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FICTION: STORIES FROM THE FRINGES

November 25, 2018

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In 2011, storyteller, lyricist and journalist Neelesh Misra founded Mandali, an informal writing workshop that provides a platform of close camaraderie to budding writers in India. Storywallah is Misra’s compilation of short stories by these emerging writers. Some of these works have previously appeared on radio and on various digital platforms. Khila Bisht has translated the collection from colloquial Hindi into English.

In this anthology, an array of voices offers readers snapshots of regional life in India. Nostalgic old men return to their ancestral homes; a forlorn father seeks his abducted daughter; a lonely woman and her daughter-in-law strike up a friendship through their mutual fear of mice; a detached wife falls in love with the ghost of a colonial soldier and a widowed father falls in love with an old lady he meets in a park, against his son’s wishes.

Each story is fraught with emotional tension and seeks valuable feelings amongst mundane encounters. The stories contextualise basic existential and emotional questions of human life across provincial towns and villages in India and the writers, from disparate communities, regale their readers with unique, hand-carved perspectives on the wondrous continuum of human feelings.

An anthology of budding writers captures the social and cultural diversity of Indian life

Thematically, the stories fly between a trinity of subjects: love, understanding and nostalgia. Each story explores these themes in its own turn, portraying in detail the colours and contradictions of human relationships, whether they be with fellow humans or childhood memories and villages. The writers not only explore positive human emotions, but sketch their various shades, exposing in particular the immense complexities of love and the responsibilities it incurs.

The feeling of nostalgia, especially for one’s ancestral home, is brilliantly explored several times. Because of uneven development, many young men and women flock to urban centres for education and jobs and consequently become unhitched from their childhood homes and the values observed therein. The phenomena of detachment from the past and the return provoked by nostalgia are portrayed from various angles and embellished with nuanced details. In ‘A Bird in a Flight’, Snehvir Gosain writes, “In a sense, it was just some wood and iron that was being sold, but that wood and iron were witnesses to Shivshankar’s whole life. Amma and Pitaji’s hands had often touched those things. Their touch was still present in these objects.” The story reminded me of the spectacular lines by the Latin-American poet Cesar Vallejo in his prose poem ‘No One Lives in the House Anymore’: “All have departed from the house, in fact, but all have remained in truth. And it is not their memory that remains, but they themselves.”

The stories also afford glimpses of the physical settings in the background, where the friction between traditional values and modernity is depicted. These social backgrounds show the cultural plurality of Indian life, divided along the lines of language, religion and economy. In addition, some of the writers bring forth subtle references to the freedom and agency of women, subverting the conventional autonomy of patriarchal Indian society. In ‘Munjhi’s Palace’ by Kanchan Pant, Munjhi is a young woman who runs her own stall of saris and bangles and saves money in her piggy bank to build herself a little two-room house. In ‘Nails’ by Umesh Pant, a young woman recalls her liveliness and free spirit of earlier days, before she started submitting to the whims of her fiancée who tries to control every tiny detail of her life.

While most of the stories walk around heterogenous love and nostalgia, there are a few in which the protagonists confront cultural constraints and overstep them to forge their own individual meanings. In Manjit Thakur’s ‘Umrao Jaan’, an engineer falls in love with a spell-binding courtesan and decides to marry her. He thwarts the challenges projected by social morality and the girl’s souteneur, who bets against the loyalty of the engineer-lover. Similarly, in ‘Together’ by Jamshed Qamar, an old widowed man meets an old woman in a park after his retirement, develops a friendship and decides to elope with her after his son reprimands him for sidestepping the straitjacket of society. In Kanchan Pant’s ‘Our People’, a Muslim girl chooses to reconnect with her Hindu friend after religious riots in which the Muslim girl’s brother is

killed and her family dispersed. These and similar stories depict the social and cultural diversity of Indian life, along with its limitations and drawbacks.

I noticed that several writers put the overwhelming presence of Indian cinema in the backdrop of their stories, either trying to deny its presence helplessly, or acknowledging it reverentially with references. It would not be far-fetched to say that Indian cinema enjoys

an irresistible influence on all arts produced within the country and very few artists and writers rise high enough to bypass the tropes and limits set by cinema. As most of the stories deal with the theme of love, many Storywallah writers have composed their stories in the tradition of Indian cinema.

Coming to language, some colloquial expressions lose their brilliance after translation. As many of the stories were written for radio narration, this change affects the immediacy of the voices. However, the compilation is strewn with innovative metaphors and images that reveal the writers’ creative spirit: “our shadows met but the relationship stayed aloof behind locked doors”, or “the mango orchard swallowed up the sun again”, and “the boats glimmered like fireflies.”

Like a poem, a short story must grab the reader’s attention and sustain its thrill until the dénouement. Keeping this criterion in mind, some of the tales in Storywallah do make a run for it, but fail to take off. Since the writers are emerging talent, their works retain a certain rawness, resorting to cliché motifs and poetic devices at the more difficult turns. Also, the collection appears biased towards outlining positive human emotions; many stories conclude with a reconciliation of sorts while side-lining the unpleasant spectrum of human nature. Another issue is that some of the writers tend to explain too much, burdening their tales with unnecessary descriptions and authorial questions. However, these limitations aside, Storywallah is a pleasurable read.

The reviewer is a visiting lecturer at Government College University, Lahore, and writes poetry and fiction

Storywallah
By Neelesh Misra’s Mandali
Penguin, India
ISBN: 978-0143445777
272pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 25th, 2018

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