April 04, 2020
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She Walks On A Fictional Street

Three promising anthologies, all by women, and one a possibly potent poet

She Walks On A Fictional Street
Neither Night Nor Day
By Edited By Rakshanda Jalil
HarperCollins Pages: 208; Rs. 250
Richard Ford, writing in the New Granta Book of the American Short Story, says: "The paramount task of any story writer (...or novelist) is to induce the reader to read all of his story." The three collections put out this month, all by women (is short fiction largely a gynarchic form?), seem to satisfy that clause.

Neither Night Nor Day is a collection of short fiction by Pakistani women writers. Most have been written in English, a few are translations. Rakshanda Jalil, in her introduction, touts the rubric of the canned polymorphous Pakistani experience. The collection is indeed variegated and even representative in a strange taxonomical manner. So variegated that there are a couple of mini Chekhovians, there’s a story about a Poltergeist infestation and another one that has the qualities of a Yiddish folktale. The only element missing is erotic fiction. The stock themes of Partition, migration, rehabilitation, foeticide, ‘honour killing’ are all there. But in a way, the diurnals and the commonplace have been suppressed to accommodate variants.

Most notable is the title story by Sabyn Javeri Jillani about the hijabless immigrant’s excursion to Tooting for biriyani and mangoes, and then to Shabnam beauty parlour "thick with the smell of Charlie oddly mixed with Billimar agarbattis". The story is a fine precis of the mongrel existence of the first generation Paki immigrant married to an Englishman.

The anthology ends with Muneeza Shamsie’s story That Heathen Air, about Taj Gohar, extant descendant of Bahadur Shah Zafar, married to cussed Anglophile Justice Akbar Ali Khan, who insists on sending their pre-pubescent sons to England for an education.

Karma And Other Stories
by Rishi Reddi

Harper Collins
Pages: 240; Rs. 250

Rishi Reddi’s and Nalini Jones’ collections have a few similarities. They’re both community-centric—Reddi focuses on the kindred pravasi Telugu folk of Boston, Jones on the Catholic community of St Cyril Road, Bandra, Mumbai. Characters recur and traipse from one story to the other in both collections (Jones manages the device masterfully; in Reddi’s hands the artifice seems rigged).

Justice Shiva Ram Murthy, the opening story (on a superannuated Hyderabadi judge in a culture warp in America) in Reddi’s collection was featured in The Best American Short Stories 2005, but the most striking story is Lord Krishna. The dateline is Reagan’s America, 1981; Krishna Chander is the local wuss in school: "not cool in any way except his skill in Donkey Kong". Mr Hoffman, the American History teacher and local evangelist, is discoursing on Satan in class and pulls out images of the devil—there’s Goth fashion, Ozzy Ozbourne, a pamphlet on voodoo and a magazine article on the flute-toting Lord Krishna. Reddi unfolds for us the dissimilar ways in which the addled teenager and his orthodox father deal with the affront.

The other stories by Reddi are readable but middling. Immigrant fiction from New England needs to find bypaths around the emotional and cultural integers of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work.

What You Call Winter
by Nalini Jones

Harper Collins
Pages: 248; Rs. 295

What You Call Winter is a stunning debut. Jones’ finely-wrought stories are about a consanguineous community of Catholics living on a fictional St Hilary street in a fictional Mumbai suburb called Santa Clara.

Jones narrates the idiosyncrasies of the community endearingly. Many of the stories are about the Almeidas. In the opening story, Marian Almeida (who specialises in biblical verses), alone in her house just before her 10th birthday, finds her birthday gift hidden behind her mother’s silks in the wardrobe. She lays out her gift on the bed and wonders what to do with it. In We Think of You Everyday, Marian’s brother Simon is sent to a seminary in Mysore and writes desperate letters to his family about the things happening to him there. His stern mother, obsessed with the idea of making him a priest, hides these letters from the rest of the family.

Jones, in her debut, comes across as startlingly good at the short story form. Her fictions shrive themselves and stir the reader. The prose is uncluttered and assured. Moments of awareness and discovery present the real action. I would hazard to say that she’d make a devastating poet.

(A surgeon, Satwik is the author of Perineum: Nether Parts of the Empire.)

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