By Rajat Chaudhuri
Short stories? Who writes short stories these days? Aren’t we reminded time and again that publishers are no more interested in this form? But then, isn’t the novel too going to give up its ghost in a couple of hours as grey haired Cassandras predict with the regularity of automatons? Aren’t we advised that narrative nonfiction and its close cousin the diary or even the memoir, is the go-to form for the author who doesn’t want to be put on an artificial respirator? And just when this cumulonimbus of bad news bears down upon you, the fiction author (or the reviewer) you chance upon a book which simply says the “genre” is in safe hands and that this oldest of storytelling arts still has a lot to offer.
The Girl Who Ran Away in a Washing Machine and Other Stories is a collection of stories by Anu Kumar, published by Kitaab. The stories in this slim volume travel the distance from tony upper class neighbourhoods of Singapore to back of beyond villages of India, from futuristic urban settings with robot newsreaders to the ruins of the Indus Valley civilisation, taking the reader on a journey of discoveries that she will cherish for long. But what is definitely the strength of this book is the range of subjects and themes in which Kumar engages, without overburdening her audience.
Here you will find a wonderful story of love lost and found, a magical adventure with a ghost among the ruins of an ancient civilisation, a couple of tales where you chance upon men with weird eyebrows, a sprinkling of magic everywhere, a dash of the absurd sometimes and a wink and a nod towards science fiction. Elsewhere social evils like dowry, corruption, religious intolerance or the crisis of farmer suicides are spun into the narrative with an expert hand, imbuing those tales with a sense of urgency, without being stilted or preachy.
In the eponymous story set in rural Punjab, we meet Neha, newly married to Manjit, finding solace and a hiding place from her in-laws inside the symbolic space of a washing machine that was part of her dowry. “Washing Machine” and indeed a few other stories have an alluring quality that gives the reader the sense of drifting on a calm current as she gets engrossed by the storytelling. Delectable prose coupled with a narrative that slowly circles inwards, curling towards the beating heart of the plot, perhaps imparts this quality to Kumar’s stories. But this is not to say that there are no surprises here, no spindrift or maelstrom, no intrusions of the fantastic or the absurd. In fact, surprises are aplenty and some of these stories wear the edginess on their sleeves.