These two collections of well-crafted and precise short stories could have you feel as if the ellipses are being filled in, the trailing dots in a conversation or a shadowy inkling being tracked to nuances that often go unremarked or unarticulated.
“My father said that in India they gave names to the dark space between the stars. It was the darkness that was novel, scarce, that seemed brilliant against so much light. Sometimes I would find my father late at night in the living room, the lights all off, only the clock glowing on the vcr. He would say that it was such a relief, this darkness, this not being able to see. Only years later did I learn what it was he was hoping not to see,” remarks the floating narratorial voice in Sidhu’s Neanderthal Tongues. A powerful, suggestive story, it sculpts darkness from sparks of violence and finds the primal, atavistic expression of terror, one that transcends boundaries, language and time. Hero of the Nation, another disquieting story, explores the dynamics of caring for an ailing (grand)parent and how each member in the family scrabbles for air, a calming breath. Among these stories of dislocation and fragments of lives when time seems out of joint, The Discovery could have you thinking of Toba Tek Singh—Manto’s heartbreak about the madness of Partition, for it’s about a man who can’t make sense of the world as it splinters into ‘notcountries’ and ‘notwords’. The Border Song, among the lightest pieces in this collection, finds the transformative grace in grief and a closure of sorts that eludes characters in The Order of Things, a masterpiece of a story that could have you marvelling at Sidhu’s incisive and distinctive perspective for the Punjab experience of violence, exile and estrangement—both within India and abroad. Seeking in each story a ‘correct pronoun’ for our splintering selves and a ‘new grammar’ for fugitive histories, Sidhu seems to articulate Edvard Munch’s The Scream—that “infinite scream coursing through nature”, which the Norwegian expressionist sensed at sunset and painted as part of his ‘Frieze of Life’ series.
A different register is struck by Zaidi’s deeply intimate stories that plumb relationships and the everyday for their surprises, pathos and quiet drama in a fresh, nuanced and forthright manner. Tantalisingly subtitled and numbered 1 to 14, yet arranged haphazardly—like random numbers in a slot machine—these stories tell of the chanciness of love, the odds you may or may not bet on. If #10 and #13 have you step lightly as you negotiate yet another day, #1 is sure to break your heart, as surely as #3 will have your pulse racing again. If #2, #4, #5, #9 and #11 have your heart in a state with their dappled truths about companionship, it’s perhaps because Zaidi’s dialogues render the ‘obliqueness of love’, a quality Urvashi Butalia identifies spot-on in her cover blurb-commendation.
The tonic to your seasonal cheer, both collections of short stories build up to those moments when one might find oneself in laughter in the dark.