Saturday, May 30, 2015

Night life in small town India - a potpourri by Subhi Jiwani


I judged this Tranquebar edition by its cover. I love it. Ahlawat Ghunjan’s art work brings to light the shades and spaces of night. The subdued glimpses of a water body and of stars suggest twilight in a small town. I presume that it is also his art which forms a prelude to each article.

Each article wraps up with a some neatly presented information about the town-regular or seasonal events like theater, cinema halls, book stores, malls...which also makes this book a handy buy if you're visiting one of those small towns.

While some of the narratives in Subhi Jiwani's anthology on Life After Sundown in Small-Town India make for slow reading, are rather academic in tone, others wax lyrical. A fine blend of information and gossip characterises most of the pieces.

Reading this shortly after Urban Shots: Bright Lights made perfect sense. Fiction about the metros followed by real life accounts of night life in small towns.

Night, in a small town in India, is closed to women. Dogs, booze, pot and power cuts are some of the other elements common to these towns.

My favourites in this collection are The World Came to Town and Dharini Bhaskar's A Country of Words. The focus of the first is the screening of international films in a small town in Kerala. Not only did I get a glimpse of the stories of two Kurosawa films, but was also enchanted by the author’s insight into some of the aspects of life in Kerala-how women fare and how arty farty the Left can get.

Bhasker’s piece is poetic - from descriptions of leaving Delhi on a bus to MacLeod Ganj (“Delhi appears in jump cuts, as fragments, a potholed road, a smokehued building, and always the startandstop of angry rushhour traffic”.), through the eventful journey (“Before me rests a finely woven sheet of mist”.), to the town (“It’s 9 pm, and it is stirring with tales of the night”.). I look forwards to reading more of her writings.

I looked forwards to ‘Monsieur, Keen on Rajnikanth?’, as I lived in Pondicherry long ago. It was a nice read, with a subtle melange of gossip and information.
In Bihari Nights, Amitava Kumar captures the essence of the enterprise straightaway: “The inhabitants of Bettiah are satisfied, especially during summer,if the power supply revives for a few hours every three days.”

We glimpse the reality of Bihar of which we have only heard rumours: the abductions, thefts...The atmosphere of fear, the division of Hindu and Muslim-these things are echoed in some other voices in the anthology. As are films. A film is or was a big event in small towns. And some of these authors also speak of the X-rated films in the noon shows.

However, Amitava devotes a lot of pages to Naipaul. I fully sympathise and empathise with Naipaul bashing but that’s my pet bias. Mr. Kumar juxtaposes what Naipaul saw (and smelled) with the virtues of people he meets in real time, and people he’s told about, particularly touching in an anecdote about the degree of interpersonal trust in  small towns. And he has skillfully balanced this with all his tales of dacoity.

Food is present in most of the writings and Amitava doesn’t linger on it, unlike Akshay Pathak in Escaping Home and Returning. The latter will have any Indian, if not anyone else, drooling with his descriptions of things to eat in Bikaner.

Theater plays a part in some of the stories. Amitava attends a play by Girish Karnad staged in Bihar, a play about caste and caste has a major role in these diverse narratives too-as both the Hindu-Muslim divide and the caste lines are cast in iron in small towns.

But, lest we assume that this anthology is a morose look at evil hilly billies, note that there is frequent reference to change. Mr. Kumar speaks of women cops in Bihar - and that too at night.

I was eager to read Tabish Khair as I’ve added him on FaceBook but must admit that his In The Bigness of Small Towns is a little pedantic. Very enlightening, of course, and I love how he’s woven Kolatkar’s Jejuri into the narration. It’s a most valuable essay. He talks of the literary geography of India and traces the transition of the setting of writings from R. K. Narayan’s times through the Shashi Deshpande era down to Rushdie’s rushing us into the urban milieu.

For some no small reason, Tibetans figure in several of the works. These exiles were homed in many remote locations in India and, though their angst is well represented, we see that many can call India home (according to the Indian Citizenship act, Tibetans born in India between 26 January, 1950 and 1 July, 1987 automatically qualify for citizenship). Mr. Khair mentions them in terms of the “excitement” in the “other” that characterises the small town in contrast to the urban situation where the “other” rubs shoulders with us all the time.

Taran N Khan’s Little Women, Fewer Men is a demure and simpering memoir of life as a girl in Aligarh. It smacks of a school essay but is, nevertheless, charming in its own way.

Following directly after, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s Seeking the Spirit of Night, is also a bit school boyish. However, it’s innocence is alluring as is its informativeness. Shillong, though a popular tourist spot, is one of those parts of India that we Indians don’t know much about.  Mr. Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih also tells us about theater in Shillong and  about booze and pot and how women cannot favour night  outside as do the boys and men.

Ms Bhaskar’s A Country of Words and Akshay Pathak’s Escaping Home, and
are, perhaps, the most entertaining of the lot. Very readable. Pathak has dogs, booze (‘child beer’), pot, and the situation of Muslims all covered. His is a delicious piece, not only because of the famous cuisine of Bikaner, but because he writes so well.

Crossing Lines by Zahir Janmohamed is a rich and resonating article. And painful to read. If the other Muslim authors in this collection have chosen to be bland about the truth of life as a Muslim in India, and very understandable that would be, he’s stripped all sham. I salute him. Oh, and there’s plenty of booze in his byeline. He’s crossed a lot of lines.

I’m sorry to say that, apart from Ms. Bhaskar, the other two women writers disappoint. Sumana Roy’s Raat Ki Rani ought to be thrilling as she spends a lot of time with women who smuggle goods across the border on their bodies. It ought at least to make one cringe. It does neither. It almost does nothing. There’s something rather middle class and whiny in her tone.

So, from the fine introduction by Subhi Jiwani to the bios of the writers on the concluding pages, Day's End Stories: Life After Sundown in Small-Town India is a must buy.

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