Mapping a transition

Mapping a transition

As literary fashions and tastes blaze through our lives in short spells of market-driven glory, it’s a sobering moment when one occasionally comes across a book that reminds us of dreams nurtured once upon a time.

 It is the emotional and cultural landscape of a group of people, a history of its desires and fears that gets mapped out in this new collection of short stories by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. 

Seductively titled An Evening in Paris and Other Stories, edited with an informed introduction by Suresh Kohli and wrapped up by a lively conversation with the author recalled from the 70s, this work bears the rare warmth of personal bond and rapport.

These tales told by Abbas throb with the angst of a nation coming into being, of people caught between dream and reality, between nostalgia and novelty, between the ground below and the stars above.

And cinema runs through the lives of all from Mussorie to Maharashtra, sprinkling the golden dust of glamour and glitter over the humdrum and the lowly, throwing up hilarious contradictions, aching conflicts and ethical dilemmas. It could easily be called a starstruck anthology.

Cinema signifies the possibility and poetry of life making the ordinary liveable for the little men and women who go about their daily business of dull living. Not surprising since these stories have unfolded from the same pen that imagined Awaara, Char Sau Bees or Saat Hindustaani.

Abbas might have etched his little vignettes of Indian lives through the unmistakable lens of socialist realism, but he was honing the form of short story in his own inimitable way. There is the deep sympathy and affinity for the horrors of grim and poor life in urban India as in the chilling tale Thicker than Water, as well as the flight of fantasy in the tawdry life of Kamala of the delectably titled An Evening in Paris. The canvas stretches from the sordid hopelessness of urban living to exotic cross-continental hops as in The Fraud of Film Festivals. A desperation to see human goodness animates the pen of this writer as his eye subtly peels off the layers of stardom to reveal the pitiful insecurity and vulnerability of the male star as in The Physiotherapist. Perhaps he was one of the first to chip off the veneer of the new and ambitious urban showbiz to reveal the ugliness and pathos of it all.

As the moving spirit behind some of the finest histrionic moments in Indian cinema, Abbas had been a witness to the rise of the star and the fall of the actor in Indian cinema. In this anthology, cinema functions as a powerful trope yoking together the urban aspirations and realities of India of the peasant.

Subtle touches of compassion and irony rescue the narration from slipping into the dangers of didacticism. Labours of translation do not show as most of the stories have been translated by the author from Urdu, save the last one titled Half a Man, which stands out for its epistolary form. He is a bard of the small town not only in terms of physical spaces, but also in terms of the inner geographies in which the denizens of the cities are trapped. 

The seamier side of urban life bursts out through the delightfully ironic stories — The Prince and the Showgirl and Saturday Night Fever. The Maharaja’s Elephant, with which the collection sets off, is a pungent image of a country moving into a different equation of power and political morality in the postcolonial era.

This bouquet of 10 stories offers a kaleidoscopic vision of the faces of India, and the characters range from Marco Polo, a hairstylist who dances like John Travolta, to the hapless elephant of the erstwhile Maharaja. Moreover, these stories remind us, once again, of our precious legacy of narrative traditions and re-introduce us to a genius who had shaped our collective hopes and visionary zeal.

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