by Anupa Mehta

st-pauliCaring for the soles of people is an art. Anna Bauer—she is of German origin but was born in Latvia—trained to be a foot technician when she moved to Hamburg. Initially, it was a way to pay the bills. Over the years, though, she has come to love what she does. To people who ask for her qualifications, she says, “It wasn’t a very extensive course—just seventy-two hours. But it’s a service that I enjoy. I like making feet look beautiful. I especially like working with old people as the skin on their feet is so fragile. One wrong move and you could burst a blood vessel. It is said that the soles of our feet are like little souls. They have sensing abilities. But, of course, you can’t walk barefoot in cities like Hamburg, where young people think nothing of smashing glass bottles on the pavement in fits of rage or when inebriated.”

Anna is prone to having longish monologues, mostly as she lives alone in her fifth floor apartment in an unholy by-lane in St. Pauli, which is actually a semi-stylish area of Hamburg filled with chic cafés, little boutiques selling handmade curios and shops selling expensive, well-packaged organic produce. She has lived alone in this building for nearly fourteen years. She was once married to a man who didn’t do any work but preferred to stay at home and raise their children.

With him she has a son, now grown up and who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder; and a daughter, who is in her teens, loves black lipstick and nail paint, and who has several piercings on her body. Her son Damon, twenty-two, is, as she puts it, ‘a difficult one’. When Anna separated from her husband, it was decided that the boy would live with her and the girl would live with her father till she turned fourteen, after which the parents would swap the kids.

Only, it didn’t quite turn out that way. The boy, Damon, is six years older than the girl. In his teens he was already in trouble with the school authorities and, badly enough for Anna, with the law. By eighteen he had done a stint in jail. Now he no longer wanted to live with his strict mother who couldn’t understand the speed at which his mind raced around in never-ending circles. And who tried her best to discipline him in much the way parents discipline errant toddlers.

Her girl, who had just turned fourteen, told her mother in no uncertain words that she did not want

to come and live with her as she was well–looked after by her over-indulgent father, who often took her to pubs where his cronies lavished attention on the pretty little girl. So Anna is left to live by herself in the rented apartment.

In her spare time, Anna paints. She also bakes, cooks, cleans and gardens. At night, she watches a bit of TV and plays computer poker. On Tuesday evenings, she sings in a chorus of six people who sing all kinds of songs, including gospel and, occasionally, an upbeat rock number. Her favourite musician is Eric Clapton. She sings ditties in a very low pitch, her head bent downwards such that her long greasy hair falls across her old guitar.

On alternate weekends, she takes the metro and makes her way to a special house for aging, handicapped people where she gives all the inhabitants a quick pedicure followed by a foot bath with sea salt and aroma oils. “People’s feet tell you things about their constitution. For instance, the leathery feel of some soles is a sign of internal dryness. As if they no longer enjoy the juice of life. Ingrown toe nails tell a story about stubbornness, and smelly feet are a reflection of the person’s disconnectedness from their surroundings, their deep fear of the world.”

On the weekends when she goes to the home, she earns about 200 euros for the day’s labour.

Fragments of RiversongWhen I read the stories in Fragments of Riversong, a collection of 12 short stories by Bangladeshi author Farah Ghuznavi, I was very happy to see lively descriptions of old properties and sprawling houses. Having grown up in two sprawling bungalows in my hometown, Ghatsila, in the state of Jharkhand in India, a description—or even a mere mention—of old bungalows fills me with a certain thrill. I begin to connect with the setting and I have this feeling that the author is speaking/writing of something that I have known and experienced. Reading Fragments of Riversong was a bonus, for there were not only old properties and sprawling bungalows, but also a lot of village life in its stories. A part of my family still lives in our ancestral village that I visit regularly, and, at present, I am working in a rural setting. The stories in Fragments of Riversong were more familiar than I had expected them to be. Also, another remarkable thing I noticed in these stories were children. There are children—young girls, young boys—in nearly all the stories. Most stories are either about children or have—despite the third person narrative—a child guiding the reader through the narrative.

In “Escaping the Mirror”, her parents’ big house becomes a sort of a jail for seven-year-old Dia as she tries to escape the advances made by their driver, Minhas. The feeling of frustration of the little child upon realising that her parents trust that abusive man more than they trust their own daughter has been brought out in harrowing detail.

by Amaruvi Devanathan

LossandLawsThe 17 stories that the book has demonstrate that Jayanthi Sankar is easily one of the best writers of Singapore.

The book ‘Loss and Laws’ (Kitaab, 2015) is an English translation of bilingual writer Jayanthi Sankar’s Tamil short stories.  I had the opportunity to participate in its launch in Singapore Writer’s Festival this year.

‘Loss and Laws’ – The law, however democratically it would have been framed, if it has lost its human touch and therefore does not value human dignity and has to be imposed just because it is in the statute book, is nothing  short of draconian diktat. The story flows so mellifluously that we get to travel along with the protagonist and begin to feel the pressures of a domestic help’s day. The way the story ends reflects the stark reality and comes as a rude jolt, making you get up from your easy chair and look angrily at the society, truth, laws and the sense of utter helplessness against the three forces.

‘The Smuggler’ is a subtle depiction of human helplessness and the acknowledgement of the same. In a fast paced Singapore when the day ends even before it begins and where people forget to breathe in the rush to carry on with their daily business of life in the MRT, the interaction of a tattered Chinese gentleman with the passengers of the train is not given the seriousness it deserves. When the conversation that the gentlemen has with each passenger is not known to us, there is one soul who understands that. The twist is, the protagonist doesn’t even talk to that one person who finally understands the situation and reacts suitably. The question  ‘what did the Chinese gentlemen speak?’ is left to the reader, in a classic short story style. This story ensures that the reader participates in the evolution of the story and makes the reader an author as well. A story is defined by what is left unsaid. This is one such, a classic, I would say.

By Elen Turner

city-of-spies15jan15_03-1City of Spies: A Novel, by Sorayya Khan. New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2015.

I have been a fan of Pakistani-American Sorayya Khan’s fiction since I read her first novel, Noor (2006), which is about the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence. Her second novel, Five Queens Road (2009) shifted the action to Lahore, while her latest ‘novel’, City of Spies, is set in Islamabad.

I write ‘novel’ because I was not convinced by the term. While Pakistani women’s writing has a small but strong tradition of the fictionalised memoir—Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India, Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days—Sorayya Khan’s City of Spies does not claim to be a memoir or based on the author’s experiences, and this, I believe, is its biggest flaw. The book is told from the point of view of Aliya, a smart, sensitive and headstrong young girl trying to negotiate the complexities not only of growing up in a politically difficult and religiously repressive place, but also with having a foreign, white mother. Aliya feels Pakistani, but knows she is different. She attends the local American school, alongside the children of diplomats and spies (which were often one and the same), but recognises that she is only there by the grace of her scholarship and well-connected parents.

by Vasika Udurawane

Flash Fiction International:
Very Short Stories from Around the World 

Flash Fiction International pbk mech.inddJames Thomas (Editor)Robert Shapard (Editor)Christopher Merrill (Editor)

W W Norton & Company (Paperback)

April 2015 (288 pp)

The joy of reading an anthology is that one never knows what to expect. I certainly did not know what to expect when I received a copy of Flash Fiction International, but I ended up enjoying every minute of it.

The book has stories by eighty-six great writers from around the world, one story per writer. I had no clue what flash fiction was at first. However when I read through this wonderful selection of stories and authors I began to appreciate the beauty of the short story in what I take to be its purest and most stripped-to-basics form. Plenty of praise goes out to the editing team for making this selection.

For a start, the title of the book is strong and direct, as are the individual story captions.

by Anu Kumar

Admittedly, The Patna Manual of Style is hard to describe, even harder to like. But it is easy to love–travel through its pages and you will see Delhi as it was a decade ago, with its mentions of what the North Campus looked like and perhaps still does, how the winter sunlight slinks gently into an apartment, how you can catch a glimpse of the Qutb Minar from a South Delhi barsati, the traffic around Sarai Kale Khan, the atmosphere around Connaught Circus, and you will automatically fall in step with Hriday Thakur, the aspiring writer from Patna who has loved and not lost, and somehow made a life for himself in Delhi, says Anu Kumar

PatnaThough Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Patna Manual of Style (Aleph Book Company, 2015) includes the word “stories” in its title, it has to be read like a novel, with the stories following one after another. And while these stories are not arranged chronologically, and even the narrative voices vary, it is only when one reads the final story that there is some sense of completion–almost. A novel, after all, should never be complete; its incompleteness must linger with the reader.

Hriday Thakur appears in several of these stories. Read in some order, he has just lost his job, and some time before this he has lost the girl he loved. He even loses his mentor but at the end he does find happiness of a sort, with a job and married to a woman he loves. In Chowdhury’s novel, Day Scholar, which preceded this, Hriday is the wide-eyed and impressionable young university student from Patna, in-part bewildered and blissful–whether it is because of the reckless violence his landlord Zoravar Singh Shokeen is capable of, or due to Hriday’s own obsession with a young girl. But in these stories–though there is a certain writerly detachment about him, given his own ambitions to be a writer–he is more confident, worldly-wise and aware of his own attractiveness to women.