hands of less gifted writers, it can show up glaring technical limitations and a surfeit of cliché.
The Rock Babas and Other Stories by Ameya Prabhu is hence a risky undertaking, an author making a debut through a short story collection.
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There are nine tales in all, set in locations ranging from the plantations of Colombia to the highlands of Nepal. The characters are also varied, from an African-American police officer to a Bollywood playback singer, from a Japanese billionaire to a Swiss hotelier. Considering that the stories were all written in the course of a couple of months during the lockdown, this is an impressive feat of research and background reading.
The title story features a quest for enlightenment, hidden valleys and Rock-music playing monks. This is the Order of Gyur-Tog, a monastic order which dispenses brutal riffs and Instagram-ready wisdom: “People often think that the cycle of birth and rebirth refers to the journey of the soul across multiple lives. While that may be true, we also die and are reincarnated multiple times in this very life itself.” There is also an excursion into the fascinating culture of the Kirati people, a community which venerates the Kanchenjunga as a deity.
Some stories have minimal dialogue, instead relying on a steady accretion of details. This results in a certain blandness as the prose gets almost bureaucratic in tone. “Yet, as was his nature, Agent Holder maintained a Zen disposition and disregarding all extraneous factors, assiduously went about examining the evidence at hand.”
The characters in the stories are either questioning their life choices or have undergone some traumatic experience which forces them to do so. The Yaksha Prasna episode in the Mahabharata , on living a correct life in the shadow of the inevitability of death, features prominently. Prabhu returns to this theme repeatedly, either mentioning it directly or making it part of the metaphysical backdrop.
The Rock Babas and Other Stories; Ameya Prabhu, Westland, ₹399
The writer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.