‘Switching genres got me flak,’ Keki Daruwalla, the doyen, perhaps, of English poets in India, says in the preface to his new collection of short stories, Love Across the Salt Desert. One wonders why, because, apart from the impertinence of commenting on a writer’s choice of genre, writers have often switched genres. Daruwalla himself has four collections of stories and a novel. The only complaint this collection invites is that all the stories are from earlier collections; disappointing for a reader who expects something new.
One would not cavil, however, about re-reading Going. An exquisite story, with not a single wrong note, it brings out the relationships between three women—the narrator, her mother and her grandmother—in a lyrical, nuanced way. The pathos of old age, the quiet process of dying and the beauty and tranquility of the surroundings come together in a seamless whole. Lines on maps interest Daruwalla as much as lines between people; Of Mother, a fine story about a family, set against the background of imminent Partition, deals with both. What sets Daruwalla apart as a story-writer are his tales of people caught in the vortex of historic moments—from Alexander’s invasion to the Quit India movement. Whether he writes of Mahmud of Ghazni, or of a Brahmin living during the events of 1857, the stories have a welcome quality of surprise. Uneven the collection may be, like collections invariably are, yet well worth reading for some excellent stories.