Book review

This collection of stories about Bengali men and their problems barely scratches the surface

Surprisingly, the women in Shikhandin’s ‘Immoderate Men’ are far more dynamic and central to the plot movement.

Although it is a man’s world, run by men, the subject of masculinity is passed over in silence in many cultures, and subjected to the hastiest judgments in many others. Lost, between doting and impatience, is a helpful understanding of one half of humanity.

So a short story collection that promises to “deftly capture... the world of men; the desires that drive them, and the impulses which bring them down” is instantly eye-catching. And when it is titled Immoderate Men, one’s expectation is that it will illuminate the radical nature of masculinity, which is capable of rising to incredible feats and sinking to a wretchedness that is difficult to believe unless one is a man oneself – and even then.

Pulling a Ferrante

Now, the author of this collection has kept his or her identity a secret, adopting the pseudonym of “Shikhandin”, which calls to mind the famously gender-fluid Shikhandi of the Mahabharata. But whether we are reading a woman or a man, the gaze we are introduced to is feminised to an unwise degree.

Far from getting a glimpse of “immoderate” men, we see only highly moderated and emotionally confined men, who neither blossom nor wither in any visible way. The result is a falsity that is exactly converse to the male stereotyping of women, one we are all familiar with, which casts them as either femme fatales or greatly virginal. Nevertheless, this gaze (like that gaze) is authentic, and its shortcomings are not malicious.

Serious men

For one thing, the collection really is all about men; the theme has not been forced upon it. The stories dwell upon a variety of mostly middle-class Bengali men, young and old, in rural and urban settings. There is a householder consumed with anxiety over preparing the perfect feast for his son-law, a hen-pecked civil servant whose only happiness is in growing roses, a grandfather struggling to raise his grandchildren after an epidemic has taken their parents, a tentative young man hopelessly in love with a free-spirited girl, and others, who tend to have in common the predicament of being overwhelmed by their circumstances. They neither win any sublime victories nor cynically embrace despair, as grown men do, but remain paralysed instead with choked and welled-up emotions that are typical of very young boys. Sample these passages, from different stories in this collection:

He lies down on the ground beneath his roses, on his back gazing at the sky, now a benign blue above him...The scent of roses descends, heavy and inviting. He turns over and buries his face into the soil.

We understood, but did not utter the words that sat like stones in our throat, corking up the agitation within.

Old sorrows and a half-digested lump of anguish heaves in his breast. The pain grows intolerable after a while and the bitter tears roll down his cheeks.

Sardarji shook his head and sat tight behind the wheel... Patwari said nothing. He simply bent his head and inhaled deeply.

Nityananda stood there taking it all in, and felt his heart cracking under the weight of sorrow. His eyes stung, but the tears remained unshed.

And so on. Meanwhile, it is Shikhandin’s women who are dynamic, whether in creating trouble or resolving it. They, variously, seek their pleasure, torment their husbands, comfort the men and move the plot.

The contrast is made especially stark in the story, “Hijras on the Highway”, where a young woman in trouble receives no help from the men on a bus. This is not because they don’t want to help, but because they are timid and self-conscious – while the women gather together and come to her rescue, in an almost filmi fashion.

Not deep enough

Now, I don’t doubt that all this is well-observed, and in a sense, true to life. It dovetails with the clichés about effete Bengali men, but we may accept that clichés exist for a reason. Yet, the same holds good for, say, the femme fatales of hard-boiled thrillers – they too are well-observed and founded on some reality. However, it is a lazily understood reality, because the actual tendencies of people’s characters are discovered beneath the surface – if one cares to make the effort.

Moreover, neither mannequin-like women nor watered-down men justify entire books about them. What they do yield is a guilty pleasure for those writers and readers who are so inclined.

Consequently, there are a fair few weak stories in this collection, mere flights of fancy, clunkily put together, that call to mind creative writing exercises from high school. But there is also evidence of much greater literary skill.

Shikhandin has a grasp of the occult, of striking imagery and unexpected synergies, which are crucial to the short story form in particular – that, which is “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye in passing”, as VS Pritchett put it. There are stories here that offer up significant impressions, powerfully imagined, as in this passage, from “Stolen Spoons”, where the writing does not falter:

She has extended an arm now, full length, towards him, while the other lags behind like a reluctant partner in crime. He sees her raised hand, its palm spread open, hanging in the thin as sheet air between them. And just as suddenly, like all the impulses, actions and thoughts that have taken hold of this unusual day, he sees not her hand, but something else: a dead bird suspended motionless between them, about to drop dead in mid-flight.

Finally, it is also to Shikhandin’s credit that this book about men does not lapse into any hatred of men, which is not an easy feat in the times we live in. But the subtle condescension, and the lack of rigour, weaken what could have been a fine collection, and remains a very readable one.

Immoderate Men, Shikhandin, Speaking Tiger.

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