Mini Krishnan's edition of 'twelve memorable stories from India' is like a box of sweets of different shapes, sizes, colours and garnish, nestling comfortably together, each promising a taste of heavenly sweetness and yet each distinctive.
Poverty, superstition, hunger, terrorism, love, disappointment are some ingredients of this unique blend. Whatever the subject, it's the poignancy of these stories that is touching. The form of the long short-story allows the writer the freedom and space to explore the subject. Whether the story is translated from Malayalam or Marathi, a common thread of Indianness runs through it.
The King's Harvest, the longest of these, is all about a man's fealty to his king. To a country bumpkin from the obscure parts of Sikkim, a taxi is a "wheeled rat" and the pelting rain on it sounds like "a hundred angry spirits seeking entry into the rat." Tontem, who has never ventured out of his corner of the world, now collects his wits and his children, and as an honest man, braves his way to pay his debt to the king. Looking at the city, he is stupefied and thinks "there's evil involved, this strangeness could not have come about by human effort alone." There is a deliciousness to the narration which slows down the reader to savour the story. Tontem's lazy wife Duwah runs away. As if in answer to his prayers, Wangmo appears. She has a sweet tongue and cooks him delicious meals, and in appreciation Tontem takes care to avoid her head when he beats her. Tontem brings on a twinge of nostalgia for this preciousness of innocence and the seemingly unintentional humour that runs rampant in the story.
The Deepest Blue is a siren song of love that beckons from beyond Time. It's the story of a smouldering wife and a husband of 13 years who notices nothing. Like a snake in a wicker basket writhing to the strains of music, desire moves uneasily within the woman. Her search for a house turns into a search for a lover, "two beings wandering through Space and Time searching for the other." Her desire is so persistent and the narration so compelling that we move beyond the realm of moral and ethic, and are caught in this twilight world of ache and longing, and the njaaval (black plum) tree.
Jumman is the story of a rough, belligerent man who skins animals for a living. An unfeeling work done by an unfeeling man unused to love. His wife and children die one after another, abandoning him to his heartlessness. But life works in strange ways. A little goat kid comes into his life and "hands that had never caressed his children and shoulders that had never carried their weight" caress and carry Jumman with joy. Like all parent-child stories this one too has a great heartache as Jumman's mating urge awakens and he roves after she-goats, ignoring the old man. A superb twist of irony at the end of the story is both convincing and a surprise.
Hunger is a powerful paean to the elemental feeling of hunger, and brings an awareness about it to our overfed lives. Bright, sweet Chinni, a flower of a girl -with a heavily pregnant mother, an older sister and a drooling kid brother - takes it upon herself to find a way to feed her family when her father is found missing.And she almost succeeds in her plan in an agonising manner.
Lingering Fragrance tells the wily ways of a Nawab family where women are used and discarded with less thought than worn footwear. Chamman Mian is an aberration in this family. He has no interest in land, property or family feuds. Still, his lack of guile does not protect him from his scheming family.
The Fourth Direction is a straightforward narration of the strained relations between the Hindus and the Sikhs, and a scuttling among prejudices, fears and self-conceived notions like mice among eaves. Forced to face fear squarely leaves one with no fear.
Seed deals with the age-old feud between landowners and those who work the land. Dulan possesses nothing except the primal urge to survive. The government's ineffectual methods to help the landless, the corrupt police that shuts an eye to the worst of crimes, unscrupulous landowners who squeeze the last drop out of their workers and generously donate to temples - in this unfair world, the triumph of the small man is heartening.
These and other stories make this a scintillating collection. The richness, the variety and the dilemmas of life in India are mirrored in these stories. Whether the story is from Kashmir or Kerala, it resonates with the reader. Flawless translation adds to the enjoyment. An absolute must-read for anyone who enjoys good literature.