Reviewed by Nilesh Mondal
Title: The Circle of Life and Other Tales
Author: Haimanti Dutta Ray
Publisher: Locksley Hall Publishing (LLP), 2018
Considering it is her debut book, the author writes The Circle of Life and Other Stories with a wild abandon and an almost childlike glee, which becomes both the boon and a bane for this collection. What you first notice in these stories are their characters; most of the characters are well fleshed-out, relatable and carry the general essence of being a Bengali in their subtle habits and mannerisms. The author uses her understanding of the Bengali culture to its fullest while drawing out her characters, giving them voices which are at times unique, at times a reverberation of how the community functions.
‘The Final Curtain’ talks about the famed theatre circuit of Kolkata and one man’s journey through life and later, death on the stage. Another story, ‘Mimesis’, features a man and woman who love each other but never really learn how to understand and navigate through the subtleties of their relationship, leading to a tragic, if not unpredictable, conclusion. The characters in both stories, although entirely different from each other in behaviour, hold the same pattern of being souls who live in the present but have their roots stuck somewhere firmly in the past, quite like the city in which these stories are set. Not only are the characters relatable but also the struggles they go through. Whether it’s the marital problems that the characters in ‘Mimesis’ try to deal with or the themes of mortality and loss in ‘The Final Curtain’, the grief and guilt that the characters struggle with remind readers of their own lives. In doing so, the stories become less of fiction and more of a slice from our everyday existence, fragile to a fault and fraught with problems, but with hope and empathy as their saving grace at the end of each day. Her description of the pousmela, the Bengali fair celebrating spring, or the artworks of Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, evoke a sense of deep nostalgia in every Bengali reader, at the same time bringing to the non-Bengali reader a taste of the culture.
However, the characters are only part of the larger stories, which unfortunately suffer repeatedly from other factors. These are largely bad pacing and the conclusions that neither befit the beginnings nor do justice to the erratic assembly of characters. ‘Wait Until Dark’, for example, starts off as a whodunit but eventually devolves to something that can hardly be taken seriously by the end. The endings of most stories are disappointing, building the narrative to a point where it can’t carry through its own momentum. The characters have similar voices, a problem that becomes all the more evident because the stories showcase a wide variety of people from various facets of life, and who are therefore, expected to speak differently.
Another significant problem this collection encounters is in its use of details. In some stories the details are forced upon us, with the writer feeding us information about things which in no way help the narrative advance. In trying to portray the city as a backdrop which actively interacts with and sometimes even drives forward the stories, the long soliloquies about history and philosophy sometimes become more of a distraction, taking away their subtleties and nuances, effectively undermining the fluid unfolding of the story. While the extra eye to details is commendable at some instances, in most cases it only serves to slow down the pace, making it increasingly hard to keep track of what really is happening in the story.
There are other problems too, like the abrupt change of tense in the middle of a story, but these could be neglected in favour of strong storytelling. There are grammatical errors throughout the narration which could have been rectified with effective proof-reading, in the absence of which, they stand out as sore spots.
This collection however largely falters in making a lasting impression on the reader’s mind, resulting in a host of promising characters being stranded in a narration that doesn’t do them proper justice, and thus leaving a lot of room open for further improvement. As a debut book, it shows potential, which would make those who loved this book excited about seeing a sequel and give those who weren’t impressed with it, another opportunity to witness the writer produce a more balanced narrative in her next book.