Neelum Saran Gour’s Song Without End and Other Stories redraws dreamy landscapes of multicultural India through the centuries, weaving stories of individuals deeply rooted in their traditions and cultures. Written with painstaking attention to detail and description and not a little wry humour, the stories have as background the rich tapestry of India’s historic cultural multiplicity against which individual characters come to life; be it a technologically challenged grandfather in present day Kolkata or an English boy on his twenty-first birthday party in colonial Calcutta.
A professor of English at the University of Allahabad, Gour connects individual stories through the underlying theme of memory and brings the past to life in a way that two separate moments in time and space merge to create an extraordinary experience of retelling and reliving.
In particular, Gour works with the idea of interconnectedness — the “magic” in the story “Connectivity” — that every particle in the universe is connected to the rest. In that story, the internet is the source of this magic but the sparkling imagination that entwines people, places, historical moments and even mythological events in some mysterious way runs through the entire collection.
In the story “A New Year’s Party,” Geoffery Fernandes invites the two people nearest to him to an annual dinner. The entire story, and indeed all of Gour’s prose, is full of images and descriptions which bring the characters to life — old Alphonse who looks and sounds like “a stuffy old earl that the taxidermist has filled up with rotten old straw” and young giddy Sheena, willful and a bit of a cruel beast who shoots out irreverent observations about her old companions. But a startling revelation is made at the burst of the new year when Geoffery congratulates himself on a party well done: To throw a successful party with nobody attending save an old granddad, dead and gone for forty years and more, and a flighty young fantasy of granddaughter, unborn still and unlikely ever to be born.
From the theatre of imagination, Gour takes us deep into the heart of Kanpur’s bazaars where a senile Nawab searches for his favourite sweetmeat seller and his distinctive almond gilloris. The gilloris become a powerful transformative metaphor for the old Nawab’s past of royalty, retainers and ownership. In the time where his grandson runs a bicycle shop and his palace grounds are a mesh of noise and filth, the gilloris become the only way for him to journey back to his past and vanquish the present.
The stories in the collection have been written over a period of 30 years and one can see the development in maturity in Gour’s writing, especially in the most recent story, “Play”. Narrated by Partho, an actor in a theatre company who has been forcibly assigned a minor role in a production, the story stands out in its very modern and theatrical sensibility. The play is based on a story in which the main character, Pranesh, receives letters addressed to another man, Deb, from his wife and what follows is a rupture in which Pranesh becomes Deb and imagines his wife and family as his own. The story takes the reader deep inside the world of theatre — from the freedom to don another self to its darkest edges beyond which the boundaries between reality and play dissolve. Partho’s narration becomes immersed deeper and deeper into the actual performance of the play till his own self and the selves that he enacts become indistinguishable.
Partho is first asked to play the role of the delinquent son, then the female lead and then the male lead. In each role his own consciousness is absorbed into the consciousness of the character as he creates real memories, feelings and thoughts for each, and to each new character he adds a bit of the old; crossing borders between male and female, old and young, parent and child, and even inhabiting the intimate space between a husband and wife.
When he plays the character of the son he draws the connection between his own life and the character, “So Dhrubo I became, that sullen, slow, loutish bloke, that pain in his parents’ neck, just to cover myself with glory in my real life Ma’s eyes...” This process is ongoing till the previous self disappears to make room for the next character he plays.
The story questions the idea of a homogenous, unified self, using the play as a metaphor for all the fragments that make up a person. Devoid of speech marks, the lines of the play run into the conscious speech of Partho, of the other actors, of even the audience. The “I” in the narration becomes a site of contention as the self is no longer separate from others and the narrator says, “By now the play had broken out of its mould and spilt its contents all over and the line between make-believe and reality had blurred.” The narration sometimes uses the actors’ names and at other times the characters’ names until the characters’ names are the ones that remain while the actors recede to the background.
However, despite the shifting boundaries and doubling, there is a constant self-consciousness that it is a theatrical production. The text is peppered with details of mechanics of theatre; things like lighting, sound and how the audience engages with it, throwing the reader in a perpetual lurch as one questions the identity of the narrative voice.
While some stories shine in the collection, others are a bit of a puzzle which is an occupational hazard of writing fiction with a theoretical bent. Gour’s writing in some places provides brilliant imagery, but in others her overly detailed descriptions and obscure references only serve to confuse the reader. For example, in “Grey Pigeon” the character of Chacha Imam Bux tells the tale of an erstwhile fading king and his scornful queen with colourful descriptions of the court, musicians, artful wordplay but towards the end, the story loses its flow as Chacha tries to encompass another story resulting in unnecessary digressions and a complete loss of meaning in the proceeding pages.
Similarly in “Goddess of Clay” the setting is of a village’s Durga Puja and a parallel is drawn between the goddess Durga and Uma, a woman who has been wronged by her husband and her lover and now wants revenge. Unfortunately, the detail is overkill and the subtlety which could have made a captivating story is forgotten and the reader is left shaking her head at the writer’s self-indulgence.
The “magic” of interconnectedness is taken a tad too far in some instances and finds an otherwise promising writer guilty of overcomplicating her thoughts with pretensions of philosophical profundity.
Song Without End and Other Stories (SHORT STORIES) By Neelum Saran Gour Penguin Books, India ISBN 9780143414544 269pp. Indian Rs299