12 August 2010

Excess: The Tehelka Book of Stories

Bhelpuri for the aesthetic facilities
Here’s an excellent collection of 12 short stories – put together, oddly enough, by an organization better known for delivering hard-hitting facts and getting into trouble for exposing wrongdoing, inequity and sleaze.
Writes Tehelka’s Tarun J. Tejpal in the introduction to the book: I once asked the great writer OJ Vijayan what was it that literature did that gave it a showcase place in civilization. He thought for a bit, and said, ‘It refines us. And that is a very big thing.’
In these times of being bombarded by information and facts, of crude posturing and increasing battle-lines, this collection of original fictions is then about that – that amorphous ‘refining’ thing.
I liked this reassurance of literature’s role in civilization. However, I did feel that some editing care would have changed what was it to what it was, as it should be, and perhaps also found a smoother and more contemporary way of saying is then about that. The stories themselves are very well written – but sadly strewn with proofing errors.
One of the things that struck me most about this book is its unselfconsciously global tone. It has nothing whatever to do with a specifically Indian way of life, or of interpreting India for global readers in English. Some of the stories are set in India but India is not specifically a character in them. You can just enjoy it as a collection of well-written, absorbing stories with no political hankering. After all, human situations aren’t really restricted by culture or geography. Not many Indian authors or collections achieve this flavour … at this moment the only one that comes to mind is Anita Desai.
The story I enjoyed most in this collection was Siddhartha by Altaf Tyrewala. The language is intricate but sparse, and builds suspense which gets you giggling when you finally understand what the author is getting at. Is he describing the relentless passion of trekkers? Or drug addicts? Or groupies of a particular guru? (Read for yourself to find out, but there’s a hint in the title!)
I personally find it distasteful (though of course this doesn't reduce any possible literary value) when writers invent characters and then poke fun at them as plainly as Ambarish Satwik does in his story Paraphilia. Kedar Deshpande, head of Unit IV, Department of Surgical Disciplines, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital fancies himself as a Bellovain hero, a man of complements Oftentimes, he thinks at length about his place in the scheme of things. About the arabesque pose he assumes on the boards of Academia. He is occasionally onanistic and very grateful for the largesse granted by his broadband Internet connection His (sic) likes videos of anal sex and facials. Sovereign in his fetish is not the anal ramming but the fair, bleached anus Otherwise, he is faithful to his wife. His wife, Anagha, has been abidingly non-orgasmic. Their sexual activity, which was largely androcentric, had ceased in the last decade. Of course it requires a much higher degree of craft – and perhaps also more space – for the writer to create these images in the reader's mind using devices other than forthright description.
Rosie by Vivek Narayan, about a pukka Tam-Brahm family in Southern Africa is filled with insights into the Tam-Brahm immigrant experience. Ravi, who is seven, says, Appa, Appa, I want a big doggy that bites! There have been a new wave of burglaries and when his father asks, What Ravi, why do you want to get animals and such things?
Ravi replies, So that it can bite the Africans and kill them!
At which, The father swirled the last of the coffee in his tumbler. ‘You should not talk like that, Ravi. Robbers, not Africans, okay? Robbers.’
As it turns out, Rosie is vegetarian, never bites, and may even be a manifestation of Mahatma Gandhi.
The story that gave me the most trouble was Feast by Manjula Padmanabhan. I’d just watched all three Twilight movies in the space of a few days, and read it under the spell of Edward Cullen, the smouldering romantic vampire! Still, I have to say I enjoyed and admired it very much. It’s a hilarious take on the real Bombay that we all experience in real life but which our media manages to completely avoid acknowledging.

It took me an effort of will to read this story. I only plunged in because it’s the first story in this collection. I stopped reading anything written by this skilled and reputed writer some years ago, a kind of moral boycott, when I read an appallingly arrogant and cruel book review she wrote. It’s a murder mystery and in the review she reveals who the murder is! Take a look: appallingly arrogant and cruel book review by Manjula Padmanabhan.

1 comment:

  1. Never knew that Tehelka was into publishing books.
    Must have a look at them.