Of late I have fallen for the charms of the short story as a form of fiction, one that requires a more precise control over the craft than the novel. So when I got a copy of Rheea Mukherjee’s ‘Transit for Beginners’ in my hands I dug into it with more than a cursory interest.
I started reading the stories in the sequence in which they appear and never did I feel like cheating and skipping a story to jump into the next. In other words, the stories are very readable. The other notable aspect of the stories is that there was not a single character who did not feel real and not come across as a character you have met or likely to meet in real life. And then these were stories the author seemed to be interested in telling out of a genuine empathy with the characters and the situations they were in. The stories did not feel like they were fitted into templates learnt in creative writing courses. There was no attempt to appear ‘literary’. (Like say Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ appears ‘literary’.)
Most of these stories are set in the urban milieu, located in an Indian city that could be Bengaluru; though there are a couple of stories based in the USA as well. Most of them deal with characters from the social upper crust, many of them with some NRI connection. Their worlds are filled with mini pizzas, iced mochas, vanilla latte, whisky sours yoga retreat in Bali and boho earrings from boutiques in Pondicherry. But there are a few stories set outside this zone as well, one about the odd-job boy in a seedy hotel, one about a middle class girl in love with a boy from Chennai, one about a schoolgirl with a disabled mother and an abusive uncle, and one about a middle-class Bengali parent meeting their son in the USA. In these stories we come across love-making couples being clandestinely videotaped, a mother chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, biriyani from Fazal’s and garlands of jasmine for a Ganesha idol.
The bulk of the stories have a common theme – the exploration of the nature of desire and the erotic impulse. But Rheea seems to be more interested in capturing the almost imperceptible wisps than the big, thunderclaps of cataclysmic passion here. An even more pervading strand running through all the stories is the subterranean world of the mind. Think about it. A thousand thoughts run through one’s mind every day. How many does one act upon? Sometimes none. But these happenings in the underworld of our existence – are they any less important in our lives? Aren’t our emotions, even our happiness, shaped by these rumblings in the cities of our minds? It is this preoccupation with the world of thought rather than action that set these stories apart.
Take the first story of the collection ‘ Unspeakable’ which is about the lesbian attraction between two school friends whose families are close. Let alone consummate their desire, they never even get to talk about it. We only get to feel the feverish imagining in the head of one of the girls, and it is so vivid things could not have got any more intense or of any greater significance if they had actually made love to each other. And the erotic impulse grabs us because it is located within the lived in vitality of everyday life – cricket in the monsoon rains, studying physics and algebra together, watching English sitcoms on TV, and yes, eating cauliflower fried in a batter of chick pea flour, chilli powder, turmeric and salt.
The other story in the same vein ‘Cheat Day’ takes us into the head of Robert who is ‘cheating’ his office by utilizing the work-from-home option to go sit in a café with his Mac. There he spies upon a young woman of dark-chocolate brown complexion, whose face is only what he can see, as the rest of her body is ‘covered up in a long-sleeved plum top, black skinny pants and boots that reach almost to her knees’. This is what he sees: ‘And it is the most glorious thing he had seen all day – to see the full potential of her face, the way the flesh of her cheeks rose high, squeezing her eyes into bright marbles, how her smooth forehead made room for the arch of her thick brows, the way the blue and red of her earrings swung around her jaw and neck like birds that had been freed from a cage. ’ And this is what he imagines: ‘After dinner he will take a shower….He will think of the woman in the coffee shop, her rounded breasts and the plumpness they possessed while hidden in plum cotton, and then of her lips that smiled into the phone. He will think of the way the cotton top had crinkled on the side of her waist’. Rheea accurately maps, and celebrates the erotic imagination in these and other stories that are less directly sexual.
There is this story titled ‘Keeping Pace’ based on the feeling aroused by the Dolly Parton song ‘Has he left the one he left me for?’ It starts with the lines: ‘I was the first woman in his life, she, the most recent. The other thing we had in common was running.’ And offers this insight somewhere towards the end: ‘My goal was to find the parts of her that were capable of hurting Rahul. The parts that I lacked. I knew I would not find my answer in sentences, in a conversation, or in a letter. ..I must find it in the length of her legs, from the sweat on her wrists. I had to find it from the music she ran to, from the stretch of her hamstrings and the ache of her shins.’ The success of Rheea in stories like these is the way she makes these crazy obsessions believable.
If Rheea’s concerns are locating and mapping the erotic impulse in these stories, it is the lack of it that she explores in ‘A Good Hostess’. The story’s ambit is a party thrown by Asha and her artist husband Rohit. Through the course of the evening we are made aware of how the relation between them has cooled off, especially after their son was born. All attempts to rekindle the fire that sizzled between them those evenings In Darjeeling when he was starting his artistic career and she cheered from the sidelines have fallen flat. Now she is left with her party cooking and he is more aroused by the idea for a new painting than the touch of her hand on his shoulders.
A slightly more complex scenario unfolds in the very satisfying ‘Reckless’. Here a middle-class girl Shalini from Bengaluru is a having a passionate relationship with a boy in Chennai which transports her to a different world from her mundane existence. But her family is engulfed in grief after the death of her brother in an accident and the parents are expecting her to settle down in happy matrimony, removing the shroud of depression from their lives. Weighed down by these parental expectations she just cannot give wings to her desire and take the leap required to celebrate her passion. So when the boy requests her to increase the periodicity of her clandestine visits from bi-weekly to weekly she hesitates to commit. That is a deal breaker for the boy. He withdraws and disappears from her life. When she changes her mind and comes back to meet him, it’s too late. He is gone! She is truly broken this time. For the first time she cries. ‘She wept tears that had belonged to her for so long. The tears she had denied. She howled and she sobbed, hiccupping tears and mucus from her throat. She pressed her face to the bed post and let tears soak the wood.’ She finally finds some comfort in her mother’s tight embrace. But we know what she had lost. The story scores in giving an insightful perspective of the psychological landscape of each character making us empathize with the compulsions that each one faced.
In contrast to Shalini’s defeatist attitude, in ‘Wedding Guests’ there is the refreshingly honest outlook and measured aggression of Jijo, the Bengali boy based in San Francisco who invites his parents Mr. and Mrs. Bose to his own wedding. Mr. Bose expresses his disappointment in being served bruschetta instead of fish curry and rice. Jijo says his American fiancée Becca and he thought they should try something different. His plans for having an Indian-style wedding in India is shattered when Becca informs him that they haven’t scheduled time for it and they may visit India on their first anniversary. What gives the story its real charm is the way, first Mrs. Bose and then Mr. Bose, start shedding their resentment and start having a good time, opening up to other ways of life than their own, over the cocktail party and Bollywood dancing that was set up to go with the wedding.
The setting goes a shade down- class with ‘Hungry’ and ‘Sweety’. ‘Hungry’ tells the story of Sai, the boy who is an accomplice of Rakesh Anna in clandestinely videotaping lovemaking couples who come to rent the seedy hotel that Anna runs. He also has a telephonic relationship going with a girl Mayuri who was wooed by him earlier but is now married and lives in another town. But she still likes to talk non-stop with him. Our boy certainly has a way with women and a thing for women as well. He gives up the idea of videotaping a prize catch after she has a close encounter with young woman who and her hubnad have been allotted the special room fitted with the video camera. This is one story where things happen and there is a definite climax at the end. But it is Sai and his ways that keep us engaged.
In ‘Sweety’ it is the eponymous protagonist a girl in high school who surprises us with the way she deals with her abusive uncle who comes to live with them after her mother loses both her legs in accident, after having lost her father already a few years back. How the uncle uses his position of power to prey upon Sweety is accurately captured. Adding texture to the scenario is the relationship shared between the uncle and the mother. But ultimately what takes the story many notches higher is the complex response by Sweety to her uncle’s shenanigans and the ambiguity of her action.
In comparison the title story of the compilation ‘Transit for Beginners’ is less satisfying. The verbal cat and mouse between the young woman and the young man stuck for a few hours at the Changi Airport of Singapore is witty and credible enough. But the slippery something that the story tries to capture seems to be too slight and inconsequential to leave an impact. ‘A Good Arrangement’, perhaps the only story in the collection with some kind of a narrative twist at the end, is quite banal and treads the oft explored territory of arranged marriage between NRIs. ‘ Doldrums’ where the girl decides not to go through with the marriage after the family had all the saree shopping and made all the arrangements for the Sangeet ceremony works better because it does not try for too much of narrative contrivance. ‘A Larger Design’ is a very impactful tale of a family with a history of clinical depression, but is perhaps much too brief. There are two stories dealing with the challenge of dealing with the death of one’s spouse or child. In ‘Rectification Still’ the woman protagonist is trying to cope with the death of her husband with the help of alcohol. In ‘ Sway’ a young mother with a husband living in California staggers her way through the grief of losing her only child through Zumba classes and is ready to move back to USA. Both are quite poignant if rather one-dimensional and capture the nature of grief in such circumstances quite faithfully. ‘Cigarettes for Maya’ takes a slightly different tack, trying to make sense of the friendship between a young bohemian girl and a cigarette seller near the coffee house that Maya and her friends frequent. The genuine and calm stream of affection flowing between Maya and the elderly cigarette seller contrasted with the boisterous and mechanical bonhomie between the gang has something going for it. Maya does not have the goodness in her soul to nourish the former and goes with the flow of the routine, but she could have used the escape route shown by the elderly kind-hearted man to give her life a different turn. Maybe she could go back to her classical music lessons and search for a more meaningful relationship than the merely physical relationship of habit she shares with her present boyfriend. But one makes one’s choice and lives with the consequences.
Not all the stories in the bunch are memorable and not all of them amount to something earth-shattering. But each of them is quite readable and tells some kind of truth and nothing but the truth. The real pleasure of reading through the collection is of course the pleasure of taking a cruise down the meandering waterways of the mind and sighting many interesting and unforgettable sights along the way, the sights you tend to take no notice of as you hurtle through the bustle of your everyday life.
- Udta Punjab