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Manjula Padmanabhan is a writer’s writer, a cult heroine for those who value the craft and beauty of literary endeavour. Her formidable and eclectic genius embraces theatre, illustrative art, journalism, and what has been described as ‘speculative fiction’ for children and adults. Wry, whimsical and unblinking, her writing has been labelled ‘dystopian’ and even ‘post-apocalyptic’. Nudging the reader out of habit and complacency, she is constantly testing the barriers of the possible and the probable.
Many years ago, I reviewed her collection of short stories, Cold Soup and Hot Death. Some of these resurface in the just released Three Virgins and Other Stories. I wrote then that “Padmanabhan’s world is determinedly surreal, and spans a range of situations from a would-be Sati to science fiction and metapsychosis. What strings this magical mystery tour together is the stern cerebration of Padmanabhan’s mind....” It was disconcerting to re-encounter the title story, the taut narrative even more unnerving with the dislocation of time. It was also reassuring to register that Manjula Padmanabhan’s gift for strangeness, what she refers to in the introduction as her “somewhat freak-infested dimension”, continues to delight, entertain and educate.
On-the-surface straightforward stories like Khajuraho or Stains carry a procession of ideas and are masterly in their resolution. Feast, which looks at the sensory feast of India through the eyes of a jaded international vampire, could well be construed as a socio-economic parable. The Other Woman and Exile penetrate the timeless worlds of the immortals and rework myth to modern unreality. Both are situated in the Ramayana. Exile presents a cocky, gendered take on the theme of vanvas, evoking the past and future with equal unease. Full of laughter, but resonant with political nuance, Ravana’s queen Mandodari leaps to life out of the pages in The Other Woman.
The best things for the last. Three Virgins is an honest, moving story that leaves the reader aching with shared reminiscence. And the illustrations, those critters that look, as the author declares in her introduction, “like characters waiting for their stories to be told”. Indeed, there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in its proportion.