Book review

With despair and disquiet (and some healing) from Assam, these stories marry fact to fiction

Mitra Phukan’s new collection gives voice to women in the bedroom and outside it.

A dense cluster of uncomfortable truths, or versions of truths, can be difficult to read, but in the hands of a skilled writer, they rise from their despondent depths and hold you in their spell. Something like that happens when you end a year and begin another dipping into the stories of author, translator and vocalist Mitra Phukan’s new collection, A Full Night’s Thievery. A majority of the 13 stories addresses the disquiet in the lives of its many women and some men, their despair, turmoil, rage – ending at times in degrees of healing, and at times, razor-sharp revenge.

The collection also weaves in motifs we have read in the rush of excellent literary fiction from North-East India over the last decade or so – folklore, insurgency, the clash of the traditional and modern, the psychological, physical disconnect with the rest of the world. Phukan previously wrote the lyrical A Monsoon of Music, about the ways and lives in a musical universe, and later, the acclaimed The Collector’s Wife, on love and loss in times of violence.

In her newest work, she focuses on a string of women protagonists despairing over their limited role within the family, in the bedroom, and outside their homes. They emerge, one after the other, their voices growing more assured over these pages, as narrator, gatekeeper, dealmaker, game-changer. Adding layers to these stories is the motif of music, in notes high and low: the sacrifice it extracts from those who surrender, the unrelenting devotion, and also, the uncomfortable realities of making music and the success that may follow.

What the stories say

In “The Choice”, the opening story, a Rudra Veena maestro tells an unnamed listener his heartbreaking story, and what he must give up so his son may live. This maestro finds mention in another story, “Homecoming”, which is about an instrument maker and his helplessness watching his beloved daughter drift away in marriage to a local goon. “The Tabla Player’ observes a musician so deeply committed to his art that he pushes to the back of his mind the fact that he has an equally devoted, but heavily pregnant wife who needs him urgently.

In the title story, “A Full Night’s Thievery”, Modon Sur, a petty thief, hatches an audacious plan to rob the local magistrate’s house of its many gleaming jewels, in true catch-me-if-you-can style. Unlike the other heavier, disquieting stories, “A Full Night’s Thievery” is amusing and sharply observed, and a treat for a reader who must get into the mind of a slippery chor.

Every so often, this collection slips into dark spaces. Into the minds of the women who suffer silently. There’s witchcraft, death, militancy, murder, betrayal, and devious mind games. In one of the more metaphorically charged pieces, “The Journey”, which takes place over a few hours in an AC compartment of a train, a coconut seller’s assured swing of the dao to chop off the nut’s top mirrors the venom a mother nurses for her handicapped daughter.

In “Jogeshwari”, witchcraft is a neglected wife’s ultimate revenge, and in “The Revenge of Annapurna”, the wife of a cheating poet husband quietly, chillingly, turns the power dynamics in the household on its head. This is where Phukan takes a delicious potshot at “creative folk” and the faults they are forgiven for:

“…he is a writer. A poet. A different breed it seems, from the rest of us uncreative humanity. Oh yes, I say this with irony, bitterness even. Oh yes, I know all about how poets and writers are supposed to be seers. They show the rest of us the way to the future, they ought up the path ahead. And so, then, is that the reason we give them this licence? ‘Ah, he’s a poet. He is different.’ And so, then, if he is different, what about this person, this Annapurna at home?”

Fact into fiction

The stories, set in towns of Assam, amidst threats of violence and incidents of militancy, flow with a strong sense of tradition, wrapped in conservative air, its women stifling examples of lives spent in desperation. Their central turmoil is, disturbingly, usually tied to the men around whom their lives revolve, men who are typically busy, cheating, negligent. It is perhaps this sense of despair that weighs some of the stories down. The glint of insanity and shades of the devil lurking in some of the pages are not a figment of anybody’s imagination.

You come up for air with stories like “The Gift” and “Spring Song” – the former, uplifting, the latter, poetic. My favourite – though it is hard, and rather unfair to choose – is the last in the collection, “A Long Drive”. It works excellently to illustrate the psyche of a modern woman who has suffered a great loss at the hands of random terrorism. “Who had died, who had been maimed, who had escaped by a whisker – it was all totally random. And she, she had been picked for widowhood at thirty-five, totally randomly.”

There is fact, and there is fiction in these pages. To Phukan’s credit she blends the two with restraint, working up a steady lather of drama, and in more than a few places creates breathless moments of suspense – some to stunning and others to disappointing effect. It’s a while before you can move on to the next story. But move on you will.

A Full Night’s Thievery, Mitra Phukan, Speaking Tiger Books.

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