Reading Rao’s book took me back to my undergrad days, reminding me of the lovely memories of lit class, where we would gleefully slice and dice the Poes, Chekovs and Wildes. It’s where I fell in love with the short story. I fell especially in love with RK Laxman’s little tales, perfect examples as they were of wit and craft. It has taken me eleven years to find another short story writer whom I’ve loved reading just as much. Perhaps it’s the Indianness of it all that makes both these writers so appealing.
Short on length, long on skill
But there’s much more to Rao than “Indianness”; his breathtaking scope, for example. The settings and characters are so eclectic, they well justify the title One Point Two Billion. The author takes on multiple voices – of a vulnerable receptionist at a spa resort, a philandering lawyer, a kushti apprentice, a widowed pensioner, a rich, spoilt teenaged girl and a schizophrenic mother’s son, among others, with equal ease.
Rao’s effortlessness in sketching characters is remarkable. One deft stroke here, one sublime hint there, and his players rise from the pages. His observations about the human condition are so nuanced that they made me feel like I’ve walked the earth with my eyes closed thus far. Also, his stories are set in dizzyingly different locales and he seems at home everywhere – a tea estate in Tamil Nadu, a small house in terrorism-torn Kashmir, a swank poolside where the rich splash water and wealth, the hut of a dirt-poor labourer or the haveli of zamindars.
Inevitably, some of the stories and characters are more memorable than the others. Of the thirteen stories in the book, the best ones in my opinion are Minu Goyari Day, The Pool, Golden Ladder and The Agony of Leaves.
The first revolves around a woman trying to get justice for a phantom while her son grapples with tough realities. The second story is a take on the posh side of life through a teenager’s eyes, with a shocker as an ending. The third tale digs up the dirt on zamindars and their culture of unscrupulousness, while the fourth takes a look at loneliness from a widower’s point of view. But the other stories are sure to resonate with other readers, each in a different way, with bits and pieces of the plot clinging to their skins long after they’ve closed the book.
And if I had to pick my favourite characters, they would include Nams from The Pool, Farooq from The Word Thieves and the nameless protagonists of Hero and The Philanderer. Rao has an affinity for the underdog, but then most storytellers do. The range of emotions and relations explored in these and the other stories is vast. He contends with almost every conceivable relationship – children and parents, siblings, teachers and students, lovers, married couples and, most importantly, the self.
The story of our lives. No, really
Rao trains his lenses on our biggest failures, our basest desires and offers no apologies. He celebrates the little victories nobody lauds us for. He gathers beautifully the complexities of being human and being Indian in neat little bundles.
Mahesh Rao’s style of writing is just as artful. His tongue is sharp, his tongue is tender and his tongue is everything in between. He is also good at getting under the skin of his characters; so good that there’s very little you can see of him. What you see is crisp writing, with not one word where it isn’t necessary.
Rao knows well the tact of brevity, which is so essential to the short story form. He drops robust clues, pushing the narrative forward clearly. He is equally gifted with metaphors, which do their dainty dance right amidst the gritty stories. He gets the balance of simplicity, lucidity and beauty just right. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to find a page where I haven’t mentally marked hearts next to a sentence or two.
Dear Mahesh, you’ve packed so much beauty into one book, I’m almost tempted to call you – to use your phrase – zoi se zalim!
One Point Two Billion, Mahesh Rao, 4th Estate.
Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a psychologist by training, a journalist by profession and an Indologist in the making. She also has a Youtube channel on Indian Culture called Culture Express. She tweets here.