An open book

Lead review

The 59 stories that make up two books in the ‘Urban Shots’ series mark the rise of an indie movement that’s making it big, notes Shreekumar Varma.

Theme : ‘Across The Seas’ is the story of a mother whose son is abroad.

So here it is finally, the freedom of literature, the opening-out the purists may have feared, the come-one-come-all-tonight’s-the-night syndrome that brings out known and unknown names to a level playing field.

Much like political and economic freedom where the pot still bubbles, the movement towards open literature is frustrating, exciting and uncertain. Blogs and open forums routinely lay bare the inner workings of amateur writers, the best ones rising to the top.

Editors Faiyaz and Uttam have sought a golden mean, harnessing the might of Westland to the youthful energy of Grey Oak to come up with these stories. Some are prize-winners. Unfortunately, the reader has to guess. Who are these writers, what have they done besides their work here, what is their background, who is the mysterious “For Deepalaya” who glorifies domestic staff and army personnel in a “Grey Oak initiative”?

As one reads, one wonders whether the book’s copy editors were too casual about grammar, punctuation and even literary content. At times, it’s like reading an old story from the days of Sunday magazine fiction. Or a blog one has chanced upon on the internet. Continuing, one feels the warmth of familiarity, the blood-rush at a twist, the casual surprise, that spot-on emotional moment, so familiar, so unique. (Indeed, the only time I could second-guess an author was in Ayesha Heble’s Rajasthan Summer.)

Bright Lights is first. As Naman Saraiya says in his foreword, “Give each story breathing space before you begin the next one.” His You Eternal Beauty is a surreal tale of tearful Calcutta where rain washes away visions and longings. Some stories are written with conscious literary creativity, others are surprisingly simple, even raw — but the story always triumphs. Amul, of a doomed, bewildered young girl whose innocent narrative accepts, seeks and secretly knows, Silk, a slow writhing in search of a suitable love, and Across The Seas by Ahmed Faiyaz, the plight of a mother whose son is abroad, set the pace for the collection, its range of mood and subject, its writing.

Editor Uttam has a story about a self-conscious tourist at the Taj. Faiyaz’s Good Morning Nikhil is a Sunday magazine story about a little boy and his grandparents that ends with a twist. The first story that hits you with its creative accomplishment, humour and quirky premise is The Peacock Cut, followed by a story in a similar vein, Father Of My Son, both delightful. The Bengal Tigress is a conservatively written story that explores an interesting theme.

It’s unfair to pack 59 stories from two books into one review. Some names will be left out; and not a single story warrants that. There are those that make no claim other than to tell a story; others combine style, finesse and allusive brilliance; some are shamelessly emotional, others wait for the very end to present their case. None of them disappoint; they impress, either with the telling or the tale.

New age jobs and their angst are amply represented: The Wall, a lengthy interior monologue on life, lust and death while cooped up in a cubicle contemplating goals and presentations; Sneh Thakur’s smart tale of relentless sales targets; It’s All Good, the ups and downs of office life, and the Cats And Sponges of the hotel industry. I enjoyed The Interview that spreads out a saga in the film world in the space of a taxi ride, The Pig In A Poke, a hilarious exchange of letters between a boy and an African email scammer, the poignant The Raincoat and Mr Perierra, and Arefa Tehsin’s Hot Pants that demonstrates how a writer can make you her puppet on a string.
Crossroads celebrates the improved progress of the Urban Shots caravan.

Almost every story is a creative success. Ordinary moments are seen from different perspectives. Beginning with the first story of a bai, followed by a children’s tale of the house of Hako, we come to Vinod George Joseph’s excruciating tale of a Mumbai
local, showing how an everyday routine can become a masterpiece in the hands of the right writer. Sanchari Sur’s two Kolkata stories, connected by a single family, are remarkable. Song of the Summer Bird, The Power Cut and Mervin are about children and they all work well. Saritha Rao’s tale of mother-daughter bonding and Uttam’s Pity provide dimensions to concepts of love and belonging.

Amazing departures like Pasta Lane, Mindgames, Paradise, Crossroads and Jump, Didi actually spell out the success of the democratisation process. Others that stayed with me include Baba Premanand’s Yoga Class, The Last Week, Plummet and Tainted Love. Tossing 59 shots in more or less quick succession can make you drunk with the thrill of an indie movement that’s making it big.

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