A nice gift for any short story lover, and for readers of the new breed of Indian authors writing in English.
It was the cover that made me pick out this book.
That and the words "gulp fiction". From content that makes you go gulp to the metaphorical comparison of content that needs no chewing, it’s, perhaps, an apt description of this set of stories.
And then short stories are easier to digest and review than longer works. Most days, the Internet holds me in thrall. Much that I do there is functional and mundane but then there is also the irresistible wealth of trivia that waylays time such that reading takes a backseat. Travel, where access to the Net is random and constrained, tends to reserve the leisure to finish a full length book. But that’s matter for another day, another post...Meanwhile you can follow me on Instagram to see my latest reads.
This set of seventeen stories has one pretty much recurrent theme: bitterness against women and wives in particular. Wives, in Mr. Salil Desai's tales, nag incessantly. However, in some perverse fashion, it is the men, all of whom seem to harbour such thoughts, who get their comeuppance. Yet the passages which portray the voices of the wives remind me of a real life story I once heard.
A man bought his wife a recording gadget as she had once expressed a desire for such a thing, being something of a wannabe writer. At one point in time, this man then recorded his wife's plaints so that she could hear how terrible her whining sounded. Of course the gadget then promptly not only lost its charm for the original purpose but became a loathsome sight to the woman to whom it was given as a gift. Which makes me wonder how the author hears the other gender. It is not only the eye of the beholder which holds the magic of perception. Ears play their role too. Whatever we are fed in terms of the prejudices of our times and specific backgrounds tend to be burped up as our reality.
In a similar vein as the first story of the book, Lost Libido, there are Bit on the Side, The Maths Conundrum and, most of all, The Snake and the Stick, which reveal, at least in the protagonist, a certain marked attitude towards women.
To be fair, the author seems to be examining the various foibles of humans in general. In One Monday Morning, for example, he plays with the other famous grouse of some men, the purportedly whimsical nature of women. And the gentle twist, in not the tail but a little earlier, neatly stands that particular misunderstanding on its head.
By and large, it seems to be de rigueur that short stories be about unpleasant things or beings. In that sense, Salil Desai had done his bit.
That said, one turns to style as art had this ambition to turn anything into beauty, using the various rules of aesthetics deftly. Well, all I can say is that this book falls into the not merely burgeoning but verily mushrooming genre of new Indian writing in English - a school of the arts which focuses on an Indian readership almost exclusively. And why not? It's a world market in itself given the numbers and diversity.
I reserve all judgement on the phenomenon as it is at present often mind boggling in profusion and presentation. I do applaud the search, conscious or not, for a new voice - in an English that is uniquely and authentically Indian. In some sense, I've observed this trend to indigenise this absurd language among Malay writers and have been utterly charmed with that. However, India is so much huger than Malaysia and way more diverse. Interestingly, though, I seem to be alone in such perverse cogitation. Writings, which have left me totally bewildered, seem absolutely lucid to random readership as vouchsafed by the 'likes' and 'reviews' devoted to such gems.
Salil is, thankfully for me, in no such boat. His English is neither pretentious ( like mine!) nor puerile as I'm forced to label some writers whom I've had the painful task of reviewing.
The slip, if any, is a cross all authors must bear - dialogue, the spoken words... It's no mean challenge to create speech, even when the language is totally your own, spoken by one and all, all the time. Thus, when it comes to rendering this activity where the language is something of a second tongue it can be a task of some proportion. Add to this the fact that, though Microsoft, for example, has Indian English, there is really no or too few defining rules or classifications.
Pardon my ramblings and let us return to Mr. Desai's stories. One thing is for sure and that is that our man has investigated and pondered over millions of potential stories. In these seventeen we visit not only murder (some three are devoted to this) but also marital infidelity, a ghost, a hangman, a streaker, suicide en famille (apparently something of a fairly common occurrence in India), and chain snatchers (also frequently reported in Indian newspapers). Hats off to Salil for including the trauma of marks that burdens the average school child in India as also the queasy charitableness and hypocrisy of most humans when faced with abject poverty.
Since I live in Pune, the book promised a special experience which is mainly fulfilled by place and person names. Apart from that I did not get that palpable experience of events in a familiar city.
As usual, I have been more critical than appreciative, perhaps.
Let me make up for that by selecting two stories as my favourites: Hunch on a Highway and Cul-De-Sac.
The first has going for it a marvellous character, quite typical in nature, and a nice surprise quite nearly at the tail end.
The second is presented as a kind of exercise in possibilities and is perhaps a glimpse into the author's workings. That can be nice or not as autopsies are rarely everyone's cup of tea. Seeing the insides of things is both fascinating and revolting. Still, it was a very amusing read!
I'd buy the book for the cover alone though the contents are worth at least one good read. But I also look forwards to other books of his.