A visual treat

A visual treat

A visual treat

‘Two Mothers...’ comprises stories set against the city of Bombay and relates tales of abandonment, loss and disappointment, notes Jahnavi barua.

The one thing that stands out in Khalid Mohamed’s collection, Two Mothers And Other Stories, is how visual the stories are.

After only a few words, the characters rise from the pages, fully formed, and begin to move around the houses they inhabit where again, the author paints an almost three-dimensional picture for the reader: the cramped rooms where a grandmother attempts to bring up an orphaned grandson; the breezy rooms of a mansion belonging to a miserly merchant prince and the housing colony in Bandra where a son and outsider daughter-in-law are banished to, after their hasty marriage.

The neighbourhoods the characters live in are as much a part of the story as the plot and they are painted, lovingly, in great detail. The reader is thus reminded, almost immediately, that the author, in another avatar, is also a screenplay writer and is reminded repeatedly of that fact throughout the book.

Mohamed has explored two major territories — he has detoured into some minor ones, but those have been the weaker sections of the book — in his collection: the complex, uncertain world of the family and the complicated, but perhaps more predictable, city of Bombay.

Exploring the many dimensions of the world of family is where the author excels; with an unflinching eye, he writes about the losses, the betrayals and the tragedies that mar family life. The stories about abandonment — where a parent abandons a child — are especially moving. In Two Mothers, the lead story, the reader cannot fail to remain unmoved by the predicament of a child abandoned by his mother at the age of two and by the ultimate disclosure of what the sequence of events at that point really had been.

Tinged with humour, but no less tragic, is the fate of Fayazi Ma in As-Salaam Alaikum, Mr. Minister, who discovers only after her rich husband’s death what he had really thought of her. Fayazi Ma, a petite yet stout beauty, who is brought evocatively to life by her adornments of “Cuticura talc, Hazeline vanishing cream, a hint of rouge, sandalwood attar and Monkey brand black toothpowder,” had served her ageing husband loyally, only to be left with next to nothing in his will; she and her grandson, son of her dead daughter, were thrown out of the stately family bungalow on the old man’s death.

Similar tales of disappointment and loss are played out in other stories such as in Tehmina from Bandra, To Miss Mordechai with Love, Anwari’s Last Laugh, She is Leaving Home and the particularly haunting, The Ballimaran Sisters. Still, there are accounts of hope and redemption too: in Scheherazade’s Teacup, an old Irani widow reflects on her lonely life and expects her two sons to dispose of the family restaurant after her death to erase all the memories of her beloved husband, but they do no such thing. They retain the old place, taking turns at the counter, well into their old age, thus keeping alive the hopes and memories of their parents. Again, in Father, Lost and Found, the story ends on a note of hope as a son finds what he has been looking for desperately, but gives it up voluntarily in a moment of epiphany.

The city of Bombay is a powerful presence in many of the stories. The grand heights of Malabar Hill, where sea breezes flutter through luxurious residencies such as the imperious “Mubarak Bungalow illuminated by an almost Mediterranean sunshine,” the crowded lanes of Bandra, the glamorous apartments of burnt-out film stars are the sets where these tales of joy and sorrow are enacted. It is clear that the author knows his city intimately, as he effortlessly creates for us an Irani restaurant with ageing proprietors at the cash counter or shabby, worn-out flats where municipal water gurgles through the pipes only sporadically, at certain hours of the day.

Another territory the author ventures into is the world of journalism, but here, unlike in the realm of the family, the stories are less successful. Not that the stories are any less competent — again it is clear that it is an area the author is well acquainted with — but they are not as evocative or powerful as the ones that deal with the ties that bind together family members. Consider the line from Tehmina from Bandra where the author tells the reader that the “women in the Salamat Muhammad Haji Majid estate were unhappy or unhappier.”

With this elegant line, with effortless felicity he tells us everything we need to know about the state of that family. In the accounts of working life, that same powerful emotion is rarely evoked, although the stories are certainly entertaining.

Some of these stories cry out to be made into films; the reader hopes they will be, but until then and even if not, the collection will make for an entertaining and pleasurable read for many.