FICTION: ORDINARY PEOPLE

Updated 31 Jul 2020

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If you read Soumya Bhattacharya’s Thirteen Kinds of Love expecting 13 romantic love stories, you will be dissatisfied. This slim collection of interlinked short stories tackles much more than that, and in many places, does it very well.

Set in Imperial Heights, a posh apartment block in Mumbai, the stories reveal the lives of its residents (Bhattacharya draws from his time living in a similar apartment block in Mumbai). A widower, lying on a beach in Spain on his first holiday alone — “he was still weary of calling it a holiday” — mulls over his wife’s untimely death. Another couple is delaying telling their young son about their impending separation. Their driver Rakesh wrestles with asking for an increase in his salary and is then both thrilled that he gets it and bitter at how the amount “meant nothing to the Chaudhuris.” A successful business executive confesses (to us) his habit of infidelity while on business trips. His wife wonders how she should confront him.

Narrative arcs travel across different stories as the viewpoint shifts between different characters, often from husband to wife to child. Through a few wealthy families and, in the case of two stories, the people who work for them (more on that later), the stories explore the intricacies of modern lives; the mundane rituals and subtle tragedies of relationships and marriages, and love, too — but only incidentally.

The best use of a short story is to reveal some truth about the human condition and many of these stories do just that. The way Bhattacharya weaves small, well-chosen details together with precise descriptions of complex emotions is the greatest strength of his book. The writing in these places hits just the right note and is moving. My favourite was ‘The Wave’, where the specific details of place — the hot sun shining on a remote European beach — are infused with the emotional tug of memories of a beloved dead wife.

“But if you’d asked, he would not have been able to say quite why they had enjoyed coming to Torremolinos so much ... The same strip of beach; the same kitschy fridge magnets and beach sets and sandals in the shops that lined the steep path — sometimes shaded by the eaves of buildings and sometimes burning in the sun.

A collection of interlinked short stories about the residents of an apartment block explores the intricacies of modern lives

“The holiday in Torremolinos had held a special place. It had shown them how valuable each of them was to the other; it had taught them, once more, and more tellingly, the worth of another’s company and love. The place had become for them pleasurably familiar. It had, like marriages, a lot to do with the excitement of the known and the intimate — the intimately known.” The sadness and grief of losing his wife is somehow perfectly contrasted and made more poignant by details of the beach.

“He had to learn to recognise and live with that particular blurred, half-conscious moment on waking up — the moment when one is sort of awake and is not, not entirely, that flicker of a second between when the mind has not grasped that everything has changed, and then, the moment when the mind does. The awareness comes like a physical blow.”

In the story about a couple coming to terms with their separation, Bhattacharya writes: “When Samrat Chaudhuri ambled into the kitchen with Arnab tiptoeing in front of him, Malini was draining pasta in the sink. They held each other’s gaze for a moment but did not speak. ‘Lunch will be ready at one,’ said Malini, looking at the sieve.” Later, Malini’s sadness is shown through the eyes of their observant driver: “Rakesh saw her looking out of the window and not patting her hair back after it had become windblown.”

It is these everyday details and gestures that make Bhattacharya’s characters convincing and make you want to keep reading. One story is told entirely through emails and texts sent between two characters, and is the one conventionally romantic storyline in the collection. Another, about a father who wants to be close to his son, is interspersed with the boy’s diary entries — including drawings — from the holiday they take together. Bhattacharya shows us the texture of the everyday in the lives of these residents and the contrast between what we see on the surface and what simmers beneath.

Fiction must be believable and to do that, the author must, to a great extent, leave himself behind. In some places, however, the writer’s voice interjects too strongly into the stories and in the minds of his characters. This would have felt fine if the story wasn’t trying to be told from the limited viewpoint of a particular character. This leads to the added danger of all characters sounding the same: like the writer.

This was especially glaring in the story about Savita in ‘If There Was No Hope What Was There?’ This is a story meant to be told from the house cleaner’s point of view, but is not convincing as such. It also feels like too convenient a way of summarising the lives of all the other characters in the book, people whose flats Savita cleans. It’s also repetitive, as she doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. What makes it worse is that there isn’t much depth about Savita’s life outside Imperial Heights, except for broad strokes about her desire to work to provide for her daughters and a husband who beats her for not giving him a son.

More glaring is the insinuation of the rape of a teenaged girl in ‘The Big Day’, which seemed out of place and is problematically structured. Leading up to the incident, we see things from the point of view of the boy who does it — a teenaged cleaner who mops the floors of the piano school “for these rich children.” We’re told that he lives in a slum with a sick father and a mother who works as a maid. We’re told that he neither drinks nor smokes, nor does drugs like some of the other boys in the slum: “He was proud to be clean. Inside him burned an anger, incandescent, white hot.” And then, when Tanvi goes alone into one of the practice rooms, he “made his move.” Later, in the final story, when someone at a New Year’s Eve party asks about her, the parents say, “Oh she is well. It took a long time for her to get back on track.” And someone else replies, “Ah, horrible, horrible business, that.” And then everyone continues drinking, talking and counting down to the New Year.

Despite one or two stories that we could have done without, this is an enjoyable collection with a cast of compelling, but not necessarily likeable, characters trying to fix what is broken. In this way, despite the losses and betrayals faced, the underlying message of the book is one of hope, and it ends with the promise of a happy new year.

The reviewer is the founder of The Writing Room and talks about books on Instagram @thewritingroom.co

Thirteen Kinds of Love
By Soumya Bhattacharya
HarperCollins, India
ISBN: 978-9353572761
200pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 31st, 2020