Friday, August 17, 2018

Premise: 'Recess' by Mohit Parik reviewed by Ajay Patri

Recess by Mohit Parikh
Reviewed by Ajay Patri

Manan, the protagonist of Recess, is an unwilling Peter Pan. He wants to be like any other boy on the verge of turning sixteen: tall and strong with a cracked voice and a face marred by facial hair. Instead, he grapples with a late onset of puberty that has left him in a child’s body while his friends are morphing into nearly-men.

The story follows Manan through a few hours of school life, from the initial excitement of discovering that puberty has, in fact, not passed him by to the crushing realisation of how far he has to go before he can compare himself physically to his friends. This realisation does not arrive in a eureka moment; like the puberty he fantasises about, it comes in spurts, from being ridiculed for sounding like a girl on the phone to being mothered by a kindly teacher in a way she would not have done with other boys his age. Manan is as good-natured about these slights as a teenager in his shoes can be, a facet of his personality that only makes a reader more sympathetic to his plight. For readers who grew up in the nineties, the story provides an additional jolt of nostalgia with its references to Windows screensavers, Chinese pens, and wrestling icons.

While Manan works perfectly well as a coming of age tale, and that is how I first approached it, a recent rereading exposed the commentary on masculinity that undergirds the story and makes it particularly timely for today’s world. Manan is a sensitive and sensible individual, an anti-thesis to the conventional norms of brutish masculinity paraded by the boys around him. As the story ends, one cannot help but hope he retains these qualities instead of sacrificing them at the altar of conformity when puberty finally embraces him.

Note: Recess is an excerpt from Mohit Parkih’s debut novel Manan. For readers who were charmed by the story, this reviewer would definitely recommend reading the book.

Reviewer Ajay Patri's 'Enrolment' appeared in Out of Print, March 2016 and his 'Shifting Lives' was one of the winning stories in the 2014 DNA-Out of Print Short Fiction Special.

Premise: 'Finger Buffet' by Rebecca Lloyd reviewed by Brinda S Narayan

Finger Buffet by Rebecca Lloyd
Reviewed by Brinda S Narayan

According to the author, Walter Mosley, ‘A good short story crosses the borders of our nations and our prejudices and our beliefs. A good short story asks a question that can’t be answered in simple terms. And even if we come up with some understanding, years later, while glancing out of a window, the story still has the potential to return, to alter right there in our mind and change everything.’ 

Rebecca’s Lloyd’s achingly beautiful story, Finger Buffet, evokes the dark forces that fracture the East End in London, creating rifts between the young and old, between the violent street gangs and its more peaceable inhabitants, between the foreigners and the ‘old-timers’. Its narrator Arthur Runel, increasingly disoriented inside a place that once operated by ‘rules’, starts clinging to the cacophony of birds he once despised. Any sound, however raucous or unmusical, that reminds him of the older times is welcome. After all, both he and Alice can no longer comprehend the destruction and mutilation that has started stalking their neighbourhood.

Arthur always expects the forces to get to them as well. He almost seems to invite a direct confrontation, to face them and maybe overpower them even. But it enters their household in a form that discomfits even the tough Arthur. After all, it’s Alice who sees a beaten-up form on the road, a body whose face is gashed, and whose hand no longer has fingers. Lloyd slips in Alice’s encounter with the dead boy like it’s just another everyday happening. To emphasize perhaps that this has become a neighbourhood where murders are now banal. On the surface, nothing seems to have changed, but of course, for the Runels, everything has shifted. Alice Runel’s memories of that traumatizing encounter start slipping into conversations, with more and more gory details emerging over time.

The narrator Arthur himself had a violent past, one that he deliberately misremembers. As his sharp wife, Alice, whose hold on reality seems stronger than Arthur’s, points out, Arthur was once the East End hard man, someone who bashed up a gentle piano player’s fingers with a mallet. As Lloyd dispassionately shows us, the violence in the neighbourhood is not new. It has merely changed form. And it will change again, when the Bangladeshi gangs start confronting the incoming Somalis. Maybe, it does seem to be getting worse, more frequent, more vicious or perhaps, it was always this bad, since the present always carries greater menace than the past.

While charting the forces that are changing the neighbourhood, Lloyd also sensitively portrays the subtle ways in which a long-married couple both shape and reshape each other. For instance, while Arthur prefers to dwell on a hallucinatory glorious past when ‘things were black and white,’ an undeceived Alice points out: ‘You make them sound glorious when they weren’t.’ But she also indulges her husband’s delusions, both about himself and others. He asks her to make him finger food for his meeting with the street boys, where he plans to show off his weight-lifting medals from his glory days and also teach them the ‘rules’. She cooks him the finger buffet though she already seems to intuit that the eventual meeting between the street boys and Arthur will not grant him the payoffs he expects.
In her afterword, the author Lloyd remarks that she draws her stories from real-life incidents. With Finger Buffet, one can see how Lloyd’s portrayal of the forces that produce street violence and the manner in which they can ripple into surrounding households is in some senses, a more truthful account of the world we inhabit, than mere newspaper reports. Through Lloyd’s finely-crafted, complex characters, we confront our own ambivalent and often hypocritical responses to such cultural rifts and ongoing frictions that mark many global cities.

Reviewer Brinda S. Narayan's story @ The Shanghai Tea House appeared in Out of Print June 2013.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Premise: 'Among the Hunters, by Shrilal Shukla, translated by Daisy Rockwell reviewed by Rebecca Lloyd

Among The Hunters by Shrilal Shukla, translated by Daisy Rockwell
Reviewed by Rebecca Llyod

On one level this story is romantically told, a forest is the setting and it is so beautifully described that the reader can visualise it very clearly from the magnificence of the gigantic trees to the way moonlight falls into and through them… even a sense of the silence of the forest is there somehow, in what is not written. The author writes: ‘It felt to us as though we were entering some land from which we’d been separated, along with our infancy, and our dreams, long before coming into this world of bitterness and reality.’ The story itself and the outcome shatters the peaceful images of forest life and the animals within it and reveals a great deal about the nature of people. Even when the hunters first enter the forest, the juxtaposition between their ugliness of manner and intent and the forest’s beauty is stark. The drama that is later enacted in the dense forest is fulsomely described by the author and the terrible culture rift between the characters dramatically revealed.

Reviewer Rebecca Lloyd's 'Finger Buffet' appeared in Out of Print December 2010.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Premise: 'The Itinerary of Grief' by Chika Unigwe reviewed by Vandana Devi

The Itinerary of Grief by Chika Unigwe
Reviewed by Vandana Devi

Chika Unigwe from Enugu, Nigeria currently stays in Atlanta, USA. She obtained an MA in English from the Catholic University of Leuven and then her PhD from the University of Leiden. 

In The Itinerary of Grief, Chika’s narrator takes a trip to India after the death of her husband. The story follows the narrator as she tries to escape the house she lived in with her husband, to another country altogether so as to not have to talk about her husband in past tense, and in the hushed manner their friends and family now speak about him in.

The story features a couple who seem out of the ordinary - they’re quite happy about the fact that it’s just the two of them, though everyone around them seems to think differently. The idea that no matter what, there is always a puzzle to solve on the front porch that will bring them both together is also quite romantic. This leaves us feeling all the more emotional when we think of the puzzle left on the porch that isn’t put together.

Like the 19th century novels where landscapes are important characters, Chika too writes a story where the landscape of Delhi plays a central character with her places and people. Delhi becomes the place where the narrator is able to remove herself from loneliness by engaging with the people as well as the places, and finally come to terms with her loss.

Reviewer Vandana Devi is an intern at Out of Print.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Premise: 'A Season of Premature Twilight' by Fehmida Zakeer reviewed by Neera Kashyap

Reviewed by Neera Kashyap

Early in her story, ‘A season of premature twilight’, Fehmida Zakeer sets an impersonal and ironic tone for the reader. With this, she deftly minimizes the impact of the serious issues involved in the narrative: an impoverished fatherless childhood with three other sisters; life in an orphanage; autocracy, fraudulence and sexual abuse in adolescence itself; public attention through a media that fluctuates between two extreme situations of vilification and fulsome praise. But the protagonist Zeenat is bright, very bright. This, too, is established early in the story.

Zakeer’s concession to emotion in the first part of the story is reflected in Zeenat’s observation of the rapidly deteriorating condition of the orphanage where she lives – ‘a gap-toothed roof that creaks and groans in the wind’, the floor mat a ‘green skin….a breeding ground for the insect world’, broken glass, still hanging in window panes, ‘covered with cardboard, torn out from our notebooks, fearing an invasion of snakes and scorpions’, ‘the roof, covered with ancient tiles, resting on a rotting wooden frame’.

This intelligent use of imagery to depict the protagonist’s own denudation of mind and soul culminates in a situation when a torrent of monsoon rain breaks into the building and forty girls are shifted into two storerooms. It is here that the writer prepares the reader for the crisis to come: “To the mosquitoes buzzing at night, our sleeping bodies might as well be one giant creature with several arms spread out over the floor. Not that it matters to them, they just want our blood.’ When the marauders do come, they come in the form of ‘four, no, five black cars, black and long, parked all around the building, like crows clustered around a carcass.’

It is this minimalist style that hooks the reader. When the writer can take the tragic turn of events in her stride, so can the reader. A fraudulent marriage of a girl from an impoverished family results in sexual abuse for a week not only by the ‘husband’ but by a ‘different husband each night’, in a resort in the backwaters overlooking a picture postcard view.

Then comes a delicious sardonic touch: Zeenat is dumped back home; her mother faints, then pleads with the school, and then with the child welfare committee. The media swings negative on this occasion, vilifying Zeenat and her family. Zeenat’s words are terrifyingly matter-of-fact: ‘I am famous…..Every day I learn more about myself from the newspapers and television’. Equally stunning is the media swing when Zeenat tops her exams in the entire district. At a press conference at the collectorate, the media demands justice for Zeenat. The cacophony is again reflected in Zeenat’s mind in images of barking dogs, raucous crows and wailing cuckoos. It is here at the story’s end that there could have been greater comic exaggeration, so far the story having been so evenly toned by the writer with its use of reflective imagery and impersonal observation.

One was reminded of a story, ‘The divine pregnancy in a twelve-year old woman,’ the 2018 Commonwealth short story prize-winner from Asia by Sagnik Datta. In this, God visits the villagers of a particular village in a dream, bestowing one woman among them with ‘His honour’. So a 12-year old orphan girl is believed to have the honour of carrying God’s child, the story building up through layers of possessiveness and anticipation to the climax of the child’s birth. There is, of course, a very sneakily alluded-to lover in the background. The child born, to great all-round shock is a girl, and the 12-year old girl’s end is described with such an exaggerated impunity that it becomes humorous: “Usha continued bleeding even after the baby was delivered. In fact, she bled so much that the blood soon flowed outside her room and down the steps into the courtyard. It would have reached the pond had we not started mopping it up; men with their lungis and shirts, women with their saris. But there seemed to be no end of it, and we wondered how her little body could have held so much blood. After an hour we were tired, and had to call for shovels to dig a moat.’


Reviewer Neera Kashyap's stories 'Supplication' appeared in Out of Print June 2017 and 'Dual Awakenings' in Out of Print June 2018.