Review: Chandrika Balan’s ’Arya and Other Stories’


Thoroughly enjoyable, and offering much food for thought, particularly to every Indian woman and man who are going, or have gone through any hiccups or interesting situations in inter-personal relationships, ‘Arya and Other Stories’ is a delightful collection of original and sometimes eccentric tales, with their heart in the right place, writes Monica Arora.

AryaChandrika Balan’s collection of a dozen stories on women, ’Arya and Other Stories’—originally written in Malayalam and translated by the author herself into English—is certainly not for the faint-hearted. They actually reminded me of that famous quote from British novelist Charlotte Brontë’s epic Jane Eyre—“I would always rather be happy than dignified.” The women she talks about are feisty, fearless, fantastical, and yet, feminine. Hailing from ‘God’s own country’—the picturesque state of Kerala in the coastal region of south India—Chandrika’s stories emanate a whiff of the soil and of the fresh jasmine flowers adorning every village belle’s tresses. The culture, lifestyle, socio-economic status in urban and rural parts of the state, food, education, religious propensities–all this and more enable the reader to paint a visual portrait of this charming state and of the protagonist’s life.

Paradox and irony are Chandrika’s key strengths in weaving these mesmerizing stories, and in most of them, she deploys them to the hilt. And the most endearing factor throughout the collection is the strength of her female protagonists who continue to haunt and intrigue much after one has turned the last page and devoured the book in its entirety. Whether it is the defiant ‘Arya,’ named after her much revered grandmother, who refuses to toe the line as the male members of her family expect her to, and her quest for love that takes her far away from home; or the young protagonist from ‘Devigramam’ who is grappling with explaining the significance of the female deity Devi and her impact on their lives to her city-bred, modern husband, the quiet dignity and strength of their characters shines through their adversities.

‘Bonsai,’ the fierce tale of betrayal and loss of faith in one’s idols, is heartbreaking in the climax, whilst both ‘The People’s Court’ and ‘The (Postmodern) Story of Jyoti Viswanath’ use sarcasm and humour to pointedly illustrate the dilemmas of a modern working woman. Savitri’s silent rage in ‘The Fifth One,’ and in ‘An Optical Illusion,’ the narrator’s sense of power once she is equipped with her special frame carved out of ‘the shell of a weird, anonymous sea creature that died somewhere in the bottomless pit of the seas,’ are bone-chilling yet subtle reminders of the power of women or their intrinsic shakti, ever taken for granted in this male-dominated, patriarchal, lopsided society.

‘The Story of a Poem’ and ‘Website’ are soaked in heart-wrenching poignancy and a complete sense of loss at life turning awry owing to circumstantial and sometimes unavoidable or accidental causes. The sense of emptiness narrated in the direct one-to-one communicating style with readers in ‘The Story of a Poem’ is actually akin to a dear friend narrating an anecdote that just happened the other day to an acquaintance, and proves to be really effective. And the verses of poetry, wherever they occur, beautifully take the story forward, thereby proving Chandrika Balan’s complete ease with both forms of writing, be it prose or poetry.

In ‘The Relevance of Graham Greene in the Life of a Bride,’ a woman’s refusal to accept her husband in the conjugal bed even after the rituals are long completed is brought to the fore, and how in the end she discovers that all efforts to reconnect with her past lover are a mere exercise in futility. ‘Sponsors, Please’ is a quirky and comical tale that mocks reality television shows which are all the rage in current times. And, ‘A Companion for the Twilight Hour’ raises the issue of dowry in Kerala society again in a very funny and effective manner.

Chandrika Balan’s tales are a joy to read, and their sharp and witty references and direct remarks can brighten even the most poignant of stories. For instance, in the story ‘The Fifth One,’ dealing with thoughts of suicide and self-destruction, Chandrika writes of Savitri, the main character of the story:

“It is quite unnecessary to ask why Savitri wants to commit suicide. Anybody is free to commit suicide in this democratic nation. One has to make sure that one dies though, otherwise one will end up in a prison cell. As you know, our country insists on perfection in all things. If you must have a reason for Savitri’s wish, first show me a woman who is not looking for a means to escape…”

Wit, sarcasm, humour – all enmeshed in one paragraph!

In fact, in her introductory note to the book, the author beautifully describes the twist in every tale or that crucial climax she imparts to every story in these words:

“James Joyce says that silence, exile and cunning are the three tools the writer can use for defence. I had been silent for 18 years and exile was not my way. After 18 years of silence, in 1993, I decided to adopt his third tool of ‘cunning’ and came back to the scene, camouflaging under the pen-name Chandramati. ‘Devigramam’ was the first story I wrote in that name and I told the reader directly,

Into your mind where everything has vanished the way the rainbow melts away at the kiss of the sun, across these sand grains washed and dried, let me come again jingling my silver anklets.”

Thoroughly enjoyable, and offering much food for thought, particularly to every Indian woman and man who are going, or have gone through any hiccups or interesting situations in inter-personal relationships, ‘Arya and Other Stories’ is a delightful collection of original and sometimes eccentric tales, with their heart in the right place.

Monica AroraMonica Arora is an observer – of people, places, events, movies – and is nit picky to a default, hence an editor. Besides, she loves to read, sip coffee and gossip. And is addicted to yoga and long walks.