Sto­ries that leave the reader shocked, amused, fas­ci­nated

Jour­nal­ist and au­thor San­gita P. Menon Mal­han’s new col­lec­tion of short sto­ries is packed with tales that take us through a wide range of hu­man emo­tions, writes

The Sunday Guardian - - Bookbeat -

ac­tion against their ab­sen­tee sec­re­tary. The fake busy­ness, the fu­til­ity of the pro­ceed­ings, the self-im­por­tant air of the mem­bers, the petty bick­er­ing among res­i­dents and of course, the in­evitable savour­ing of tea and samosas— the por­trayal is as au­then­tic as it is hi­lar­i­ous.

Two of the sto­ries use su­per­sti­tion to build the plot, be­fore de­liv­er­ing a cruel (anti-) cli­max. The very first short story in the col­lec­tion, “The De­spi­ca­ble man”, takes you through a pub­lic bus jour­ney in the moun­tains on a stormy July morn­ing. Its myr­iad char­ac­ters—a group of teenagers on a hol­i­day, a large fam­ily with many heavy suit­cases, a newly-wed cou­ple, the su­per­sti­tious con­duc­tor and of course, the de­spi­ca­ble man with the scummy coat—are very well etched. The plot builds up with a cer­tain ease, be­fore de­liv­er­ing a twist in the ill-fated cli­max. Vin­tage short story stuff!

“The Time has Come”, set in the Chat­ter­jee house­hold, re­volves around a mor­bid pre­dic­tion about their son, Shonin Chat­ter­jee, who is the mar­ket­ing head of a pharma firm in Bhopal. Shonin is dis­mis­sive of as­trologers, and fid­gety and im­pa­tient as his mother and his wife pre­vail upon him to stay home. Amid mul­ti­ple rounds of puja, ten­sion around the pre­dic­tion builds up in the Chat­ter­jee house­hold, be­fore the cli­max strikes.

San­gita Menon Mal­han, who worked with Delhi Mid-Day, The States­man and The Times of In­dia be­fore turn­ing to full-time writ­ing, prob­a­bly re­vis­its her days as a jour­nal­ist in “Oshbo”, gen­tly bring­ing out the petty machi­na­tions in a news­room. But it is the ti­tle story, “Muchchad Gadh,” that re­ally tick­les. A clean shaven city pro­fes­sor is on a visit to this quaint lit­tle vil­lage “be­tween Barmer and Jalore”, where all men show off their hand­some mous­taches. They sport “Hun­gar­ian mous­taches”, the “Dali kind” or even the “Impe- rial” va­ri­ety, and nur­ture them with reg­u­lar oil mas­sages for the weekly Moocha Ri cer­e­mony. The cu­ri­ous pro­fes­sor is shunned and ridiculed in the vil­lage, un­til he fi­nally suc­cumbs to their guiles.

But this col­lec­tion does not let you rest. Just as you are set­tling into a light, happy groove with “The Net­work Junkie”, along comes a grip­ping ac­count of a pi­rate at­tack on the Blue Whale (“The Pirates of Aden”). Once again, a story sketched out in great de­tail and this time, the racy ac­count is de­signed to thrill.

While these sto­ries are the stuff to curl up and en­joy, what stays with you is the dark stuff that haunts and al­lures at the same time. Here, San­gita breaks the mould with nar­ra­tives that are hon­est, dis­tress­ing and cathar­tic. In “The Per­fect Sui­cide”, two strangers out on a mis­sion to com­mit sui­cide as a des­per­ate means for glory, bump into each other. Their con­ver­sa­tion, and the even­tual fate of their mis­sion, is as fas­ci­nat­ing as it is bizarre.

The au­thor ex­plores women char­ac­ters with com­pletely new warts and tex­tures. The per­sona of the bald, scarred Bai Sa and her touch­ing re­la­tion­ship as men­tor to 21-year-old Baruni (“Qaidi No 48”), the promis­ing ban­dit Se­jal with a fond­ness for the axe which she wields to telling ef­fect (“The Pur­suit”), Vidhi, the young cza­rina who pulls the plug (“The Heiress”) and the tal­ented, colour­ful and lib­er­ated “Begum of Bal­li­maran”— are all re­fresh­ing women char­ac­ters spring­ing out of the pages of a short story book.

But my pick from the col­lec­tion is “Shock­ing Pink”. Stark and un­in­hib­ited, the nar­ra­tive is on a roll, an out­pour­ing that shocks even as it charms. Be­tween de­scrip­tions of bloody, near-death mishaps, it is an hon­est jour­ney of re­vul­sion and con­flict through the mind of an in­di­vid­ual.

San­gita’s orig­i­nal take on sto­ry­telling—and on life, is vis­i­ble in “No Bad Hair Days”, her ac­count of her ex­pe­ri­ence with breast cancer. This book took fi­nal shape be­tween chemo­ther­apy ses­sions. In “No Bad Hair Days”, she chooses not to take the more likely path of strug­gle, pain and pathos in de­scrib­ing her jour­ney. Rather, the au­thor stands apart as a wit­ness to the en­tire ex­pe­ri­ence, and recre­ates that phase with a de­tached, light-hearted nar­ra­tive that in­trigues, fas­ci­nates, in­spires and ul­ti­mately, heals.

My pick from the col­lec­tion is “Shock­ing Pink”. Stark and un­in­hib­ited, the nar­ra­tive is on a roll, an out­pour­ing that shocks even as it charms.

San­gita P. Menon Mal­han.

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