I remember the first time I heard Neelesh Misra on Yaadon ka Idiot Box. I had just returned to my native Calcutta – from where, I cannot be sure anymore, but I do know I was somewhat overwrought – and I was in a yellow taxi, winding my way home through the signature twilight of the city. The neighbourhood stores and the familiar sight of children walking to their coaching classes under the jumble of overhead wires were lit in the halogen glow of streetlamps, which had has been turned on even though the sky was still a shade of blue.
The cabbie tuned into Big FM. Misra’s voice was silken on the radio. Soon I got absorbed in the story he was reading out, which, as far as I can remember now, involved homecoming too. The character’s part-guilt, part-nostalgia got mixed up in my own welter of confusions, and later that night I looked up “Yaad Sheher”, Misra’s Macondo, online, and found the YouTube archives. I spent a long time listening to stories picked out at random.
Neelesh Misra’s experiment in bringing back storytelling on radio – after all, we are in the age when Audible has made audiobooks fashionable again – was so successful because, in my view, the “mandali” of writers who had collected around him got two things bang on. The first: bringing stories from a place where Bharat intersected with India. (Mind you, these were not hard-hitting stories from only Bharat, about the lives of farmers or caste-violence or politics in the hinterland, but were bourgeois enough for a wide middle-class or aspiring-to-be-middle-class audience to appreciate.)
The second was the unique idiom of these stories. They were all written in a sort of a robust, updated Hindustani, warm, luminous and contemporary, inflected with the curious vocabulary of nostalgia which invents for itself, in every local geography, a map of longing – this corner shop, that old house, those football fields now housing malls, these lanes now transformed, former neighbours long gone, the childhood sweetheart – and posits that rosy world against the disappointments and aridity of grown-up urban life, in crisp half-hour-long, slice-of-life instalments.
And precisely because of this the stories worked.
Given my fondness for the Mandali as a group, it therefore follows that the moment I spotted Storywallah, a collection of stories written by Neelesh Misra’s Mandali, I bought it immediately. The bathed-in-blue cover – a lone auto entering a narrow lane at dusk, in a place that could be part of the old quarters of any Indian town really – helped in setting the mood. Unfortunately that is where my euphoria ended.
There are twenty stories in the anthology. And on the surface of it, at least, the sense of place and (although less critically) the texture of language that distinguishes the Mandali stories are present. In “Wildflowers”, the protagonist returns to a small Himalayan town to revisit – perhaps even accept? – her mother’s unconventional past; in “Nails”, a chance comment from her fiancé forces a young woman to revisit the terms of their engagement and wonder if marriage will imprison her despite their love; in “Umrao Jaan”, a middle-class young man must cast away the values he has grown up with if he is to honour the promise he made to his beloved, a young woman who makes her living singing shady Hindi film songs to shady men in a notorious neighbourhood; in “Satrangi” a young and lonely bride falls in love with an older – make that much much older – man. There are plenty of homecomings and a riot or two; several stories try and capture relationships that flower outside the linear equations of life; and in many, strong women find their own voices and invent their own formulas to live their unconventional lives.
But something is missing.
I was a little disappointed that Anu Singh, one of my favourite writers of the Mandali, whose stories are deeply layered, with an undertone of self-awareness, was not included in this anthology. There was also no accompanying note by the translator Khila Bisht (though there were bionotes provided for the authors, there were no details whatsoever about the translator) – and no explanation of how the stories were selected or about the process of translation itself. This was a little surprising since there is something deeply political about the act of translating these stories into English – and the translator must have thought about the process critically.
Written in an oral mode, meant to be listened to rather than read, each of the Mandali stories is meant to work aurally and not visually; the choice of words and images are listener-friendly rather than ones that are to be decoded in silence, in the privacy of the space between the book and oneself. And unfortunately, as they are pinned onto the page, that too in English, a target language where literary prose works in different ways, the result ends up rather flat, the stories appear almost banal.
The short story has now evolved into such a distinguished genre that the big O Henry reveal – once the principal source of its pleasure – has faded in importance in its craft to the layering of details, to the creation of a mini universe where the oddness of quotidian life becomes palpable. And in these translations, much of that “oddness” is lost, and in the absence of the performative element, they seem almost plain. A few passages are also marred by typos and awkward renderings.
As in any anthology, a few stories rise head and shoulders above the rest – my favourite is “Evening Tea” by Chhavi Nigam – but, on the whole, Storywallah does not offer a fascinating or a memorable crop. I shall continue to await a “The Best of Neelesh Misra’s Mandali” collection to read – and return to – on rainy days. This is not that book.
Storywallah, Neelesh Misra’s Mandali, translated by Khila Bisht, Penguin Books.