This collection of 14 intricately-crafted short stories offer a happy and eminently readable blend of character, setting and style. These miniature portraits detail lives of ordinary people in today’s impersonal, mechanical urban societies playing out to reveal fascinating insights.
A chronically ill middle-class professional forms unlikely bonds with her strong and supportive domestic helper until a sudden twist of fate turns their worlds upside down. A poor young girl, her friend and her absconding husband must deal with the chasm between their hopes and desires, and the harsh and indifferent world.
An eccentric, not-so-young bachelor leaves the city and rat-races hoping to find himself in a small hill station. A woman relates the story of an ancestor as told to her when she was a child. The ancestor himself was unremarkable, yet his adventurous forays into the big city gains him legendary stature in the family lore.
A lonely old widower is overwhelmed by the anger simmering under the surface of modern-day city life. A Scandinavian mother must cope with the recent loss of her husband, and her adopted son’s urge to seek his fate in distant India, the land of his birth.
Tantalising glimpses of the inner lives of varied characters are revealed as they negotiate the emotional by-lanes and cul-de-sacs of urban life. Where do they all come from, and where do they belong? Jamini, the kind maid, turns up from literally nowhere to take charge of the ailing Jaan’s home and nurse her back to physical and mental well-being.
Jamini moves to domestic work from her job as a construction labourer “on the tall apartment building being built along the stretch of road near the slum, as the wastelands filled up with more apartments, office blocks and shopping malls, as the rich came to live and work in spaces where there had, until recently, been nothing, that sense of nothing persisted.
There were no trees lining this road, no faces on the pavements that had aged here and no old houses to contrast with the new ones — nothing to mark the passage of time.” A profusion of such deceptively simple, richly nuanced passages makes these stories stand out.
Jamini and her employer Jaan may be on different ends of the socio-economic spectrum. Yet Jaan’s illness is also a manifestation of her isolation in an impersonal and mechanical urban bubble.
Even her husband Javed, apparently the only other human whom she can readily approach, speaks to her “in an even voice, the same voice in which he speaks to his colleagues on conference call from Europe about incentives and quarterly targets, and the very one he uses with the corner joint when he orders takeaway.”
Other characters, in other stories, see different yet parallel facets of life from their lonely perches amidst the teeming urban jungle. A young mother in one of the city’s many, many apartments, reflects on the children of nameless construction workers building yet more apartments around her.
“I’m struck by that familiar freeze I know many like me feel — apathy, shame and disinterest in equal parts… I might chat with them in passing, buy them cupcakes from a bakery… but I cannot do anything for them, really. The disaster they stand for is bigger than them and bigger than me, and all I have to offer are a few coins — metaphorical and real — of sympathy. Those coins are not to alleviate. They are a way of saying — let’s definitely not look this problem in the eye.”
The stories are not restricted to privileged viewpoints. Elsewhere in the indifferent city, Nur, a poor young woman, struggles at menial jobs to stay afloat. Her husband Salim was tricked out of his money and packed off to the Gulf with promises of a well-paying job by Mushtaq Bhai, the very man they turned to for help.
Now Salim is stuck in another country with eight people in a room and a bathroom that leaks shit. Yet Mushtaq’s men say he has to work there 14 hours a day for at least two years to fulfil his contract and loans. His passport is confiscated by them for good measure.
“The Koran is very clear on this,” Nur overhears a maulana say. “For a woman to earn and for her husband or parents or in-laws to be in any way dependent on her is against Allah’s wishes.” Trapped by life’s ironies, “Nur herself can feel it sometimes when she is woken by the dawn azanand lies in bed thinking of a God she is too tired to get up and worship… It’s another matter that she cannot abide by that will always — must head to work every morning and provide for Salim too, when he’s in one of his moods.”
Each character and story stays with you well after the last page. These glowing slices of life are enriched by many insightful and introspective passages. The author weaves them seamlessly into the narrative without weighing down the pace or making the characters and dialogues appear stilted.