Dark shades stroll through Sucharita Dutta-Asane’s debut Cast Out and Other Stories. Dark moods amble at an unhurried pace through the sixteen short tales, ruminating on those aspects of Indian society that we tend to ignore in real life. In some stories, the shades and moods alike tilt towards the preternatural. They don’t lead the reader there, merely lean a little, as if to acknowledge what may lie beyond the lines of this physical world.

The reader can come away with a feeling of discomfort. A sense of déjà vu too. And that curious sensation of having read something that they chose not to take any notice of in the material world, but really ought to.

Dutta-Asane’s stories are plucked from the margins of the narratives of reality. From the gaps in journalistic reportage. Her characters are people you would barely notice while on your way during rush hour, because they are so familiar. Which is probably why when she lobs the stories at the reader, one instinctively wants to step aside. In Dutta-Asane’s perspective, the ordinary is full of enigma.

Many shades of dark

The book begins with “Half a Story”, where an unnamed narrator takes in an orphaned girl, named Ratri (or night), under her wing. Ratri is the daughter of a prostitute. A love child. But as the story unfolds, scene by scene, it becomes clear that this is not a story about love but of cowardice, a thing that slinks back into the shadows, the dark shades of society. It also takes a wry look at the petty hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie, thereby setting the tone for the rest of the book.

The second story, “Eyes”, traces a young couple’s boat ride into the Sundarbans. Like many of the others in the book, this one too is a disjointed narrative, written in both the first person and the third person, but in this case under the watchful eyes of an invisible beast. The story ends where the couple’s true adventure – or misadventure – begins. The first line of the third story “Another Life” – “She wrote her first letter to Sameer a month after he died,” pins the reader down. It’s a story of love – lived, lost, longed for and fought for, in quiet, tender ways.

“Fireflies” conjures up dark spaces and shadows. A wilful child who returns as a grown woman with her daughter to her ancestral home wants to open up the secrets that eluded her earlier. Everything leads to one particular room and its door. The story is deftly written, in what I have come to recognise as Dutta-Asane’s trademark style. It has all the elements of a horror-mystery, if such a genre exists. The proof of course lies in the ending. Another story that employs a similar atmosphere is “Dhara.” The difference between the two is that while the former uses shadow play for atmosphere, the latter is actually made up of shadows, from this world and the next.

Women, present and absent

In “Night Duty,” a woman disappears on her way back from office. The premise of the story is familiar. We’ve read many disquieting news reports of female employees returning late at night in cars hired by their employers, a supposedly safe mode of transport. In her story Dutta-Asane recreates such a scene, but keeps the woman who has disappeared out of the spotlight, focussing instead on her parents and the male colleague who is the protagonist here.

“Cast Out,” the titular story, takes the reader deep into the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. The story revolves around a woman who defies taboos and invites the wrath of the villagers. But her defiance over-rides everything, even the idol in the temple. Although there is no direct reference, this story is an ironic observation – as well as a rebuke – of the ritual of so-called impurity that Indian women endure, have endured for centuries, even as a stone symbol of the goddess Durga’s menstruating vagina is worshipped in the Kamakhya Temple in Assam.

“A Train Story” is the most light-hearted story in the collection, and provides a welcome break. Written in an easy paced third person narrative voice, it’s a story about a rebellious woman – a feminist who is certainly no pus over, in spite of her very girlish traits – and her moment of epiphany.

“Fire”, on the other hand is sheer enigma, with each section, once again presented in a mix of third person and first person voices, offering scenes like portions of a puzzle. What the story succeeds in doing is to recreate sharp images of starving farmers at war with political goons and land sharks, with the figure of a lone woman looming like a giant shadow.

In “Bulldozer”, Dutta-Asane uses the same effect, but manages to retain the classic elements of the short story form in the way she rounds things up at the end. However, and perhaps because it is one of the longer pieces in the collection, the pace falters at times, and the narrative meanders. Another story, “Absolution,” which appears to be a meditation on Ahalya’s story in the Ramayana, a modern take if you will, although stylishly written, falls short of emotional quotient. It’s the same with “Cusp” the last story in the collection, which appears to be another meditative piece, a soliloquy by the protagonist.

Mixing it up

“True, False, Right”, the eleventh story in the book, is about memory, its loss and the memorabilia of remembrance. It follows the meanderings of a woman, who, we learn as the story progresses, suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease. The parrot (in the story) who knows three words (the title) is both a physical leitmotif as well as a metaphor. Written with a touch so gentle, it’s almost like brushing against a feather wafting downward – yet, “True, False, Right” leaves a strong impact.

Another memorable story, which was the winner of the inaugural Dastan Award in 2013, is “Rear View.” It is a sharply critical observation of our society, and the culture of rape and hypocrisy that India seems to be becoming increasingly infamous for. Narrated in the first person, “Rear View” spares no one, least of all the narrator.

Other stories in the collection also highlight behavioural negatives, with hypocrisy and double standards being the author’s oft beaten dogs, such as the obsession with fair skin – “Night Song” – and the limiting of women’s freedom – “Shame”. The themes aren’t new, but what redeems them is the patina of low-budget-meaningful-Indian-art film that many of Dutta-Asane’s stories seem to gleam with.

We know that first books are capricious creatures. They don’t always sit still beneath the reader’s scrutiny. What’s more, in a collection of stories, the author’s progress as a writer is almost never linear. In Dutta-Asane’s case though, she seems to have a clear grasp of where she wants to go with her writing, with her authorial style becoming recognisable a couple of stories into the book. Her images are lush, though at times a little unnecessary, and therefore overwhelming. Her subjects are grounded in our regional spaces, urban and rural. And in this book, they are also immersed in the night and all its hidden spaces.

Cast Out and Other Stories, Sucharita Dutta-Asane, Dhauli Books.

Shikhandin is the author of the short story collection, Immoderate Men.