One approaches a short-story collection mostly with optimism — there is something in there for everyone.
Why We Don’t Talk doesn’t disappoint for precisely this reason. Published by Rupa, priced at 295, the compilation is put together by Shinie Antony and features, apart from her, 26 authors, including Chetan Bhagat, Anita Nair, Susan Visvanathan, Shreekumar Varma, Jaishree Misra and Usha KR. The list of writers makes it clear that variety certainly is the spice of this book. It would also seem contemporary storytelling is now and then yielding to the shortage of time and shrinkage of attention spans with Metro Reads, novellas and now short fiction declaring Story Season. Wise to the SMS-Twitter generation, Why We Don’t Talk judiciously uses itself as a platform for literary hors d’œuvre; a bite of every flavor that leaves one hankering for more of the same, but look there is something more edible in the next page!
And that is the best thing about this book, its eagerness to take the readers into different realms in quick succession — the ills of the educational system, the solitude of the single woman, the make-believe in marriage, the angst of unrequited love and the pure exotica of verbal getaways. The blurb says that this is a collection of short stories by well-known writers and arresting new voices. ‘Tale by tale, tour their India; the back alleys and five-star lounges, bus stops and bedrooms, the suicidal and, more urgently, the nonsensical.’ This is an India in the churn, the real India with its masks off, an endearing country nonetheless as seen in these narratives by its chroniclers. In short, this is how we see ourselves when no one is looking. The images in the mirror held up by the writers entertain hugely even as they offer an escapism of sorts.
Interestingly, quite a few of the contributors are from namma Bengaluru! In the preface written by Shashi Deshpande, who is also based in this city, she says: ‘A short story needs to be slim if it is to work. The flaws cannot be concealed, the flab shows. No room here for a sloppy artist.’ Well, no worries on sloppiness here. If anything, each writer appears to consciously hold back rather than let go garrulously. Thestorytelling is taut and the selection mostly bang-on on facets of daily life in terms of realism and topicality. From Nair’s tongue-in-cheek take on infidelity in Trespass to Visvanathan’s verse-like account of the wan Esther in Pepper Vines Entrail My Hair, the book straddles gravity and levity with equal confidence.
Family soap gets primetime with Jahnavi Barua dwelling subtly on in-law politics, Anjum Hasan gently unsnarling a mother-daughter dialogue and Jaishree Misra writing why a pair of bangles is a ‘stick of contention’ between siblings. Shreekumar Varma and Amit Varma choose to take a feather to the funny bone with The Night Man and Urban Planning, respectively. To offset the wit, there are Samhita Arni, Ekarat, Joshua Newtonn and Madhulika Liddle who have penned stories laden tightly with layers, stories that are sober and disturbing with their delicate depiction of human ties.
Brinda Charry’s story, VVIP, holds a mild menace even as the main protagonist has perhaps found true love while Madhavi Mahadevan, Moonis Ijlal and Antony take the dark road rustling with secrets and whispers. Shefali Tripathi Mehta and Sheila Kumar analyse existential aspects of the lone woman — ageing and seemingly verging on irrational — without meandering into the maudlin while Srinath Perur’s story explores a madman’s wisdom. Humra Quraishi and AJ Thomas, meanwhile, take up contemporary issues of dread, stressing its impact on innocent human psyches. Bhagat, Vandana Chatterjee, Malavika Velayanikal, Vineetha Mokkil and Pramada Menon pick at the seams of loneliness, throwing in some suicidal tendencies, lyricism, nirvana and nicotine en route. The stories by Usha KR and Rajorshi Chakraborti are both funny and touching, taking up as they do familiar characters one comes across at some point in life.
There is the unsympathetic rescue worker in The Soul Cages who says: ‘I lit another cigarette, smoked for a minute…picked up my rucksack and quietly walked away from Bhuj’. There is the guilty husband in Taj Mahal who ‘couldn’t remember when he had kissed Chintamani anywhere away from her cheeks or lips’. There is the seemingly quintessential Indian abroad/anywhere in In Economy who ‘was scratching his balls, openly, brazenly…’ — but why he is doing so is heartbreaking in the end. The tales track down both men and women in many of their emotional flip-flops, in essence presenting the man next door or woman next door. There is the consummate marriage broker in Head Hunting and one feisty old woman in My Great-Grandaunt. In most stories people, especially women, traverse through a bit of madness to arrive at the necessary and right decision. A readable collection that makes no false promise, the book is exactly what it says it is — a contemporary collection of Indian writing in English. A significant example of today’s writing by relevant voices, Why We Don’t Talk articulates exactly what we need to hear at this point in time.
Why we don’t talk
Compiled by Shinie Antony
Rupa & Co, 2010,
pp 238, 295