In Anushka Jasraj’s “Radio Story”, a woman reads her father’s last words, left behind on a paper that is still jammed into its place in a typewriter. Expressing his love for a woman who is not her mother, the note leaves behind more questions than answers. Attempting to make sense of it feels to her like looking for clues to an unknown puzzle…”futile, like the mute swan’s last song or like trying to find a name for nothingness.”
This feeling of being on uncertain ground, of something being askew but being unable to resolve it, is common to several of the short stories in Principles of Prediction. The stories were written over the course of nearly a decade – “Radio Story”, which won Jasraj the 2012 Asia Regional Commonwealth Short Story Prize, sits alongside another winner of the prize, “Drawing Lessons” (2017), as well as 11 other stories – which might explain the assuredness of this highly original debut. Jasraj is a brave, almost reckless writer, unafraid of going down discomfiting, occasionally absurdist paths in her storytelling. The result is a mesmerising style that is very much her own.
The weird and the whimsical
In the titular story, a weather forecaster starts to unravel as she awaits the arrival of a calamitous storm that nobody else seems to accept. In the delightful “Elephant Maximus”, a young animal thief named Cassata steals an elephant from the zoo so that her best friend will fall in love with her, after dognapping the famous pug from the Vodafone commercials proves insufficient. And in “Circus”, a woman leaves her husband to live with a hijra who works as a lion tamer in a traveling circus, guided by the “vision” that is common to the women in her family.
But to call these stories surreal would be an oversimplification. The arcane and the real side by side in many of them, leaching into each other, the writer unbothered with drawing firm lines in the sand for the reader. While in full control of her prose, which she twists delightfully with unexpected poetic flourishes, Jasraj is not shy of embracing the weird and the whimsical – Freud makes an unexpected appearance in one of the stories – which reaches its zenith in the last story in the collection.
In “Luminous”, a linguist is tasked with documenting the effects of the “new light” that has permeated the earth, slowly upending sleep patterns, moods, and emotional responses. She’s assisted in the task by a poet named Susan and an intern named Prakash who may or may not be an army of twins or, as the story progresses, a flock of birds.
Refusing to uncomplicate
Principles is not interested in neat narratives or tidy endings, occupying instead the peculiar gaps of ambiguity in which the short story form can thrive. “Uncertainty is the only escape from despair,” one of the protagonists realises at the conclusion of a story. Yet, attempting to know the unknowable remains one of the most consistent themes in the collection, whether it be the future – clairvoyants, fortune tellers, and numerologists are liberally peppered through its pages – or almost as tricky, protagonists turning inwards to navigate the contours of their own minds.
Feelings of unbelonging, of being trapped, and the death or absence of a parent show up frequently in the collection but Jasraj avoids heavy-handed linkages to the behaviour of her characters. Often they are unable to even articulate the exactness of their discontent. “Language is a rigged carnival game in which the hoops are too small to fit around any of the prizes,” the woman in “Circus” thinks while struggling to communicate the emptiness she feels in her marriage.
In another story, “Drawing Lessons”, one of the most tender in the collection, a woman faced with a distant husband and an inability to have children finds an unexpected thrill of pleasure in the company of an older woman from whom she is learning how to draw. Even beyond these explorations of the suffocations of marriage, discoveries of non-heterosexual desire, and passing references to writers, artists, and gender theorists – Getrude Stein, Eve Sedgwick, and Janelle Monae all find a mention – that may have been influences for the author, a quiet queerness runs through the book. Principles revels in the equivocal, refuses to name, define, confine, or uncomplicate, and thwarts any attempt to relegate the non-normative to the sidelines.
Reading Jasraj’s collection at times feels like being underwater. Reality is more distorted yet accentuated, and a serenity pervades even events of upheaval and conflict. Yet this dream-like state can also muffle the emotional resonance of its characters, the whimsy creating a barrier between them and the reader. “I hate it when you talk like,” Dahlia’s sister tells her in “Notes from the Ruin”, exasperated at yet another cryptic utterance. I nodded along furiously as I read, unable to stop myself from levelling the same charge against a few other characters in the collection as well.
More than once, I wished Jasraj had exercised a little less caution and not stepped away from a story too early, bemoaning what could have been gained had she stayed submerged a little longer. But a more generous reading could attribute this instead to the subtle magnetism of this collection – a delightfully odd set of stories which, much like any dive, conceals more than it reveals.
Principles of Prediction, Anushka Jasraj, Context.