Tender tales of harsh life: Review of Vineetha Mokkil’s ‘A Happy Place and Other Stories’

Dr. Usha Bande reviews Vineetha Mokkil’s A Happy Place and Other Stories (New Delhi: HarperCollins India, 2014. Pp. 202. Rs. 275)

A Happy PlaceTwo things about Vineetha Mokkil’s book under review attracted me at the outset: the title, A Happy Place and the cover design – a rich and pleasant mix of browns and yellows and grayish-blue. Both are evocative. The cover has a faint facsimile of a car on the move, the street is deserted and the high-rising buildings are upside down, may be reflecting the mood of the era or just symbolic of the life that is lived in them. The title A Happy Place exudes joie de vivre but then, the stories are about life and life does not offer happiness on a platter. Mokkil is a careful artist who would not diminish the value of her literary work by presenting self-improvement book-like facile solutions. The stories have plots and sub-plots, convincing characters and denouements that are twisted but not dismal.  Each story offers a kind of release and hope. And herein lies the success of the writer, a novice in the field, as she likes to call herself.

The sixteen stories contained in the book depict a bustling and brash contemporary India; it is Delhi-Gurgaon of the corporate houses where life is held in a precarious balance between work and parties, short holidays and the frantic search for relaxation. Rain, water logging and consequent traffic jams become symbols of clogged in life. It is a kaleidoscopic view of modern metropolitan existence with its usual ups and downs; irritants and reassures; the will to fight and an urge to flee. Here are couples trying to hold on to their rickety marriages; parents uneasy about their daughters’ views about marriage trying to convince them to settle down to the traditional rhythms of arranged marriage; a lonely mother anxiously searching for a tenant to fill her daughter’s place in her house and in her heart and the migrant poor trying to make a living amid the dazzling affluence.

Yes, it is a Gen-y world of hefty pay-packets, luxurious living, parties, drinking bouts and high-gear speed. Alongside, it is shaky with insecurity, insincerity, loneliness and tensions. Seven stories in the collection either start with a party or have parties as the base where things ‘happen’. At the end of the “birthday bash” organized in Topaz, Ravi slides into depression, drives recklessly and has a car crash, though he survives (‘A Touch of Winter’);  Sid’s parties are talk of the town, but after one such party there is a high drama of kidnapping, though Sonia, the narrator-protagonist escapes the bid ( ‘The Girl Next Door’); a father dreading being late for his daughter’s birthday party gets trapped in the Mall with jammed doors, though he spends the time happily sending mail to his students concerning the lesson on Marx (‘In Case of Fire’) ; a “boy-meet girl wrap-up party” opens the door of new love for Neel (‘Skin’); and at the wedding party thrown by Pablo and Nandita the narrator discovers Pablo’s real colors. One is left to wonder how it would be for Nandita in days to come; will she be writing the saddest poem about the “fractured night”? (‘The Perfect Poem’).

What is intriguing about Mokkil’s stories is that she recognizes the indispensability of the domestic workers in the present-day set-up and offers their point of view with sensitively and with deep empathy. Mrs. Mills in ‘A Happy Place’ unabashedly expresses her need of Asha, “Don’t run away even if you are frightened. You’re such a help. I don’t know how I’d get by without you” (p. 21). The story as such is hackneyed: a young maid, Mem Saheb’s absence, the advances of the Saheb, and her insecurity; but it is Asha’s pain that catches our attention – a girl from Maoist infested Chhattisgarh village, her family is wiped out by the Maoists and some are claimed by shock, others with illness; she comes to Delhi, gets a job at the Mills household and feels secure. Everything is shattered for her when a drunken Mr. Mills wants to take her to ‘a happy place’. For the moneyed Saheb the destination could be Paris or the Bahamas or Mauritius but for the poor there is nowhere to go after she leaves the Mills household. It is her motherly affection of Peter, the Mills’ little son, that is most endearing.

‘Orange County Blues’ is a long letter from Tashi to his beloved Ama. The contrast between the pristine beauty of Dharamshala in the Himalayas and the drabness of the room with “glass walls” where Tashi is living in the big mansion-type house in Gurgaon; the freedom of home and the servitude of the up-scale people is beautifully drawn. Tashi’s words, “I wish …I wish this place would crumble to dust and let me come back where the mountains loom and the breeze carries the hum of monks’ chants towards snow-capped peaks” (p. 107) have all the pining of nostalgia. ‘A Song for the President’ is a sweet story recounted from the point of view of a girl child from a poor home. The story ably shows the longing of the bedazzled child to grow roses like the ones in President’s garden and to live bathed in their fragrance. The ending is one of the best of all the stories. Some other lovely stories are: ‘A Quiet Day’, ‘Other Lives’ ‘USP’ and ‘After the Rain’. The weak links are: Nirvana, Baby, Baby.

Usually, a short story has one plot-line and runs along one idea which is developed in the course of the events. In Vineetha Mokkil’s narratives, however, some stories appear cleaved. They have two disparate halves and the author seems to make desperate efforts to join them at the end.  Consequently, the strength of a good story weakens. Let us take an example: ‘Red’ starts with a convincing portrayal of a burly Sikh with a strong army background, his inability to keep his promise to Wendy but suddenly the action shifts to Andaman Islands and his encounter with the tribals. Though the description of the Islands, the sea and the beach is graphic, the disjointed parts lessen the appeal of the story. What happens to Wendy; what is the significance of the tribals’ anger or fascination for red color; is it a recorded fact? These questions leave the ending dissatisfying. Not that we expect “and they lived happily ever after” type of a fairy-tale ending, but some hint towards denouement would be appropriate. Another example: the story ‘In Case of Fire’. When Gyan pastes the cartoon to his mail he could suddenly catch a glimpse of “Fire exit” in the Mall and that could give him an idea to escape, unless of course the author wants him to sacrifice his family for his teaching career, which cannot be the case seeing the author’s positive approach to life.

These are a few suggestions given frankly considering Mokkil’s potential in the field of creative writing and the possibility of more books in future. Her themes are new and the language is clipped, appropriate and evocative. Subtle sense of humor, sardonic comments on eccentric bosses and an amused view of life make the stories enjoyable. Vineetha Mokkil seems to have a special corner for nature; her descriptions of snow-clad Srinagar, the blissful quiet of Kufri, the joys of Dharamshala are excellent but she cannot dwell on them because her protagonists are denizens of the metropolis.

The editing is excellent. Despite my critical and close reading, I found only one spelling error pease for please on page 157. The book can stand out distinctly in international market. The struggle of a traditional society to come to terms with sudden changes has been drawn insightfully and with muted strokes. On the whole, A Happy Place is an interesting read.

Dr. Usha Bande is an Indian writer and critic. She writes in Marathi, Hindi and English and translates short stories from Marathi into Hindi. She has several research papers and more than a dozen books to her credit including Writing Resistance: A Comparative Study of Women Novelists.

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