By Manisha Lakhe
As with any book of short stories, one tends to open a story and allow the writer to steer you into worlds you have not experienced. Mitra Phukan’s A Full Night’s Thievery takes us to Assam, and gives us a glimpse into the lives of her characters filled with music. But when those worlds are described in ways where Indian words like aanchal, punkha walas, Krishnasura tree, aalna, deuta intrude upon the senses, then the story comes second. It’s all ambience. Only ambience.
The book blurb promises that “music is a hard taskmaster” and you want to experience that. The bleeding fingers, the pain of missing a beat in front of an audience, the ecstasy of hitting the right notes and the loneliness of the riyaaz, we want to feel it all. But the characters don’t seem to be real. They’re given to rants (“The Choice”) where a Rudra Veena player is attempting to tell himself why he’s giving away his instrument. And after a couple of pages you wish the damned instrument would break to make him stop whining. If you’ve started with that story (since it’s the first in the book), then it sounds the death knell to the book, doesn’t it?
But if you’re like me, you’ll seek out the title story which is about a thief. And when you have trampled through pointless descriptions of characters in the little town who have nothing to do with the plot of the story, you realise that you saw the end coming a mile away. And who uses words like “delicious bits” for breasts? It’s practically Victorian.
The stories are charming, if you are unfamiliar with Indian writing. But if you have read works of regional authors translated into English, or Indian writers writing in English, you will realise that this book suffers the same fate. The descriptions seem to be written for non-Indians. Take the coconut seller in the train. His method of chopping the tender coconuts or how he cuts them after the “sweet” water has been consumed for the delicious “cream” seems to be utterly needless because Indians know what a tender coconut is and how to consume it.
Ragas and gharanas and ustad-ji sounds like Indian exotica written for those who have never been to a baithak. Let’s assume you have never been to a musical baithak, and the descriptions of the singer and the sitar player and the tabla player are fascinating, you have to ask: where’s the story? And the answer is not happy at all: the tabla player chooses to play on instead of rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital, so you know that either the baby or the wife will be lost when he gets home. When the young man plays his sitar in front of a maestro, and the story is titled “Eklavya”, you know the master is going to betray the young man and smother his talent. You know that the thief, whose art has been described in four or more pages, is going to get caught when attempting the biggest heist.
Every story sets itself up for disaster from the beginning. It may be style of writing, but if all the stories are the same, you tend to fall asleep, getting entangled in railroads that wind around mountains, roads that loop past the protagonists’ home, keteki birds that chirp for the season… Yawn.
Short stories have come a long way and the high school English style descriptive prose here just seems to get in the way of the plots of the stories. Everything seems to be dated even though characters Skype with each other in one. The world of these tales just seems to be plodding along some ancient road. Alas, there are too many cobwebs to fight.
The reviewer is a writer and poet. She is the founder of Caferati Writers Forum. Her book ‘The Betelnut Killers’ was published in 2010. Currently, she teaches communication and creative writing at KC college, Mumbai and Harkishan Mehta Institute of Media, Research and Analysis, Mumbai.