Stories aplenty

Stories aplenty

One Point Two
Billion
Mahesh Rao
Fourth Estate
2015, pp 252, Rs 499

The title of this book from an award-winning contemporary author, Mahesh Rao, is arresting: One Point Two Billion. It is an anthology of stories that is indeed about what it seems to be at first — a country gasping with diverse human resources that are all pulling in different ways. However, there are just 13 short stories, each one picking up characters from different states, who are continuously straddling the confluence of tradition and modernity. It is situated in a century and location that bring together diverse cultures, languages and beliefs. They are all struggling to define their identities, relationships, sense of belonging as well as separateness.

Each story is written from a different point of view, voicing the feelings and thoughts of characters that are unique in their upbringing and background, yet universal in their feelings and thoughts. With every character, you begin a new journey through chance, circumstance, evolution, change as well as stasis. Every story has a different theme, situation and background. One plot is set in a yoga retreat, another in a complex mega city, and yet another in a far-off detention camp. A narrative plumbs the depths of a canal in a Punjabi village, while the next is about a snooty club of Delhi.

The anthology begins with ‘Eternal Bliss’, an ironic title that revolves around a yoga retreat manager who is facing chronic fears due to her own problems as well as other nirvanic wannabes. It is a classic flashpoint of clashing philosophies, eras and genres.

The stories that follow unspool more tales that touch on prosaic lifetimes as well as sudden, unguarded moments of sheer horror. They touch and trigger emotions — a growing boy’s terror, the imbalance of a mother or an executive’s worry.

‘Minu Goyari Devi’ is a powerful look at a widow’s slow mental deterioration after a bomb kills her husband on the road, and the son’s troubled journey through the tragedies of both parents. ‘The Agony of Leaves’ unspools in the Nilgiri estate, where a man falls in love with his daughter-in-law. There is some fuddled misunderstanding of words, a bit of startled miscommunication — and then a son who is aghast and critical of his father, leaving him in a state of depression. In ‘Suzie Baby’, a rich child drowns her step-brother-to-be in a tub of hot water. ‘Fizz-Pop-Aah’ is all about the eager waiting for the launch of a new, bottled Shakti-Cola, taking the reader back to the 1970s.

What makes the stories interesting and winsome is the slow, subtle peeling of layers. Each story begins with a routine scene in everyday life, and then shifts to myriad, complex relationships, mysterious communication as well as non-communication. There is violence, murder, cheating and lying in different forms.

The one point two billion people explained here may have diverse backgrounds and situations, yet there are some fundamental commonalities, such as lust, anger, fear, selfishness and the range of emotions that rise and fall due to similar incidents and events. They are the universal drivers of the world and the foundation on the basis of which the earth runs.

The narrator is detached and neutral, explaining the events with some direct prose that is straightforward, but searing in its wit and unsparing in its observations. With directness, the tales give us the facts and details, but they are all underlined with sly humour and wry opinions. For instance: “Sani’s son is one of these men. Deva takes after her in every way. It is as if cakes of clay have been stripped off her face, arms and thighs and used to mould a young man... You won’t believe, he even shrugs like her, one shoulder higher than the other.”

Every piece of Mahesh Rao’s collection is worth many reads. The enigmatic details, as well as the dawning realisation of truth near the end makes them stand out. The language flows with a spare economy, yet hard glitter that takes you along, but leaves you aghast at the end, and wanting to flip back the pages to understand its depth.

The author seems to put the finger on the common thread for one point two billion perspectives. It is a heart-warming journey.

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