January 25, 2020
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God's Forsaken Country

Snapshots of exiles and wanderers chased by the soul of an emptying coastal village

God's Forsaken Country
Something Barely Remembered
By Susan Visvanathan
IndiaInk Rs 250, Pages: 171
The lure of the short story is the fluidity of the form, an open invitation to experimenters. But it also requires great technical skill to be a good short story writer, a point that escapes many fledgling Indian writers who look on the short story as less work than a full-blown novel. The opposite is true, especially if the author has decided to play around with the form.

Publisher IndiaInk's assertion in the blurb copy that Visvanathan's collection adopts a "remarkable new form" is not completely accurate. By linking her short stories together with the collective memory of a coastal village that has sunk into oblivion, Visvanathan is certainly going out on a limb, but she is not the first. Several American writers have experimented with thematically linked short stories, and last year, Shree Ghatage attempted a partially successful collection of stories centred around the occupants of a building in Mumbai.

With Visvanathan's polished, heartfelt collection, the links between inhabitants of Puthenkavu past and present, are almost organic. The collection begins with Lukose's Church, an unsentimentally told tale of a priest's tenuous clinging to faith in a dying church, and closes with Water Birds, about a woman who, having weathered a broken marriage and the outside world, finds shelter of sorts in Puthenkavu. In between roam the scattered citizens of the village, stumbling from disappointment to moments of snatched happiness, searching for meaning in their lives.

Visvanathan's style is impressionistic. Her ability to lift people off the page into life is assured. Every story, both the more and less successful ones, has its moments. The 10 years that went into the writing of this book were obviously not wasted.

The prose is lean but also lush; Visvanathan has the knack of never using three words where one would do, and the corollary knack of never using two where six are necessary. The "sudden hot fluorescent light" of a tropical afternoon, the priest who shivers as he senses that his God is "gray and cold and violent", the village marked by "the sound of the sea, and the hush of river water", all these images accumulate until Visvanathan has pulled her reader into the same terrain occupied by her characters.

And what characters these are! Ordinary people, most of them, illuminated by the author's skill and empathy. There is Anna, the edgy child in perpetual mourning for a mother who abandoned her in search of a more fulfilling love. There is Sumana, transplanted to Belfast, ducking passion in favour of more lasting satisfactions. There's Elizabeth, held to her faith by the bonds of inheritance rather than inclination. There's Chako, a fragile link between a beautiful but hollowed out woman and her resentful, abandoned child.

Though the characters and their stories rove through Belfast and Zurich, across New York and London, leaving behind an emptying village, like the shucked-off hulk of their collective lives, Puthenkavu remains the strongest presence in their lives. It follows them through dispossession and dislocation, the one inescapable constant that is indispensable, even though husbands and families and grandparents and children are. Visvanathan has rendered a family album in print, delineated the features of a community and a village that perhaps exists only in collective memory.

Even as she mixes memory with desire, she does so without succumbing to the banal temptations of nostalgia or sentimentality. Instead, she allows the voices of Puthenkavu's citizens to speak of the common loss of leaving home, or losing home.

This is a finely wrought collection, one that introduces the voice of a quiet, understated author. It is a voice that cuts through the clutter of other, showier and shriller members of the Indo-Anglian writing community and makes itself heard over the din.

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