Vignettes of life

Vignettes of life

Vignettes of life

An Evening in
K A Abbas
Harper Collins
2015, pp 186, Rs. 299

There are nine stories in An Evening in Calcutta by writer and filmmaker K A Abbas, each unique in theme and presentation. The short story compilation, edited by Suresh Kohli, is a selection, according to the blurb, of the writer’s finest tales.

The first story, ‘Saffron Blossoms’, is told in the second person, with a mother remembering the turmoil in Kashmir that took from her her sons and daughter. It is a tale simply told, with a wandering stranger, the determined and fiery Nooraan, and a certain Sher-e-Kashmir. ‘The Boy Who Moved a Mountain’ follows young Govinda, a boy left penniless by the death of his father. Struggling to support his mother and trying to make ends meet forces him to move to a dam construction site. But despite his poverty and hardship, Govinda has dreams — to marry young Radha, and to operate those gigantic, monstrous machines that were used at the dam site. ‘The Thirteenth Victim’ is the tale of a nameless prisoner who, by a bizarre chain of events, finds himself in a hospital in need of surgery. There is justice to be served here, and the judge who makes that call will see to it that the prisoner is punished — no matter what the cost.

‘Reflection in the Mirror’ is the story of the courtesan Radha and her patron, the Raja of Jalpur. A brief sojourn with the already married Raja leaves Radha with certain hopes she soon realises cannot be realised. The title story, ‘An Evening in Calcutta’, is the strange tale of two friends who catch up after a long time, reminiscing over a meal in a Park Street restaurant. ‘Mother and Child’ deals with darker themes, one of a mother’s loss during the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, and the other of Partition. ‘The Refugee’ too has Partition as its theme. ‘Cages of Freedom’ is more philosophical, in which the current idea of freedom is challenged.

The stories in An Evening in Calcutta contain observations into the many subtleties of human life. Added to these are political observations and reflections on the current state of affairs. In most of the stories there is an element of the unusual as well. For example, ‘Saffron Blossoms’ has a field full of blood-red saffron flowers. ‘An Evening in Calcutta’ has a whisper of the paranormal. ‘The Thirteenth Victim’ is unique in its bizarreness, much like the workings of justice in the story.

There are intriguing characters as well in the book. The enigmatic Salmah in ‘Mother and Child’, for instance, is well-drawn out, a mother who has lost a great deal in the aftermath of the Bhopal tragedy. Radha of ‘Reflection in the Mirror’ is acutely aware of her surroundings and her status, but allows herself, for a brief moment, to be drawn to what she might never have. The nameless narrator of ‘The Man Who Did Not Want to Remember’ manages to evoke the horrors of Partition through his memories and experiences whilst remaining nameless.

Some of the writing is contrived, however, and rather laboured, certain passages long drawn out and even, at times, inconsistent. These are evident in ‘The Boy Who Moved a Mountain’ and ‘Reflection in the Mirror.’ Nevertheless, An Evening in Calcutta is an interesting read.