KMadavane’s stories are unlike anything you’ve read in a long time. They recall the supernatural horror of Poe and Angela Carter, the revulsion that rises at the end of The Visitor from Roald Dahl’s Switch Bitch, the sickening sudden lurch towards death in RK Narayan’s The English Teacher, and the impossibility of escape in Somerset Maugham’s Appointment in Samarra. Originally written in French – the book flap says the author went to school at the Lycee Francais de Pondichery – and translated into English by Blake Smith, the seven stories in this slim volume, all somehow connected to the city of Banaras, Benares, Kashi, Varanasi, the eternal gateway to lives and worlds beyond, contemplate Fate, Death, the Inevitable.
The first story, A Paperboat on the Ganges, begins at the Lycee in Pondicherry detailing petty racism in the class room and playing field. For a rigidly realistic writer, this would have provided enough material. Madavane is interested in deeper truths and the reader becomes conscious of her increasing dread as she’s drawn into Fougerre’s story with its unbearable loss and descent into madness. Fougerre calls to mind the relentless suffering of Job in the Old Testament so it feels logical that the next story, Your Kingdom for a Lie, is about Raja Harishchandra, the legendary king, the plaything of Indra and warring bad tempered sages, who wouldn’t utter a lie though his honesty leaves him bereft of family and social standing, reduced at last to an outcaste washing bodies in the Ganga before burning them: