There is a romance to everyday life that the written word seems to endow on all that it captures – the movements of a busy morning, the tantalizing pauses that make up an afternoon. In Ruffled Feathers, V Sanjay Kumar presents a collection of short stories where the ordinary and the charming find meeting ground quite naturally.
‘Sit, listen to this story’
The twelve stories in the selection are disjointed in themes and events, but share the denominator of the landscape that is common everyday life – believable, made up of slow days and years that flash by, and like deserts of mundanity with the occasional shimmer of a mirage. They range from the happenings of dusty offices of government babus to lush golf courts where both caddies and players are convinced they know best.
In Kumar’s stories, the characters are recognisable: an impatient young man trying to make something of himself; a petulant father moodily sizing up his prospective son-in-law. You might even be able to put a face to them (like I was) by quickly jogging your memory through your neighbours and acquaintances. But Kumar’s storytelling shines through best when he takes these characters that seem familiar and reveals about them something that surprises at first, and then, after some thought, fits in so intuitively that it surprises again.
It is in these little moments that more is revealed of a character than in many pages of description combined. In one of the stories, for example, all we know of Rukmani is that she was a devoted wife, mother, and grandmother, almost ordinary in her ritualised routine of cooking, cleaning, and milking the cows, until her son unearths a memory: one night, decades ago, he had found her dancing alone in a room, joyful and carefree, just like the brahma kamalam that blooms one night a year.
Between contemplations on the nature of life and private confessions big and small, the physical and emotional journeys of the characters keep the stories brisk and fast-moving. On occasion, the digression of the narrative into the history and philosophy of the characters’ lives can feel tiresome, but Kumar ties the ends together deftly to unveil facets of their personalities in a way that is almost reassuring: there is no hurry; sit, listen to this story.
Stories of human sensibilities
The collection spans a wide range of themes, and in course of these stories, months and years pass, changes bloom. What grounds each of them is their ability to do two things at the same time: they are all distinct, interesting stories, indicating a well-perfected but hardly uniformly applied formula for compelling world-making within the meagre space of twenty pages or so; at the same time, they manage to build up to and frame human sensibilities and instincts that are often so particular to their respective contexts that their capturing in words seems a feat by itself.
One story is narrated by a political writer who is convinced that he is about to be murdered and spends his days in this paranoia; another is told through the lens of a government babu obsessed with the thrill of piecing together the puzzle of financial embezzlement.
Some others are stories of men discovering how little control over the world having a skill awards, however finessed – a golf caddie better at the game than the players who is too proud for daily wage work; a brilliant if idiosyncratic engineer who is humbled by what he is certain he could manipulate without consequences.
There is also a notable spatial sensibility at play – Kumar evokes rooms and cities with a vocabulary that makes them moving parts of the story instead of just settings for some real, important events. “Kitsch was the new aesthetic,” laments one narrator about the material excesses of Delhi, before we learn his story of illicit corporate wealth, religion, and the force of beliefs.
Another wryly observes the manifestation of middle-class consciousness in the garbage disposal practices of Bangalore – “it has to be convenient and guilt-free” – as his class position, occupational hazards, and political circumstances intersect.
This does not mean that Kumar’s aim is to reproduce some perfectly representative cross-section of modern urban life; indeed, some stories are of dystopian futures (though they may sometimes appear not too far off in our own timeline.)
Instead, the stories traverse known anxieties and alien terrors with a dexterity that betrays both astute observation and profound imagination. In this pursuit, of interest is not their distance from reality or common logic, but their proximity to the many meanings of living in a world that moves faster than those living in it sometimes grasp.
Like peeking into someone’s house
I do not usually enjoy short stories as a form – it might well be because of my bias towards the novel, but they always seem to leave something to be desired, either in their possibility for detail, or the scope for sketching out their subjects with sharpness.
Ruffled Feathers was eminently readable partly because it knocked over these apprehensions with panache, and partly because of its ability to juggle humour and unease, irony and truth effortlessly. It should be read for the detail in the etching of its characters, and the clever incorporation of the almost banal regularities of their lives to simultaneously tell a story and paint a picture, both equally captivating.
Reading Ruffled Feathers is a bit like secretly peeking into the house of an acquaintance and seeing them put on a wig: you’re surprised – what? I always thought he had such good hair! He really did not seem the type of person who would wear a wig – and then you realise that you don’t actually know what actually constitutes a wig-wearing type; you made that assumption unknowingly simply because we fill the gaps in our imagination of the people we vaguely know on the basis of their seeming ordinariness, and the convenience in lumping them together with those that we do know.
The preoccupations of Kumar’s characters are engaging even when eccentric, and their dilemmas convincingly invite your curiosity – be it the perils of Artificial Intelligence, or the sinister smile of an elderly recent village expatriate.
Ruffled Feathers, V Sanjay Kumar, Bloomsbury.