Step out of ordinary

A Faceless Evening  by Gangadhar Gadgil, and translated from the Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra, is a collection of incidents and insights woven around middle-class Mumbaikars. Set in the latter part of the 20th century, the stories capture interesting slices of lives built around ordinary persons who are busy plying the pointless treadmills of life, yet sometimes experience sudden seconds of deep, philosophical understanding before they fall back to the humdrum.

The paradoxical moments make some of the snapshots stand out. Yet, many of the stories seem to be as faceless as the title suggests, so they just get swallowed in the overall trudge. Some pick up tense, light, emotional or dramatic moments or days that define the directions of lives, personalities, relationships or inner mindscapes.

Events are highlighted against the backdrops of economic frameworks and social realities. The complex web of interactions between people and their characters, feelings, histories and backgrounds  is uncompromising. But sometimes, the interactions are briefly reflective, epiphanic, or even transformational.

While there are some flashes from urban characters playing their parts in the unrelenting march of lives, they are mostly caught in the webs of their small domestic tailspins at home or in the workplace. They are not part of spiralling or ascending careers, but commonplace and mundane.

The reader, too, gets arrested by some stories, but cannot get a handle on others that exceed the 'sameness' so much that they sink under their own weight.

Thirst is about a bald, greying film-maker who is on the point of breaking up with an ageing actor; Multiplication follows an evening in the disappointing life of Damauanna, a school teacher, who tries to wangle a student for tuition; Bandu and His Umbrellas is a light and heart-warming comedy. But Fleeting Reflections is a procession of a man's real or imagined memories of his dead wife that does not really work for the reader. My Ajji is among the most sentimental and predictable and does not have the author's distinctive touch that makes his other stories ring.

The main tale, A Faceless Evening, which is also the title of the book, successfully typifies the set. It describes a busy weekday evening in the city through the prism of a city dweller. His experiences, thoughts, feelings, perspectives on human behaviour and actions are extremely routine. They might be memorable yet eminently forgettable moments that look simultaneously prosaic as well as poetic, intense yet superficial.

But later, they inevitably slip away as 'just other things that happened'. Even though they are ordinary ends of days, they interweave dramatic moments such as an accident on the road, a procession, and a woman who tries to solicit the protagonist. The author's conclusion is: "That Mumbai evening was dreary. Her hair was grey. And she had no face." It sums up the basic psychology of all his stories.

There are always constant shifts between the characters' points of view and the author's, but many times they blend. For instance, in Gopal Padhye: The Man, the character of a promiscuous, highly lascivious and selfish man is painted in bold, bright colours.

The author's distance from the character is well-maintained, so the reader understands the divergences, such as: "He had kept a separate compartment in his brain for dealing with that matter." But in My Ajji, the author writes a first-person narrative, in which his own persona seems to blend with the grandson's. The descriptions vary with the mood of the stories. Hence, 'Our Teacher Leaves School, is clearly a child's story.

The prose captures the broad, sweeping, sometimes stolid and other times subtler rhythms and cadences of Marathi. It reflects the author's delicate handling of the material and even the translator's, who performs the exquisite balance between two languages with summate care. The reader is soaked in an atmosphere of urban Mumbai, with its wry humour, such as in: "The sun's rays had dusted her greyish hair and obliterated her face… Yet no one thought anything of it. Neither did I."

The images are interesting, unorthodox and reflect the Marathi sensibility through English translations very well. For instance: "He took his temper and went for a walk", or "…with the scissors of feet I was cutting the road towards home."

A Faceless Evening, then, is clearly about the small paradoxes that hit people during almost stream-of-consciousness narratives. Even though some stories sink under the sameness, most of them ring with distinctive flashes that stay in the mind.

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