Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing - Select Short Stories by Women Writers - Edited and Introduced by Shireen Quadri

This collection of short stories is brilliant. I loved them all. I do not use the word brilliant loosely here - I was quite taken in by the variety and the texture of each story, the distinct voice and tone each writer brought. The stories themselves held me spellbound. Putting together eighteen stories into this anthology must have been no mean task and I am glad Shireen did that so well. Not to forget the lovely introduction to the book by her - setting the tone. 

Ameta Bal's 'Static A.D.' - a single girl stuck in her apartment for a month while the world is ending outside - riots, lockdowns (I think) - and then she  steps out to get some essentials, lies down on the empty road enjoying the quiet and the freedom of looking up at the blue skies...until ....One feels for her, for her cat, for us, for our world that cannot stay peaceful.

'A Tale of Disconnect' by Anila SK -a young woman who hears a young lad speaking his own language outside the courthouse in Colombo and remembers the trauma of being dyslexic, of making up her own language, of her friend who had to go to a deaf and dumb school - about the disconnect of not being able to communicate 'right' which perhaps led to her divorce. It's always a terrific theme - this feeling of not being understood, of not being able to communicate, or of trying to in different ways and not being able to get through, and its not that those who can speak well can communicate - we don't. When we do, in whatever language, people are happy, feel understood. It's heaven.

'Pandemonium' by Anjali Doney completely stole my heart and is the best of the lot for me (along with 'Crossing') - she drops us into the 70s in Cochin, ABBA playing Voulez Vous, Jessie, James, Usha and her guy, the DANGERUS girls, Asif and Lubeena - ah, what spine tingling romance - a love letter, the meeting after, a word of appreciation, a fall and then glorious hope. It will always remain with me. I hope someone make a short film, or even a film with this part and blows it up. Reading it was like watching a film for me though and I can watch this movie again and again like one watches 'Holiday' or something - only this is so much more summery and more romantic. In fact could just stand near those cold coffee shops and grow old watching Jessie and the DANGERUS girls. Superb Anjali.

Camilla Chester's 'Terms and Conditions' had this lovely twist - a tale wishes coming true. Into Ms Pimpleback's drab life appears a strange delivery - of wishes she had asked for - horses, people, chocolates, candy by the tons. And then I thought, what all did I wish for and what if they come true. And even more poignantly, what are the wishes I throttled and did not let them see the day. They could have come true right? Don't kill your dreams fellows, give them a chance. Like Ms. Pimpleback seems to have done. 

Geetha Nair's 'Falls' is another lovely Sai Paranjpeisque romance of two young people who meet in Delhi, studying literature, so in love, he aiming for the Civils and getting it and she not, and ending up as a lecturer. He breaking off his relationship casually (always knew he would - I also feel she paid all the bills at their outings - can picture him) and she nursing that heartbreak for long and finally marrying her driving instructor - with no intellectual baggage (and for some reason I think, for great sex). Until the two old lovers happen to chance upon one another - he the big IAS officer taking care of his wife's dog, obviously on leash - rich but on leash and she walking away thanking her stars. Clearly, she has the better deal.

Helen Harris's 'Olya's Kitchen' is so clearly etched in my mind that I can picture the entire movie in my mind - about immigrant Russians who carry their grandma Olya's food tradition on in London. I don't know how and why but everything about the story comes to me like a frame in a movie. I can't get the flavour of the food - not just yet. But its there.  

'Kashmir Valley's Soofiya Bano' by Humra Quraishi has this urgency in its voice and this wave of relief at the end, when the young son returns from jail in the midst of a terrifying flood in Kashmir, to take his mother away to safety. A son she had found abandoned in a shikhara and had taken care of every single day until the police took him away and locked him up in jail. He comes out in the flood (how I don't know, maybe he escaped, or maybe they let him go) and off they go - mother and son. Nice happy ending, lovely  mother and son meeting, and one only hopes they live happily wherever they are.With so much love in her heart they would I guess.

'Indigo Blue' by Jayshree Misra Tripathi is a story within a story where the story teller tells the tale of  Queen, Vakula Devi, who loses her right to the throne because her step daughter had been named the Queen (assuming that she never had children which is why). The step daughter is poisoned and she dies, paving the way for Queen Vakula Devi. But then the snake bites again and the Queen is no more. And the hand maidens show up, dead, and blue. And then something eerie happens to the narrator. 

'The Very Narrow House' by Latha Anantharaman is deeply mysterious - the house, the occupants, their ways and their secrets. Fascinatingly visual again, with a very intriguing and well placed twist at the end - one that never leaves you. Reminded me of Murakami for some reason, the story touched that place in the mind that makes you wonder if its an image or fantasy, slippery yet fully real, as in a dream. That street, the house, its backyard, the sixth toe - and the black and gray energy. Fabulous. 

'The Closed Cinema' by Meena Menon is about Firdaus theatre in Lal Chowk, Srinagar that seems to have been closed by the militants. The owner, a film buff who grew up watching movies - Tarzan was his first as a young kid - is taken away by the militants one day. And as he is taken away he cannot but help think of flashes of films he has seen, the high points of his life - and when he remembers Charles Heston as the charioteer in Ben Hur, he is so happy that the impending death by the bullet cannot do anything to him. Shades of 'Cinema Paradiso' to me, the flashes he has. A story beautifully told.

'Ghost' by Meher Pestonji has a mischievous, chilling quality to it. A young kid wants to scare his sister by dressing up like a ghost and almost ends up meeting one and perhaps inadvertently ends up saving the house from being sold which is what the ghost may have liked. Now how many times have we done that and how close have we come to falling into the water tank. Something looking after us from up there. Grace. And something else. 

Rinita Banerjee's 'The Dance of the Happy Muse' is about a person who goes to visit a museum in Washington DC where he is on a holiday with his father, visiting her aunt after the death of his mother. He ignores the incessant calls on his phone, focusing instead on another visitor, his muse, until he can ignore the phone no more. And then he goes home - to a teary eyed father and his expectations that he cannot seem to break out of. For some reason I believed strongly that the person was a woman, still cannot believe its a man. 

'Honour' by Rochelle Potkar is about a washerwoman Purna and her life burdened clearly with the men in her life. First her father who does something to mess with the family reputation and then the husband who is in jail for raping and killing a young girl - and she has to carry the burden of looking after the family, after these men. Endless, dreary, thankless, the lives of so many women perhaps.  

'Marietta's Song' by Sarah Robertson is a hauntingly beautiful story about a woman who is in an old age home for the rich suffering from dementia. She talks of her liaisons with a royal in a note but no one takes her seriously until her birthday when she says she'll get a gift from her royal friend. Nothing happens until a royal decree orders a special treat for her - a musician walks in and plays her song reminding her of all her past memories - and she sings along. From the sidelines the royal lover watches. Ah, for love like that. One would think that if she finds one moment of peace thanks to all these efforts - it was worth it. But only someone true would go to that extent - so many of us would take the easier route of 'she cannot remember anyway'. But then we do not know what love is do we?

'The Vacation' by Shilpa Raina was heartbreakingly familiar in the way it ends - the lady of a Kashmiri Pandit family that fled the valley and somehow got through life with great difficulty now finds her husband ill enough to be hospitalised. She flies him to the big city and her children want to admit him in a good hospital but she is not sure they should spend as much - she has always saved so the family could get by and knows no other way. When the children insist and tell he they can afford it now - she decides to convert the hospital stay into something they never had - there's air conditioning, a TV,, comfortable bed. Ah, how many such compromises have we all made? How many times have we throttled our dreams and fit them into our lives? Powerful.

'Artichoke' by Tammy Armstrong - about a couple on a 'holiday' to research an artiste and while the man gets lost in the academia, the woman seems to understand the artiste and his art better by walking round the streets and seeing and experiencing all those things her husband seems to be getting irritated by. How familiar is this theme where we love the spirit and stick to the word and feel supercilious about it. The jokes on us - for missing out on the real thing - for being stuck up. 

And then Vineetha Mokkil's 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday' is a chilling tale of how patriarchy rules in modern and educated families even today just as biases and honour comes to the fore - especially when it comes to girls marrying a person of another faith. The young girl is an IAS officer but despite that she has to face the family's hostility - locking her up in her room at night, trying to dissuade her, and when they realise she will not relent, take some necessary steps to protect their family honour.

'Crossing' by Vrinda Baliga is heartrending and took the refugee crisis to another level - as good as any other for sheer economy of words and how she structured such a complex story so well. Again, my best, along with 'Pandemonium'. The journey of a fourteen year old, across the border, escaping the tyranny of their 'homeland', trying to find peace, a better life, but first one has to cross the border across the sea. The quick realisation that one is just a parcel, cargo, the changeover and the decreasing amount of interest in them, as they are left of fend of themselves, the loss of hope. The scene where the middle aged lady with the infant just sits down and refuses to move another inch will never leave me,and how the protagonist thinks of her face when he thinks of his mother - who face he has forgotten, in this pain. It's incredibly painful to go through those emotions and thousands go through it and your heart goes out to them. Vrinda writes as if she was on the ship, on the journey herself. I could not but wonder at how she got the emotion, the journey so accurately. Every word held me as if by a thread and I knew that if I missed that one word, I'd miss a whole idea. Incredibly good writing. 

Clearly one of the better anthologies I have read over a long period of time. Well chosen, well written, well edited and compiled. Didn't find a single typo, have already recommended it to many, am rereading it again, so lots of pluses in its favour. A lot there must go to the editor who perhaps dealt it with a light hand thus enabling some great writing to come forth. And am seriously glad I got introduced to some wonderful writers (and some wonderful characters who will remain with me - Jesssie!) and am looking forward to reading more from them. Well done writers, well done Shireen and well done Niyogi. This is a seriously good one. For all the readers out there - highly recommended. Buy it.     

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