Reviewed by Sheila Kumar
Title: A Faceless evening and other stories
Author: Gangadhar Gadgil
Translated from Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra
Publisher: Ratna Books
Price: Rs 299
Of the human condition…
Fourteen evocative short stories by the Marathi master
Gangadhar Gadgil carved a niche for himself in Marathi literature decades ago and is a known name to those who read translations but is yet unknown to scores of other readers. Ratna Books and translator Keerti Ramachandra have rectified that omission with this book – A Faceless Evening and Other Stories.
In this book, Gadgil runs the gamut of human emotions and the human condition. Life plays out in full intensity on these pages, each story a microcosm of people like us, people unlike us. A couple travelling in a train are locked in a bittersweet battle for emotional control. Ten years ago, she was a toy to him, now a shackle. On her part, hatred raises its hood, poised to strike, before pragmatism overcomes both of them. And so the journey continues, just as the deadlock between the two continues.
There is Bandu (a favourite character of the writer) is desirous of getting himself a new umbrella, but his luck with brollies has never been good. Plastic handles come off in his hand; old umbrellas shower rat droppings, dead roaches and such detritus on his unsuspecting head; umbrellas with wooden shafts just refuse to open, leading to unseemly struggles. Then he buys a stainless steel one that he can ill afford, but soon, one cloud tells another of his new acquisition and Bandu is given no opportunity to use the dratted umbrella.
There is a take that lays bare the politics of a joint family with all its attendant drama: the shrewish mother-in-law, the faintly sinister father-in-law, the victimised elder sister-in-law, the conniving younger sister-in-law and the narrator, a cheerful bahu of the house. Things reach a flashpoint but like all domestic crises, this one too blows over and the members of the family prepare to face another day and take things as they come.
In the title story, ‘A Faceless Evening’, the setting is Mumbai city, the time is that of the gloaming and the narrator takes a long walk, observing whatever appears before him even as he grapples with a dream of a surreal future where factories in the city produce perfect future citizens. The evening holds three-minute encounters with people and things, even a passing meeting with Death.
In a wry take on the ego, there is the story of Damu anna who wishes to be seen as a benefactor even as he is actually quite intimidated by Balasaheb; the latter might suffer a downturn or two in his job but his life seems infinitely superior to Damu anna’s. The theme here is righteous satisfaction and what man will do to get hold of that and retain it in his grasp.
Then there is the dying old woman wishful of making peace between her sons, of showing just how much the elder son with whom she lives means to her. It’s a poignant story of letting go.
In Gopal Padhye, we meet this collection’s most unsavoury individual, a man with an overweening desire to control, to wound, to oppress and feel superior. This being a man’s world, of course he gets away with it.
The final story is a poignant love story of a man lost in reverie about his sweet wife. We hear she’s pregnant at just about the time we realise that this too is a look-back, a wistful remembrance of things past.
Economist, novelist and critic Gangadhar Gadgil (1923-2008) was a master of life sketches, infusing each take with a mix of pragmatism and empathy. This then, is what a human life is all about and it seems familiar; even as we flinch away from the warts, we smile at the endearing bits. The writer plumbs the depths of emotions but he also casts a sympathetic eye on the compulsions that drive people. Women have, by and large, been given short shrift in this set of stories; the overall focus is on the inevitability of things that happen as they happen.
The translator stays close to the soul in these stories and her work is an accomplished one. The reader gets a clear sense of just how the tales would have read in the original Marathi – simple, direct, at times mildly scathing, at other times gentle, at all times very real.
Sheila Kumar is an independent writer and manuscript editor, as well as author of a collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin, Chronicles of a Clan (Rupa Publications), a romance No Strings Attached (Harper Collins), and co-author of the non-fiction work A Gluten-free Life (Harper Collins). She reviews books regularly for The Hindu newspaper’s ‘Literary Review’ as well as for the Sunday Herald.
Her webpage link is www.sheilakumar.in