By Rajat Chaudhuri
Short stories? Who writes short stories these days? Aren’t we reminded time and again that publishers are no more interested in this form? But then, isn’t the novel too going to give up its ghost in a couple of hours as grey haired Cassandras predict with the regularity of automatons? Aren’t we advised that narrative nonfiction and its close cousin the diary or even the memoir, is the go-to form for the author who doesn’t want to be put on an artificial respirator? And just when this cumulonimbus of bad news bears down upon you, the fiction author (or the reviewer) you chance upon a book which simply says the “genre” is in safe hands and that this oldest of storytelling arts still has a lot to offer.
The Girl Who Ran Away in a Washing Machine and Other Stories is a collection of stories by Anu Kumar, published by Kitaab. The stories in this slim volume travel the distance from tony upper class neighbourhoods of Singapore to back of beyond villages of India, from futuristic urban settings with robot newsreaders to the ruins of the Indus Valley civilisation, taking the reader on a journey of discoveries that she will cherish for long. But what is definitely the strength of this book is the range of subjects and themes in which Kumar engages, without overburdening her audience.
Here you will find a wonderful story of love lost and found, a magical adventure with a ghost among the ruins of an ancient civilisation, a couple of tales where you chance upon men with weird eyebrows, a sprinkling of magic everywhere, a dash of the absurd sometimes and a wink and a nod towards science fiction. Elsewhere social evils like dowry, corruption, religious intolerance or the crisis of farmer suicides are spun into the narrative with an expert hand, imbuing those tales with a sense of urgency, without being stilted or preachy.
In the eponymous story set in rural Punjab, we meet Neha, newly married to Manjit, finding solace and a hiding place from her in-laws inside the symbolic space of a washing machine that was part of her dowry. “Washing Machine” and indeed a few other stories have an alluring quality that gives the reader the sense of drifting on a calm current as she gets engrossed by the storytelling. Delectable prose coupled with a narrative that slowly circles inwards, curling towards the beating heart of the plot, perhaps imparts this quality to Kumar’s stories. But this is not to say that there are no surprises here, no spindrift or maelstrom, no intrusions of the fantastic or the absurd. In fact, surprises are aplenty and some of these stories wear the edginess on their sleeves.
“Summer in the City” is such a story that launches out like climate fiction, where the natural environment has been badly affected:
“The cloud cover, for its part, had thickened even more over the last few days. All colours had now merged to form a thick bluish-black blanket that looked the same, that pressed down unrelenting at all times, and it was now getting difficult to tell morning from night. The streetlights were switched on at all times, blinking their orange light, even as flecks of cloud broke off from the sky and floated down, leaving clumps like mud cakes on the road.”
And soon a woman disappears from the top of a ferris wheel while taking a ride. Kumar writes:
“On one of the cloudiest nights the city had ever seen, when the cloud cover appeared heavier than before and even the blinking lights at the very top of the skyscrapers had vanished, a lady disappeared from her special box seat in the Ferris wheel just when it had reached its highest point.”
Touching on themes of immortality, environmental damage, science and the improbable, this is an extraordinary tale and a favourite of this reviewer.
“Suspending the reader’s disbelief” as Will Self writes in his introduction to The Master and Margarita is one of the “darkest of the novelist’s arts” and there are two ways of practicing it, as he explains with examples from Aldous Huxley and Kafka. In the Washing Machine stories, the author shows us time and again – The Girl Who Ran Away in a Washing Machine, Summer in the City, The God that Disappeared – how this is accomplished, by whisking away her readers effortlessly from the real to the “unreal”.
One is the matter of fact way to go about it as we find at the beginning of Washing Machine:
“Five years after running away, Neha received the first letter from home. Elder sister-in-law wrote to say that peace had been finally made. Her brothers had dispatched a second washing machine to her in-laws in replacement to the one they had lost, the one she had run away in.” There is no hiccup here, no strain in the author’s voice as she slips into the realm of the improbable.
In “The God that Disappeared”, where a motorised Ganesh idol takes off from his pedestal to wander about town, finally appearing at a plastic surgeon’s chamber, she takes the gradual route to the fantastic, giving us a powerful story that blends social commentary with gentle humour. Only once, in the closing scene of what is otherwise a splendid story, “The Makeover”, does the technique seem to falter and the intrusion of the fantastic seems slightly out of joint.
There are a couple of tales here about love lost and found, passion and desire. Among these, “The Time Jonathan went Away” is beautifully crafted with splendid imagery and well-etched characters. One of the powers of this author (and this reviewer is familiar with a chunk of her fiction oeuvre) is her brilliant characterisation coupled with fine dialogue, which helps to conjure up vivid images in the reader’s mind. Reading this collection, we can feel that the author is at the height of her powers.
There are a few proofreading issues in the book, these should be taken care of in a later edition. But that aside, this is a compelling read which is sure to transport the reader to new countries of imagination. Keen-eyed, funny and human, the Washing Machine tales prove yet again that the short story genre is bursting with energy and the possibilities for it remain enormous.
The reviewer is a Charles Wallace, Korean Arts Council-InKo (Toji), Sangam House and Hawthornden Castle Fellow and the author of three works of fiction. http://www.rajatchaudhuri.net