Desire for another woman, feigned ignorance of a cuckold and cathartic murders are quaint facts of life that inhabit our post-moral lives. Manjul Bajaj writes about these transgressions and treads the risky precipice of being saddled with uninspiring material. Yet, subliminal violence and paradoxes of the quotidian have always found an ally in the short story which delivers staccato and sharp irony.
The stories are set refreshingly—in hill towns, a shikara on the Dal lake, a mango orchard in Murshidabad, the pagan valleys over which menacing waters of the dam will flow. In these settings, moral slippages central to each plot take on a timeless quality and we are not obliged to feel squeamish about archetypes such as spinster aunts, the forest girl with flowing hair, an artsy lover, a grotesque husband. Completely at ease with her material, Bajaj skirts dangerously close to stereotypes, only to spring a little twist that alters, quietly subverts and in doing so provides a glimpse into human nature’s profound ability to be lofty.
The title story of the collection is perhaps the finest. Set against the backdrop of the Navagam dam construction, Another Man’s Wife is a tricky yet nimble consideration of polygamy. When the water rises and villages are submerged, Kuheli, the quintessential daughter of the forest, trades her flesh for a piece of land. But her dark and secret body closes itself to Dhansukhbhai, the rich contractor. Emasculated and beaten, he turns to his wife for reassurance. When Kuheli returns home where the promise of a new home is waiting, she finds her husband nesting with another woman. Heart-broken, she must make room for survival and transience.
In Crossed Borders, Bajaj explores the fraught, intimate and unequal relationship of a domestic help with the employer. The hurried collapse of equilibrium one ordinary morning when a door is opened by mistake could be a handbook of how life plays out. It is exactly the sort of non sequitur that Camus taught us to be afraid of—a shard of sunlight, an irate motorcyclist, a moment of absent-mindedness, and destiny spirals out of control.
It is to be noted with celebration that such is the ubiquity of development projects that crusaders of the field, the SHG ‘didi’ and RTI activist, are tempting characters to people stories with. Marrying Nusrat is a charming tale about an ‘apa’ who leads a community of chikankari artisans. She is doomed to grow middle-aged and weary, have a bad marriage and end up ordinary. In this instance, the author is unable to rescue the story from hurtling towards an indifferent ending. A clever ruse it could be, if the author has intended to turn the stereotyping inwards, coaxing readers to be miserable about fiction’s limited agency.
There are instances of ironic wordplay and lyrical riff, but overall the language is steadfastly unadorned. An earnest telling sounds affected when the author adopts a retro-chic voice to deliver what is often misconstrued as feminist-speak, such as in Me and Sammy Fernandez. Her realism is humane, replete with touches that make characters convincing and bring alive a rich array of contexts. Quite a page-turner, it is recommended as a pleasant afternoon read.