Tuesday, March 09, 2021

When the Quotidian Crashed into the Quirky


In recent years, Indian publishers seemed to have given short story writers the short end of the stick which is why is it lovely that 2020 threw up some beautiful collections by authors at the top of their game like Nisha Susan. Two – time Commonwealth Short Story Prize Winner, Anushka Jasraj also makes an assured debut with ‘Principles of Prediction’.

Jasraj has crafted 13 stories featuring a host of characters who are mostly from dysfunctional backgrounds and entirely dissatisfied with their lives, prompting them to embrace the preposterous with mixed results. In the story after which this collection is based, the reader encounters a weather forecaster, who has mommy issues so debilitating, she is pushed to the brink of sanity. ‘Notes from the Ruins’ and ‘Entomology’ take the tired old love triangle for a spin and makes one wonder when this tedious trope will be trashed. In the ‘Circus’ a young woman decides to run away. But not to join the circus of course but to live with the lion – tamer since that is the sort of thing that makes little sense outside the mad hatter’s world these characters inhabit. In ‘Westward’ Soraya meets Sigmund Freud who wonders what her father would make of her fear of dogs. ‘Drawing Lessons’ is about an unhappily married woman who has dreams where real life friends try to make her see where her sexual inclinations lie and say stuff like ‘Amazon women cut off their breasts, so they can be better warriors.’

The star of ‘Elephant Maximus’, is Cassata who is a cat – napper not to be confused with a cat burglar who decides to kidnap an elephant. Then there are the fortune tellers and others of their ilk in ‘Venus in Retrograde’ and ‘Numerology’. In the former, a young man is haunted by a ghost he invented who may or may not be and in the latter, a young girl waits for a long time to read the last letter, her mother left her, which contains a list of things an astrologer put down to decode her future. The private investigator in ‘Feline’ finds herself inconvenienced when she desires the subject she has been tailing at the behest of his ex – girlfriend. These spaces are the most hard to swallow since they appear to have been built and not lived in.‘Radio Story’ on the loss of freedom and love is the most affecting story of the lot. 

The writing is clever, awfully so. Fragmentary to the point, where it is just plain frustrating. Filled to the brim with characters whose character arcs are sketched out by means of cryptic clues that tend to confound more than clarify. Mostly though the collection abounds in the realms of the absurd and is overly spiced with an abundance of quirk for quirk’s sake.

Those looking for simple, enjoyable reads with three, cleanly demarcated acts are in for disappointment since Jasraj tends does not bother with tying up loose ends with neat little flourishes. She prefers to leave the reader dangling fretfully or bursting with questions that have no answers. Those with the patience to unravel the carefully stacked layers will be rewarded with the occasional strokes of brilliance and rare insights into the futility of human existence but these are few and far between.

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

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