Boyhood diaries

Boyhood diaries

Prawin Adhikari’s debut collection of short stories, ‘The Vanishing Act’, takes us from the mountains of Nepal to California.Melanie p Kumar reviews the poignant stories.

Prawin Adhikari employs an authentic voice in his debut compilation of short stories, The Vanishing Act, with one of them serving as the title of the book.

His stories are set in California, and also amidst the lakes and mountains of Nepal, even as they capture the changes in this small Himalayan state.

With a majority of the stories written in the first person, one wonders if any of them are autobiographical narratives.

Some even have characters bearing the names of real life ones, whom the author has credited, adding to the reader’s confusion.

But though the names may be real ones and overlap, the themes vary and sustain one’s attention and interest.

‘The Boy from Banauti’ harks back to school classrooms and the boredom of having to “remember details, causes and consequences, descriptions and explanations, names, genealogies, salutations and shortcuts to salvation!”

Needless to say, the protagonist gives in to his desire to play truant where he meets the Huckleberry Finn-like “boy from Banauti,” and gambols with him, both on land and water.

Though the story manages to capture the fun and frolic of childhood and the excitement of truancy, it ends on a tragic note, whilst also revealing the cruelties that boys can inflict on each other.

Continuing with the theme of childhood cruelties is the ‘The Condolence Picture’, heartrending in its poignancy and probably the pick of the collection.

From the cruelty of an unkind name to the bullying and betrayal that boys are capable of, this story throws the spotlight on both the bullied and the perpetrators.

What adds to the interest are microscopic analyses like, “When we were young, when we were in school, when we were small — phrases that insist it was a different world then, a different moral planet, that seek to absolve us from the natural cruelties we practised upon each other and upon ourselves.”

A boyhood infatuation for an older woman is touchingly brought out in ‘Mayapuri’, especially with the protagonist’s deep understanding of the calamity that befalls this young bride whom he refers to as “my woman.”

The boy describes her induction into widowhood routinely, but manages to pick up its tragic nuances:

“The women took away from the woman all signs of married life: the gold she wore on her ears, the red tika on her forehead. They tried to break the lone blue bangle on her wrist, but it was made of soft plastic, once upon a time an unbreakable promise. She took it off and handed it to the teashop owner’s wife, who broke it between two stones.”

‘Fortune’ is another story worth a mention where the author brilliantly brings out the change and destruction that development can bring to a small village whose inhabitants are split between the now familiar debates about “new jobs” versus “chaos”.

Adhikari gets it sadly right in the words of the butcher who says, “We all become butchers, by and by.

By and by, everything will be bought and sold.”

‘Stamp and Signature’ outlines the very human desire to own a house, and juxtaposes the lives of two families vying for the same plot.

Bureaucratic red-tape, environmental issues and corruption are all dealt with in this realistic story.

Most telling is the acceptance of the compromising of one’s conscience, “He couldn’t afford morality with the same breath as he drew with his meagre salary. Morality, his wife’s dreams and Sunil couldn’t sleep in the same bed!”

Whilst the ‘Vanishing Act’ works as an allegory for the situation of Nepali immigrants in America, the ‘Face of Carolynn Flint’ is by far the most intriguing tale in this collection.

Also set in the US, this story sensitively brings out the insecurities of women with regard to their physical appearances and their willingness to go under the knife, to set things right.

At some point, the story becomes surreal as in the case of Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Grey, but does manage to convey something of import.

Though stories like ‘The Messiah’ and ‘The Game’ might appear to drag in parts, they have a lot going for them.

In ‘The Messiah’, the protagonist voices the thoughts of many who were part of Nepal’s uprisings, but succeeded in staying alive.

“If you looked at that falling martyr, something inside you would have said, ‘It should have been you’.

Upon each of us was the taint that we hadn’t taken the fall to arise celestially; waterworks and school gates, obscure crossroads and schools to be named after us martyrs.”

Prawin Adhikari’s stories are bound to resonate with readers as much for their astute observations and profound thoughts as for their lapses into cynicism, yet balanced with a dose of wry humour.

Lyrical language and original metaphors add to the charm of this debut collection.

The Vanishing act
Prawin Adhikari
Rupa
2014,
pp 226
Rs. 250

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