I took several days to finish this slim book; so potent are these stories. They are the work of an original and powerful imagination, a significant writing talent, and a sensitive mind – in that order. Tejaswini Apte-Rahm is such a precociously successful writer that I almost fear for her, because the one thing her writing seems to lack – understandably, since this is her first book – is the conviction that there are things infinitely more significant than writing.
It is not a conviction that comes easily to those whose calling is to write. Thus, the back jacket describes these stories as “dark, richly layered and emotionally complex” – all true – but it prefaces this by calling them “funny”, which could not be further from the truth. This book is funny in the sense that it is funny to turn a turtle on its back and watch it flail about. Only the cruel and senseless will laugh.
The kingdom of anguish
No. These ten stories, which are a collection in the truest sense, stand-alone stories which have in common only the mind of the author, are about despair. One might say they track the kingdom of despair, and find it penetrating every nook and cranny of the human experience, every seemingly dear relationship and every seemingly safe space.
Here we experience despair from the inside out, in those stories which therefore turn surreal, such as The Mall – about a woman trapped in a shopping mall for months and years – and Cotton – where a person obsessed with the indoors and upholstery finds the stuffing literally coming out of her own self – and we see it with more ordinary detachment in others like Mili – where a pair of old lovers meet again, with breathless and yet pointless enthusiasm – and in the titular story, in which two old men, steeped in their own worlds, fight for supremacy.
And we also take hold of it from in-between stand-points, from the minds of little children and from broken, half-insane minds. Apte-Rahm is able to control all of these perspectives.
Where she falters is in handling more mundane circumstances and relationships, as in the two weakest (relatively speaking) stories in this book – Homo Coleoptera, which features a middle aged husband and wife, and Drinks at Seven – about a group of friends meeting one evening. In these situations, where there is no single mind to burrow deep into, nor any overwhelming passion driving the interaction between the characters, despair too has a hard time making its presence felt. So the writer introduces it with savage over-eagerness. It is a sign that she has begun to care more for the dramatic effect of her stories than for the people involved in them.
No compromises with the truth
But for the most part, it is her truthfulness that is striking. For example, Thank God for Star Trek is a story about an eleven-year-old girl who lives alone with her mother in Mumbai. The child is troubled because there is something amiss with her mother’s mood – and her mother, of course, is her whole world. A vast and nameless despondency overwhelms the girl, a sensation we have all experienced, not only as children, but as children with the most abandon. Here is the girl, one ordinary evening, waiting for her mother to come home:
“She is condemned to stand by the open window, oppressed by the quickening stirrings of the sea air which make the back of her neck tingle and raise goosebumps at the bottom of her spine. The day is turning, the sun is setting, the blue-white of the sky is deepening fast, the kites, crows, pigeons, sparrows cry out as they head home and settle down to await the night, the honking of the evening traffic rises into the air as hundreds of cars wend their way home, the day is in flux and everything is in motion. Only Anshu stands still at the window in the fading light, hating these changes, this motion around her of things, birds, people, settling into their rightful places, this motion that has left her out so completely, her heart beating with sadness and fear, waiting for her mother to return.”
That is how perfectly the writer evokes everyday despair. And there is no real respite from the feeling, because while the girl’s mother has not disappeared, she is only human. On another day she will be provoked by her daughter, and speak cruelly to her. Where, after her mother has turned a stranger, can a child find solace? Star Trek is the answer in the story, but as a final answer, it is the victory of despair.
Another painfully truthful tale is Mili. A young woman comes to spend a weekend in Mumbai with the intention of meeting her former boyfriend, who is soon to be married. His excitement is soon worked up; he is overcome all over again by her beauty. In the denouement, forgetting his fiancee, he is ready to sleep with her, lust having cast itself as pity and tenderness. As for Mili, she has merely been conducting an experiment regarding her own feelings, to what end she herself doesn’t know. So both of them, intelligent and well-meaning, have acted sincerely, and yet both are revealed to be offensively self-centred.
These two stories are both nominally set in Mumbai, but in fact setting is not Apte-Rahm’s strong suit. Knowing how well she tracks emotional arcs and the interiority of characters, she sticks very much to these, while the settings – a mall, a living room, a bungalow – perhaps purposely lack specificity. However, this is a mark of a still-maturing talent, because settings are not merely backdrops, but in their concreteness they serve to hold back the tide of despair from one’s characters, much like eating a sandwich gives strength for even complex, psychological ordeals.
Therefore, knowing how to place characters in time and space is necessary in order to do justice to them. But what drives a writer to accomplish this is sensitivity to characters, not the desire to perfect his or her writing talent. In future books, we shall see if Apte-Rahm has been able to master her talent in this way, by putting it in its place and not admiring it unduly. In the meantime, we have this book, a rare piece of writing that is full of victories, even if – because of the preponderance of despair, which the writer herself is helpless before – they are pyrrhic victories.
These Circuses that Sweep through the Landscape, Tejaswini Apte-Rahm, Aleph Book Company.
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