Reviewed by Kusum Chopra
Title: Ladders Against the Sky
Author: Murli Melwani
Publisher: Kaziranga Books (2017)
Price: INR 500
Ladders Against the Sky is a collection of 16 stories, written between 2011 and 2017, which were first published in literary journals and anthologies. One of the stories, “Water on a Hot Plate,” was included in The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, published by Kitaab. Two stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2012 and 2013.
Murli Melwani is a short story writer, a literary activist who runs two websites, and a critic, whose book, Themes in the Indian Short Story in English: A Historical and a Critical Study, tracks the growth of this genre from 1835 to 1980.
The short stories in the collection can be divided into two broad categories. About half the stories, set in India, reflect social concern, the conflict between tradition and modernity, science and superstition and the pressures on national unity. The other half, set in foreign countries, focuses on a unique Indian community, the Sindhis, whose culture – a blend of Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, and their language, written in the Arabic script with linguistic elements of Sanskrit and Persian – are in danger of gradually fading away.
The writer’s approach is determined by the subject of each story. Thus, “Water on a Hot Plate”, with Toronto as the background, a story of cultural displacement and change, captures the interaction of an Indian tourist and a restaurateur, a Chinese lady born in India. They are two enterprising expatriates who carry diminishing bits of home, as well as of the countries they have lived in, to their newest place of sojourn.
Similarly, in “A Bar Girl,” the lifestyles that Amar Badlani and Rak have chosen prevent them from stopping and evaluating their lives or asking where they are headed. Amar Badlani’s visit with Rak to her village brings home to him the fact that his estrangement from his family has its roots in his working life. His damage control efforts lead him to finance the nursing education of Rak on the one hand, and to make overtures to his kids and grandkids on the other.
“The Head of a Chicken,” a story that moves between Hong Kong and Taiwan, is the study of an expatriate who buries all scruples to reach the top; his employer, friends, family are mere adjuncts to his ruthless ambition.
“Writing a Fairy Tale,” set in Miami and Chile, is about a young businessman, Jimmy Ramani, with literary aspirations, and Carmen, the wife of a client of his. They decide to collaborate on writing a story; the story becomes a metaphor of two beautiful lives wasted in a wrong marriage and a wrongly chosen profession.
Stories like “Gift for the Goddess” and “The Divine Light,” set in Rajasthan, record horrifying occurrences that do not belong to the 21st century.
“The Village with Gandhi’s Statue,” placed in Andhra Pradesh, exposes the moral callousness of the rich. In “The Guerilla’s Daughter,” with the background of the early years of the insurgency in Nagaland, tell the romance between a Naga girl and an Indian Army officer. “Those Seasons of Contentment”, is about the heartbreak of loss and growing up.
In “Shiva’s Winds” and “Teesta Holiday,” set against the Rohtang Pass and the North Bengal Hills respectively, the indomitable human spirit clashes with the forces of nature.
There are also the gems that fall outside the two categories but that bring a smile to the face – from the irreverent “Waiting for Leander Paes, Sania Mirza or Somdev Varman” through “Sunday with Mary” to the “Bhorwani Marriage,” which relates the mini dramas that take place when a marriage is being arranged.
The themes that Murli Melwani has chosen are relevant and contemporary. The stories that highlight the social contradictions in modern Indian life make us wonder why a country that can put satellites in space cannot shake off the burdens of outmoded thinking.
The stories about the Sindhis bring out the contradiction between the outward conformity to the mores of the overseas societies where Sindhis live and their longing for their vanishing culture and language. The stories also contrast the attitude of the older generation with that of the younger one – the former cling to the past while Generation X wishes to embrace the modern world.
Like most collections of short stories, the stories have strengths and weaknesses. The choice of themes and the use of humour, satire, straightforward narration, characterization and locales to convey the writer’s vision are obvious strengths of the collection.
However, the author tends to go into minute details of the background, a la Frederick Forsyth, whether of a locale or a happening, and this weakens the stories at times. For example, some of the stories talk about how the 2008 economic collapse affected Hong Kong, the effect immigration regulations have on persons, the enmity between tobacco growers in Andhra Pradesh, as in “The Village with Gandhi’s Statute” and the life of migrant labourers in “Shiva’s Winds.” It’s not that the details are not interesting, but that the stories could do without too much of them.
I also found that the author’s treatment of the downtrodden compared with that of the influential lacks balance. But let me confess. As a post-Partition Sindhi, for me these stories evoked so much delightful nostalgia for a long gone past – the memories of eavesdropping on conversations of homecoming uncles and cousins, accidental overheard chatter, tales of wheeling dealing, adjusting to different environments, the second families abroad, the celebrations, the songs, looking, listening, absorbing – that I suddenly realized that this is what being Sindhi is all about!
Kusum Choppra did banking, environmentalism, handicraft revival, entrepreneurship and historical research, alongside adventurous decades in journalism, before her late-in-life literary debut. Her first novel, Beyond Diamond Rings, on post-Partition Sindhi women reached bookstores when she was 60.
An author with a difference, her acclaimed historical novel Mastani is widely accepted as a biography of Mastani, the second wife of Peshwa Bajirao I. Nirbhaya & Others Who Dared is about women who thought out-of-the-box and Silver Dreams is about the still-taboo subject of second innings for senior citizens. She writes columns for DNA and on her blog. She lives and writes in Ahmedabad, India. Reviews of her books can be read here: http://kusumchoppra.com/media.php