The Writer’s Endurance Test
In Upamanyu Chatterjee’s stories, there’s a thin line that separates experiment from gimmick
FFrom the hazaar f **** d slang of English, August through six subsequent novels and a novella, linguistic playfulness has always been a central feature of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s style, enamouring many, putting others off. Every hue of his hallmark language-driven humour (from adolescent to acerbic to dark) is on vivid display through the 12 stories—written between 1985 and 2018—in this collection. But what is also foregrounded is his playful, experimental approach to form as he flits between fact, fiction and fairytale.
The titular story, written earliest and placed at the end of the book, is a straightforward example. As if looking at an event of national importance through the wrong end of a telescope, Chatterjee describes its passing through an individual who has more pressing matters on his mind. He zooms closer in ‘Girl’, which takes place not exactly in Aarushi Talwar’s bedroom, but in her classroom, exploring
the reactions of her friends and teachers. Though nobly intentioned, strangely for Chatterjee, ‘Girl’ seems almost moralistic and, at times, reads like a mashup of investigative reports and opinion pieces.
Chatterjee is on stronger ground in stories when fact is not so ponderously pounded into fiction. ‘Othello Sucks’, for example, describes itself as ‘at some moments a piece of non-fiction, at others a radio play and yet others a comic strip in prose’; its take on a privileged family’s irreverent engagement with the famous drama is an entertaining romp through race and literature. The family crops up again in ‘Can’t Take This S**t Anymore’, in which Chatterjee draws a contrast between their cerebral world and ‘existence circumscribed…by the s**t of others’ of a family of manual scavengers. The story has its heartbreaking moments—Chatterjee has honed his sometimes puerile love of the scatological into something less gratuitous here—but balancing the parallel narratives isn’t easy and, occasionally, the prose teeters into essay territory.
Historical facts and statistics sometimes seem clunky—as in ‘Three-sevenseven and the Blue Gay Gene’, via a character’s diary chronicling the backdrop of Section 377. Still, though not always seamless, Chatterjee’s experimentation with form is laudable. That he doesn’t need to play around so much is evident in ‘Foreigner’, a weird tale with a classic twist, capturing an interaction between Westernised Delhi elites and “India buggers”— ‘Europeans bitten by the India bug’—with virtuosity.
A couple of stories go further than ‘Othello Sucks’ in using literature as grist for realist or historical fiction. Some will find them charming; others gimmicky. And some stories, like the tender ‘Sparrows’, revive characters from his past novels, recreating the atmosphere of the earlier decades they were set in. Their enduring quality justifies the ‘Volume I’ on the cover, while Chatterjee’s varied approaches could attract new readers to his writing.
THE ASSASSINATION OF INDIRA GANDHI The Collected Stories (Volume I) by Upamanyu Chatterjee SPEAKING TIGER `699, 352 pages