By RK Biswas
In a world where writers seem to increasingly expend more energy screaming for attention, Monideepa Sahu comes across as a breath of fresh air. This also means that readers can miss her altogether, and in the process deprive themselves of fiction that is both sensitive and well rounded, satisfying as well as just a bit out of reach, providing more food for thought.
Going Home in the Rain and Other Stories is a book that can easily fit into a ladies bag or the side pocket of a backpack. You could read it on a train, at an airport during that pause between journey and destination, and find yourself carrying the stories along after the book is spent. The thing about this collection is that the stories themselves are about journeys.
Just as a stalk holds together its bunch of grapes, and the stem of a pinnate leaf its double row of leaflets, the idea of journeys runs like a spine through this book of fourteen stories. And the journeys are not necessarily from one physical place to another. They are also from one inner point, a state of mind, into another.
In the first story “A Royal Tour”, a mother and her adolescent son take a trip down memory lane in Mysore, before “he leaves home to return as an occasional visitor”. The story is written in the first person and the narrator’s son is also called Siddhartha, like the author’s own son in real life, giving the impression that the story is autobiographical. However, the story, begun at the deeply personal level moves to the macro, connecting in an intimate way with its readers, many of whom would have similarly aged children and/or are on the verge of the empty nest syndrome.
“Road Kill” takes us to a little monkey watching in horror as his homeland of trees, shrubs, flowers and fruits, other animals and birds comes crashing down. The casualty is even more heart breaking as the monkey “braves the crowd to scurry across the manicured lawn”, because the reader realises the futility of his journey, but the monkey is too innocent to know it.
“Hoshi’s Bombay” takes the reader into the heart of a middle class Parsi locality during the early 1990s, in the aftermath of Babri Masjid, and bang into the midst of Hoshi’s drawing room with its ceiling-high piles of old newspapers. But the newspaper collection is no ordinary eccentricity. It is a tradition begun as a tribute to a lost friend. Nevertheless, Hoshi’s and Dina’s world is one of happy domesticity. And then a day arrives when their world splinters, dismantling the newspaper pillars in their drawing room. But Hoshi refuses to let anything get in the way of his family’s happiness. He decides to give them a treat – a trip to Juhu beach, where “the sea throws tiny pink shellfish at his feet”. Hoshi soon feels as helpless as the little creatures — a helplessness that threatens to engulf him on the return journey home. Once again his spirit prevails, and Hoshi succeeds in clearing the barriers both on the road and within himself.
In “Monsoon”, Sahu presents a cameo set at a bus stop. The narrator is a working woman who stays as a paying guest with a Parsi lady. She waits at the bus stop on a wet morning, and muses about her fellow commuter, a thin man, a stranger, waiting alongside, “clutching his umbrella”. Her imaginings are interrupted by the arrival of the bus, and once that journey ends, a small interaction takes place between the two.
The Auto, India’s infamous three-wheeler, takes centre stage in Sahu’s titular story “Going Home in the Rain.” The protagonist here is the woman we met in the previous story. She gets into an auto driven by a maniacal driver, in her bid to escape the rain and reach home safe and sound. Mumbai’s rains are famous for turning streets into canals and housing societies into islands. But autos are the quick frogs of Mumbai’s roadways, hopping onwards with alacrity where buses fail. In the story our girl has little choice at Andheri station, and ends up taking the madcap ride with a Hindi-movie crazy “namoona, bizarre museum specimen” of an auto driver. We take the leap of faith with her, and share her terror of the sudden detour, her flashbacks of her crime-crazy colleague’s anecdotes and news stories. And, Sahu’s prose chases us down through the by-lanes and alley ways at the end of which hot samosas await.
We return to the bus stop in the next story, and to Mrs. Britto’s paying guest, the woman whose name we do not know, although we know her by now, as well as the names of her room-mate and closest office colleagues. We meet the thin man and his tap-tapping umbrella again. But something occurs and changes an everyday morning at the bus stop. Our heroine and the thin man find themselves involved in the incident. Late for work, they decide to share a taxi, where she finally gets to have a real conversation with him. But just as the reader is convinced of a romantic conclusion, his cell phone rings, she sees Mrs Britto out of her place, hurrying down a lane, and the man sprints away to deliver his package, and she finds herself spying on him. And finally, escaping from being discovered by a whisker and managing to reach her office on time too, agog with a story from her side for her colleagues.
In “Mother”, Sahu lets us into the world of a pregnant woman, her expanding body, her shrinking world, her solicitous husband, the subsequent delivery of a healthy baby, before the world turns dark and sinister.
With “Breakfast”, Sahu sketches a deft picture of a mother-daughter relationship. The breakfast is healthy with oatmeal, a soft boiled egg and an apple. But what does the mother know about her daughter’s real appetite?
“Dhatura”, one of the longer stories in the collection submerges the reader into an entirely different world, one that even Indian mythology has chosen to gloss over. In Dhatura, Sahu introduces us to a Soorpanakha that the Ramayana refused to acknowledge. The story moves with the grace of a surreal dream, in which Soorpanakha and the monkey general she has saved from dying, learn truths about each other that they never knew could be possible. They forge ties that humans never believed could be forged. Dhatura provides a style and narrative break in the book. Not only because it deals with a theme far removed from today’s world, but also because of the subtle shift in Sahu’s prose style. Here she creates a dreamscape-like reality, intense in its emotional quotients, disturbing in the truths it throws up. A powerful reimagining of one of Ramayana’s most misrepresented characters.
“Flowers and Paper Boats” follows the travails of a US-bound techie and MBA aspirant. Written in the first person, the story is a kind of coming-of-age saga, being the longest story in the book. But in the flourish that I have come to recognise as Sahu’s signature, there is a quirky aspect or motif running through her narrative, in this case a crow. And, an ending that does not do the math according to conventional ideas of mathematics so to speak.
In “On the Spot”, an old man revisits with his wife, the place in which he had proposed to her. However this is no syrupy tale of enduring romance. The story spreads before us like a garden-scape crafted out in detail in water colour, where light is captured in all its brightness, and shadows turned into faint smudges. There is of course a keening sorrow skulking around the couple’s rendezvous, but at the very last corner of the story it is love – that final light – that dispels errant clouds.
“Hot Chillies” is a story of bereavement. A sister has passed away. A brother has come home from England to pay his respects. And the third sibling, a sister who remains, tries to bring back a semblance of the home of their childhood. Except that bereavement takes on many meanings in this sensitively portrayed story.
With “Pishi’s Room” Sahu sends us off to a cloistered by-lane of old Kolkata. A family has come visiting from Delhi, with a trip to an old aunt’s place planned as part of their itinerary. The teenaged daughter is not too eager, but having no choice resigns herself to being pawed at by a pair of babies and made to sing to a group of grown-ups. She would rather spend time with her older cousin brother with whose family they are staying. The girl ends up surprising herself when she crawls under the high bed of the old aunt, which as it runs out is Pishi’s room during the day. And in the process, she learns new things about a hunched old woman, her Pishi, and rediscovers her baby second cousins.
“The Tainted Canvas”, the last story in the collection, shifts us to India’s eastern coast, to a village near Lord Jagganath’s Temple in Puri. The protagonist Gopal is a respected artist, and a principled and pious man. Students vie to be his disciples. His peers look up to him. But corruption is a serpent with elongated fangs, and not above spitting its poison on someone like Gopal. The narrative follows his journey as a man passionate about his art and its purity to one in pursuit of material gain. The change is not visible to his disciples. But his readers can see it, as if Gopal himself is mocking the wicked world outside the pages of the book in which his story is written.
As the book draws to a close, one is drawn back to the cover, with its dark blue and green tones of a rainy evening and an auto speeding away. At the bottom is a one-line blurb by Shashi Deshpande, where she calls Monideepa Sahu: “a classic story teller”. And why not? The stories in this slim volume offer more than the weight of their words, making it impossible not to agree. Sahu has a knack for presenting startlingly clear cameos and portraitures through her prose. Her stories move quickly yet never fail to capture the details. She depicts nature with the bell-like clarity of a koel’s song. The journeys she takes her readers on, from Mysore to Bangalore to Mumbai to Chicago to Kolkata to Puri cover a gamut of emotions. Truth and deception often change places in her stories. A predictable word or two turn mysterious… However, I do have a grouse. Going Home in the Rain and Other Stories ended too quickly for me.
RK Biswas is the author of a novel – Culling Mynahs and Crows published by Lifi Publications, New Delhi, and a short story collection – Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women published by Authorspress, India. Her third book Immoderate Men is forthcoming in mid-2016 from Speaking Tiger Books, India. Her short fiction and poetry have been published worldwide. Notably in Asia Literary Review (Hong Kong), Matter Press Journal of Compressed Art (USA), Per Contra (USA), Markings (Scotland),Flash: The International Short-Short Story magazine (UK), Mascara Literary Review (Australia), Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), Kritya (India), South (UK), Pratilipi (India), Eclectica (USA), Nth Position (UK), Crannog (Ireland) The Little Magazine – India, Going Down Swinging (Australia) and Etchings (Australia), Muse India among others. She won second prize in the India Currents Katha Literary Fiction Prize for her story ‘It Comes from Uranus.” Her Novel Culling Mynahs and Crows was listed as one of the 20 most popular books published in 2014 by The Readers’ Club, Delhi. Her poem “Cleavage” was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2006 and also was a finalist in the Aesthetica Contest in 2010. Her story “Ahalya’s Valhalla” was among Story South’s Notable stories of the net in 2007. Her poem “Bones” was a Pushcart Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Contest. She blogs at http://biswasrk.wordpress.com .