Varied styles mark out the modern masters of the short story—the compressed richness of Alice Munro and Tessa Hadley, the dialogic profundity of Raymond Carver and James Salter, the pulsating rhythms of Richard Ford and Lorrie Moore and the impressionistic allusiveness of the recently deceased Irishman, William Trevor. But Mitra Phukan is not a stylist; she tells her stories in a simple, direct style.
All of her stories in this collection are set in and around small-town Assam, though the author is niggardly in giving much local detail. Most have a deep anguish hanging over them, and trauma and sadness are borne into the narratives by characters. Phukan’s women are often wronged, or lonely; the men are often in thrall of weaknesses they helplessly pander to. Instincts, natural and supernatural, often drive events; swiftly moving prose drives headlong towards a satisfying resolution. All this is a counterpoint to the untarnished charm of small-town Assam, places of great scenic, and serene, beauty. Assam’s troubled years of insurgency, and its usual undergrowth of crime, rear their heads too: the rich are “touched by gun-toting youths”, forests “bristle with guns”, banks battle extortion and bomb blasts hurl shrapnels of misery into the future. Phukan describes food and clothes with exactitude and the foliage with great enthusiasm.
A Full Night’s Thievery is a sympathetic and humorous account of an expert thief with a “watertight alibi” who comes undone on an amavasya night; in The Reckoning, an unhappy mistress of a grand tea estate is forced to disclose her plot of psychological terror, directed at her adulterous husband, when her teenage son is kidnapped by insurgents; in The Gift a widower contemplates a garden fallen into barrenness after the death of his wife, and receives two gifts in the course of a radiant spring morning; The Rings is about a rich businessman who gets his just deserts for his total reliance on astrology. In Spring Song, an NRI, back in Assam for Bihu, directs a hard gaze back on her youthful relationship, while in The Revenge of Annapurna, a wife reacts to her writer husband’s unfaithfulness by turning herself into a bounteous domestic goddess, thus isolating him in his illicit passion.
Yet these tales, engaging enough, suffer from a mundane literalness, as if an intention to tell her tales straight out, with a minimum of artifice, imparts a flatness that fails to satisfy a demanding reader. Sometimes, one feels that Phukan’s world isn’t fully realised. For example, in A Full Night’s Thievery, set in the late ’40s, Phukan had an opportunity to bring to life a bygone world with craftily embedded particularities (old ways of doing things, say, or a long-dead brand of hair oil). By nimbly gliding over her frameworks, Phukan has passed over chances of fully fleshing out her milieu.
The Brahmaputra is often a presence in these stories. Her world is one of sudden silences, secret longings, unspoken emotions. She is also a writer of the processes of inner life.
There is, however, no place for such quibbles in The Journey and Jogeshwari. The former closely observes characters in a closeted AC compartment of a moving train, with the author manipulating interest through deft changes of perspective. In a story where the narrative moves with cinematic rapidity, Phukan’s qualities are on full display. The terrifying end falls like a blow of hammer. Jogeshwari, meanwhile, is a darkly effective tale of witchcraft, possession and the retribution a wronged wife brings upon her famous husband with aid from the world beyond. Phukan’s imaginative world is one of sudden silences, secret longings and anathemas, and unspoken emotions.
It’s in the stories about music that Phukan—a trained classical vocalist—hits the high notes effortlessly. Ekalavya is a cynically troubling confession of a ‘cultural correspondent’, but it’s really about the single-minded devotion of Rishabh, a sitarist, for Pt. Deenbandhu Mishra, an international star who deigns to visit their town for a concert. The ardent follower prepares a special composition for a test of discipleship; his idol is cruelly unsparing in his gurudakshina. The Choice is a near-perfect act of ventriloquism, where a famous player of the rudra veena, in an address to an unnamed, unseen benefactor of music, explains how the long fingers of an ancient curse attached to the instrument has made him want to give it up, and much of his life with it. In The Tabla Player, Ram Kumar, drunk with music, cannot tear himself from a soiree, and tragically stands up his pregnant widow.
Phukan is a writer of the inner life; she excels in the slow unfolding of the processes of the heart—not its conflicts, however, but its slow movement towards a certain direction.
Great rivers dominate landscapes, lives and imaginations. Phukan’s stories unfold before the serene presence of the Brahmaputra. It slips in and out, always near at hand, a witness to the human comedy unfolding by its shores. At its best, Phukan’s prose approaches that lucid poise.