Reviewed by Pia Ghosh-Roy

 

Table Manners

Title: Table Manners
Author: Susmita Bhattacharya
Publisher: Dahlia Publishing
Year of Publication: 2018
No. of pages: 159
Buy

 

True to its title, the stories in Table Manners seem to be seated around a long dinner-table having a conversation over the course of an engrossing evening. With each story, I was invited into homes and lives that had their own unique rhythms. The stories wear different personalities, inhabit different parts of the world — India, Singapore, Italy and the UK — but sit beautifully in each other’s company and make for a meal to remember.

Many of the stories took me into the heart of traditional marriages and relationships, with their set dynamics, power imbalance, the dominant male and the ‘good wife’. Yet, within that, there are hidden moments, quietly captured and gently exposed, that reveal more. You will meet women, who while living the life that is expected of them — adjusting their hopes, and lowering their expectations — keep aside a bit of themselves that belong to no-one and answer to no-one. I found these private selves opening themselves up to me in these pages, where they share their concerns, their contemplations, and their inner chaos, where they show their bruises both visible and invisible.

In the first story, a wife nurses a childhood love for her male cousin, and is torn between this reckless and doomed emotion, and “The Right Thing To Do” by her staid marriage. It is told by the female house-help, whose thoughts are consumed by two things: her mistress’s irresponsible heart, and a neighbour, Mrs Dalal, who is regularly beaten by her husband and ‘turns up with her bruises at the most inconvenient of times’.

In one of my favourite stories in the collection, Li, a young woman, plans a quiet evening with a bowl of “Comfort Food”, but gives it up when she has to accompany her husband to a business dinner with a potential client – a potential male client, who subjects her to an evening of unwelcome attention and lecherous stares.

Advertisements

The Best Asian Short Stories 2017, edited by Monideepa Sahu, series editor Zafar Anjum, set the tone for Kitaab’s Best Asian series that includes literary and speculative fiction, travel writing and crime. Zafar Anjum shares with us his vision for this seminal book and for the series that he has envisioned. Monideepa talks about her experience as editor for TBASS 2017.

Monideepa Sahu
Monideepa Sahu, Editor, The Best Asian Short Stories 2017

Sucharita: Zafar, what was your vision for the series? Why did you feel the need to bring together short stories from across the continent?

Zafar: The whole idea behind Kitaab is to connect Asian writers with readers everywhere in the world. Coming from this context, I felt that we needed to collect the best contemporary Asian writing across themes in edited annual volumes. I had seen this kind of anthologies in the USA, but nobody was doing it in Asia, collecting Asian voices. That’s how the idea behind the Best Asian series took shape. The vision is to create a series of The Best Asian writing in fiction (literary and speculative), crime writing, and travel writing. Each volume is a mix of new and seasoned voices that makes it so exciting. Through the pages of these volumes, you get a glimpse of what the respective societies in Asia are going through. If there is enough support by readers, hopefully we will be able to sustain the series. That’s my hope.

 

(from left) Kitaab’s publisher and Series Editor Zafar Anjum. Mithran Somasundrum, Rohan Menteiro, Kaiyi Tan, Timothy Yam and Chris Mooney Singh

Kitaab, Singapore, has just published an anthology—The Best Asian Speculative Fiction 2018, which was launched at the Singapore Writers Festival on 9 November 2018.

The Best Asian Speculative FictionThis unique anthology is being seen by industry pundits as the most comprehensive speculative fiction collection from the continent. Comparisons are already being made with time honoured works like Dark Matter, the turn of the century anthology of speculative fiction from the African diaspora. However, as the editor of the volume Rajat Chaudhuri tells us, ‘We are just making a beginning with fresh-from-the-oven stories. Between stardust and dystopias, we are offering a sampling of flavours from the infinite breadth of the Asian imagination.’

According to series editor Zafar Anjum, ‘Richness of imagination is key to this collection; we plan to make it a series.’ Tales that take off on a tangent from the real have a special appeal to readers of all ages, he says.

Chaudhuri, who is a novelist and short story writer tells us how fulfilling it was for him to put together this volume of two and half dozen stories and some more, covering countries all the way from Kazakhstan to Korea and China to Indonesia. ‘The authors of this volume are either of Asian origin and Asian descent or have been residing in Asian countries for long. Twenty countries have been covered, sixteen (counting Hong Kong, SAR) of which are in Asia, the rest accounted for by diasporas and mixed ethnicities. Also, most of the stories have Asian settings and characters. But we are neither cartographers nor accountants,’ he adds, ‘though we love variety, we don’t want to mark each page of our book with flags and numbers.’

Best Asian fiction
(from left) Timothy Yam, Chris Mooney Singh, Zafar Anjum and Mithran Somasundrum

Quoting acclaimed novelist Amitav Ghosh, Chaudhuri says, “The great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities.” Explaining the selection process and some personal favourites, the editor says, ‘From the mountain load of submissions, I had begun by looking for stories that imagined possible worlds. Lopa Ghosh’s powerful story Crow depicting singularity ruling as a totalitarian dictatorship and Shweta Taneja’s darkly funny The Daughter that Bleeds about a post-apocalyptic India are from that tradition. We have of course included a ton of so-called genre stories from the stables of science fiction, fantasy and horror and then those with some of this and some of that, and things further still. Xu Xi’s engaging tale about a time-travelling ghost, Joseph F. Nacino’s spine-chilling story about AI on a singing asteroid, Eliza Victoria’s thought-provoking sci-fi Web, and Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s mesmerizing Slo-Glo are those that immediately come to mind. The spook-o-metre goes crazy as you enter the horror stable to read stories by Kiran Manral and Rohan Monteiro while Tunku Halim leads you into poetic darkness. Each story that got included here had something unique to offer while the focus on geographical diversity was also one of my considerations. It has been quite difficult for me to choose the winners.’

Book Review: Horizon Afar and Other Tamil Stories
by Jayanthi Sankar

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Horizon Afar

Title: Horizon Afar & other Tamil short stories
Author: Jayanthi Sankar
Translated by P. Muralidharan
Publisher: Kitaab, 2016
Pages: 230

Horizon Afar is a collection of twenty-one translated short stories from the Singapore-based Tamil writer, Jayanthi Sankar. Spanning the last two decades, the stories shuttle between life in Singapore and India, creating links between the two countries and drawing on the writer’s multicultural experiences and interactions in the country where she lives.

Often her stories centre on teenagers and young people. The title story is about a teenager who shuttles through a surrealistic experience to find his footing in junior college (high school in Singapore). The most interesting read was a darker story, Mother’s Words, which deals with a reformed convict who is ostracized by the world yet loved by the mother.

A Few Pages from Yuka Wong’s Diary depicts the changing mindset of a multicultural population and their ability to transcend hatred to discover a fascination for a country that had unscrupulous expansionist ambitions in the 1940’s Japan.  The story is told through the pages of a young girl’s diary and makes an interesting and effective use of the device.

Melissa’s Choices is about a young man’s discovery of the fickleness of a young girl’s choices. School Bag, Revelation and Rehearsal are stories about teenagers’ journeys of discoveries in a multicultural society. Seventy Rupees, set in the midst of an auto-rickshaw strike in India, is a glimpse of the apathy of middle class towards the plight of the poor.

The stories often circle around the tedium of modern day existence and focus on the darker aspects of life. The issues faced by workers ‘imported’ from small villages of Tamil Nadu are dealt with in a couple of stories. While Cycle focuses on a flesh trader located in Singapore preying on an innocent Tamil migrant woman, Migration deals with an Indian domestic helper’s inability to adjust in Singapore. There are stories about unwed mothers, a girl who rebels to adopt a trans-sexual lifestyle, university life, school life and marriages arranged within the Tamil community in Singapore.

Lucia wondered how long the rain had been pouring and, with some urgency, edged off the bed and slipped her rain jacket over her duster. The throbbing rain dangled a curtain of mist outside her open window – the skies heft with the twining bodies of clouds. Outside it was already light.  She worried about the rice fields that could have turned waterlogged and, by now, caking with mud. She floated barefoot across the narrow partitions of the bamboo walls, and the gaps of the hallway, the slat floor squeaking as she whisked by.

Her nephew, Jimwell, who’d arrived at Madarag the day before for a visit, lay quietly asleep in the next room. A mobile phone vibrated next to him but Lucia did not want to wake him. She wanted to ask him last night why he came but there were other things to worry about. Her farm wasn’t making much and she feared he would ask for something she might not be able to afford or give. That was something she’d ache about like some flame being stoked in her gut. She paused when she reached the house’s small receiving area, only to see her son gone. His sleeping mat was already folded on top of a wooden bench. The radio beside it droned with static. She looked out of the window and found Arvin, sunburned skin glistening with rain, crouching by the pond fields, drilling holes between the canal walls of the paddies to drain water out of them. He no longer looked like a boy of nineteen but a man with his muscles straining around his neck, his shoulders rounded and chiselled. Valleys and wide flat-lands glinted behind him; the trees that stood on the edges of the rice fields were draped in rain water.

‘Are the rice plants flooded?’ Lucia called out when she reached the ladder of the house whose elevated foundations, abetted by sturdy culms of bamboo, sank into squares of concrete. Her feet landed on the soil, soft and wet – the crunching of her bones drowned out by the squawks of hens and roosters and the squeals of pigs penned behind the sty. The roosters and fowls and the dog and her puppies scrambled to circle her, their heads aloft and alert for an early meal. She felt the cold air circling pockets of mist toward her skin; the weight of humidity that blanketed them the night before had simmered out.

‘I got up as soon as the rain started,’ her son called back, pressing his fingers against the mud that surrounded the young, short stalks of rice. The soles of his feet and the corner of his ankles were buried in the swirl of muck.

‘I’ll cook for you some breakfast. Come and eat when you’re done.’ She wasn’t sure if he’d heard her. She got busy with the drenched firewood by the small stove on a concrete cubicle they had placed a few steps away from their stilted house. She stacked the firewood on top of each other and lit it with a match that she thumbed out of the side pocket of her dress.

She noticed her nephew yawning by the ladder when she turned to chase the hens and the chicks that occupied the table as well as the benches below the elevated house. Thick bellies of smoke from the firewood looped and wrung about them the odour of wet muddied boots and rotten leather.

‘Ah, you are awake. How was your sleep?’ She wondered if this time she should ask why he came but fought the urge to do so. He’d probably tell her in no time.

‘My sleep was good, Iyay. Where’s Arvin?’

Today, when latitudes shift, cultures collide, and we are all travellers in one form or another, in ways perhaps unprecedented, these stories must be told.
              — Dr Debotri Dhar, editor TBASS 2018

The Best Asian Short Stories

Putting together an anthology of short stories is not easy. Reading across a continent and picking from among the best of its writers and their stories is a daunting endeavour. TBASS 2018 is the fruit of this undertaking — 24 writers, 13 countries — led by Dr Debotri Dhar, Editor, TBASS 2018 and Zafar Anjum, Series editor.

‘The winners of TBASS 2018 are Rakhshanda Jalil (India), Aditi Mehrotra (India), and Martin Bradley (Malaysia; originally UK),’ said Dr. Debotri Dhar. ‘I also loved the translation of Japanese writer Mogami Ippei by Avery Udagawa (Thailand; originally USA), and there were many other excellent entries, from more than 13 countries.

‘While Rakhshanda Jalil is a seasoned writer known to many in South Asia, Aditi Mehrotra is an aspiring Indian writer whose story delightfully juxtaposed textual passages and news clippings on women’s empowerment with everyday life vignettes of domesticity from small-town India. Martin Bradley’s story highlighted the intersecting themes of travel, historical memory, and communication across differences. Today, when latitudes shift, cultures collide, and we are all travellers in one form or another, in ways perhaps unprecedented, these stories must be told.’

‘The response to TBASS 2017 has been tremendous. That really encouraged us to continue the series and redouble our efforts,’ said Zafar Anjum, Series Editor of TBASS and founder of Kitaab. ‘TBASS tries to represent the best of Asian voices, and we are specially keen to provide a literary platform to emerging, new voices from the region.  The sheer writing talent that we have gathered in this volume is a testament to Asia’s creative fecundity.’

Winners: 

  1. Rakhshanda Jalil (India) Story title: ‘Diamonds are Forever’
  2. Aditi Mehrotra (India) Story title: ‘Don’t Ask! Poocho mat!’ aditi.mehrotra@hotmail.com
  3. Martin Bradley (Malaysia; originally UK) Story title: ‘Bougainvillea’ martinabradley@gmail.com
  4. Also, Avery Udagawa (Thailand; originally US) Story title: ‘Festival Time.’ Translation of Japanese writer Mogami Ippei. She is working on the translation rights. averyudagawa@yahoo.com

The old city rises out of the mist on the Buriganga River on a cold wintry morning. Slowly, it gropes its way into the many byzantine alleys that are proverbial for their lost tales and histories. After a long, chequered life, these alleys still contain old houses with frieze cornices, fretted eaves and worn out wooden doors and casements; mosques with egg-shaped domes and towering minarets; centuries-old red forts; kattras and landing ghats — all witness to many generations of local and foreign rule.

The alleys of this part of the city are packed with people and shabby tea stalls, groceries and trinket-selling vendors. Houses with one or two feet frontage scrabble for the sun all year round. Throughout the winter their residents come out on the street to gather in the narrow, twisted alleys, to squat by small fires. Children hopscotch all day and chase after stray dogs that are periodically inoculated by dog catchers.

Today is such a dog inoculation day. A small group of dog catchers gathers at the intersection of Dhakeshwari Temple Road. A faded blue jeep waits for them. They carry odd instruments: three hand nets with wooden handles and large hoops; a long pincer that closes on hinges made of iron clamps; and an obsolete rifle equipped with darts to tranquilize dogs that bark too much or are identified as disease-stricken.

There are five dog catchers in the group, all wearing white caps with an embossed seal on the front panel that reads: Mosquito Repelling Department. Since the city is yet to diversify its Animal Control Department, which is supposed to respect differences between the canine and the mosquito world, these men will always masquerade as catchers of the entire animal kingdom, except their own species. The youngest one in the group is a little boy in grey sweater, who carries a frayed leather bag with many pockets. Each of them is full of syringes and vaccine-filled vials that will inoculate dogs against rabies. The little boy seems to be excited and hoots like an owl. The eldest, the leader of the group — a middle-aged man with a thick beard — hushes the boy, slapping the back of his head, ‘Save it for when you notice a dog, you little punk!’ The other dog catchers, of mixed ages, notice it and remain silent; they haven’t been able to rub the sleep from their eyes yet.

A small crowd, amused by the dog catchers’ instruments and the little boy’s hooting, swirls around them like bees. They swarm the group on all sides until the blue jeep driver revs up the engine and whooshes past them. But before it reaches the next bend that leads to the Lalbagh Fort, a three-and-a-half-centuries-old architecture, the driver stops the car. The little boy in grey sweater hoots cheerfully as he spots two half-asleep dogs lying curled up on the pavement.