Sly Wit, Caustic Barbs…(Life is a short story:)

When Olena was a  little girl, she had called them Lieberries- a fibbing fruit, a story store- and now she had a job in one…

‘ Don’t I look like Eric Clapton?’

‘Eric Clapton would never have sat in a Woolworths photo booth like some high-school girl,’ Olena said, in the caustic blurt that sometimes afflicts the shy.

( From ‘Community Life’, short story by Lorrie Moore, 1994)

**

She had been married: it was as if she’d done an interminable, boring stretch on a transcontinental train and emerged- tired, dispirited and yawning uncontrollably- into the starless night of a strange city, where the only kindred soul was her suitcase.

( Tatyana Tolstaya, short story ‘The Poet and the Muse’, 1991)

**

I explained to my wife that on the plane going down I was going to have to do research and she said, ‘ Fine.’ My research consisted of reading the galleys of a detective novel someone wanted to make into a movie, and my enjoyment of it would have been increased if she had resisted, but she did not. So I struggled through the book. My three year old daughter watched Romancing the Stone, and my wife coloured in the kid’s colouring book for three and a half hours.

( David Mamet, A Family Vacation, short story, 1988)

**

My mother’s movements got deeper and smoother, and Mr.DeCuervo suddenly came alive, as though a spotlight had hit him. My father danced the way he was, warm, noisy,teasing, a little overpowering; but Mr.DeCuervo, who was usually quiet and thoughtful and serious, became a different man when he danced with my mother. His dancing was light and happy and soulful, edging up on my mother, tuning her, matching her every step. They would smile at all of us, in turn, and then face each other, too transported to smile.

‘ Dance with Daddy some more,’ my sister said, speaking for all three of us. They had left us too far behind.

(Amy Bloom, ‘ Life is not a pie ‘, short story, 1994)

**

‘Still not had it?’ The old lady who lived next door appeared at the fence, her leech-black eyes peering through the trellis of the honeysuckle. ‘ You must be very worried by now.’

‘ I’m all right,’ she said, taking a step backwards towards the kitchen door.’ How are you?’

‘ As you know, lonely as hell since Reg died,’ said Mrs Pightle. ‘ Sometimes I get so bored I wish even something nasty would happen.’

Wanting to avoid infection by contact with Mrs.Pightle’s misery, she took another step back.

( Helen Simpson, ‘Last Orders,’ short story, 1993)

***

From the Cosmopolitan Book of Short Stories.

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A Preface To Man: Manushyanu Oru Amukham, Subhash Chandran

I am at Page 155 of a 407 page best seller in Malayalam called ‘ Manushyanu Oru Amukham’ . This book has won the Kendra Sahitya Academy award along with scores of other awards. It has been translated into English by Dr E V Fatima and published by Harper Collins, India as ‘ A Preface To Man’.

The story of a few generations of a family, along with those of related social and cultural milieu, and sharp political observations: this narrative structure has been used by many brilliant writers across the world. Marquez and his One hundred years of solitude is often a favourite reference point in such a case.  How the Kerala cultural ethos changed- influenced by stalwarts in  political, intellectual and spiritual arenas-along with the clear repercussions in the lives of the many members of the Ayyattimbilly household, of the Thachannakara village, forms the binding thread of this grand novel.

The thoughts that had powered the best men and women to become  great human beings and responsible citizens, are revealed in different pages. We meet Kuttipuzha KrishnaPillai, the communist leader and poet, as a warm and unassuming guest in a chapter, who with piercing wit handles the venomous prejudice of a petty mind. The reader is forced to reflect on how various forms of prejudice continue as eternal monsters in society. They might change shapes and hues, but the underlying devils are the same. Intolerance and ignorance. Closed eyes and closed mind. Arrogance and Self centerdness. Lack of compassion and greed for power. And a way of encouraging life styles which give birth to many living dead.

In the first few chapters, we find that the protagonist Jitendran is dead. It is through snippets of his letters ( when he was a young man who thought for himself) to his loved woman, that the chapters unveil themselves. One striking paragraph which I liked earlier on went like this ( my translation:)

‘The first half of his life was one in which he ardently believed in something within: that would impart light to those coexisting with him in the world. That belief had been nurtured by certain assumptions built in his childhood about human greatness. However, unable to find a  conducive medium for that light to express itself, his inner self had been set aflame in that period.

The second half was rather simpler in nature. The job he had habitually done-in  utter disregard for misspending one’s human life- with the facade of an inappropriate severity, a marriage and marital relationship which started with debts and continued in debts, the shifting of a few houses with household materials stuffed into a mini lorry, the partitions of  anscestral property which caused much  mutual hatred between brethren and made God laugh, a few extramarital affairs  he indulged in -which had nothing to do with physical pleasure- for the exclusive and ineffable thrill of  committing a secret sin, a few bursts of hearty laughter hither and tither, a few pains extended in the form of gifts by friends and relatives, a few accusations and wrong doings-neither of  which had  any circumstantial excuses, the tonnes of medicines he swallowed for curing those diseases which would have healed by themselves, the boring scenes which occurred twice or thrice in a life time when it became imperative to  pretend that one was acting responsibly…’

**

I am at the chapter which says – ( in translation) ‘A petty man never lets go of an opportunity to showcase his inherent pettiness.’

‘Chetta’ in Malayalam has many connotations: a small hut,  a person of obnoxious meanness, a man or woman possessing aggravating pettiness….

I laughed out loud on realising the absolute truth of that statement. Oh Lord, how many times, how many times….one has witnessed that!!!

However, the author suddenly pulls the mat from under your feet. He makes you reflect on the etymology of the word and whom you are  actually rendering unworthy in the process of thoughtlessly using such words.

Beautiful book. I am so happy to have another 250 odd pages to relish!

**

The Meat Of The Moon : Madhavi Kutty ( Story Translation From Malayalam)

Chandrante Irrachi ( The Meat of the Moon): Madhavi Kutty,1969

**

Her lover continued to sleep even when it turned eleven in the night. She felt no inclination to wake him up and send him to his home. Whenever he removed his glasses, the natural intensity of his face seemed to diminish. As he slept, she noticed the loneliness of a little boy on his face. A lost soul- no, a soul who had forgotten the way-a lonely little boy, was  tied inside the forest of mortality in that  aging body. She knew that she was deeply in love with him: the one who had witnessed his father’s death, the one who used to go to school in a bullock cart- wearing a sailor’s costume.

Outside that house- situated on the outskirts of the town- the rain was pouring down heavily. Through the ventilators, a breeze from yonder- crossing  the thorny plants and trees on a hillside-entered the room, moaning like a wounded creature.

‘Beloved,’ she called bending low, ‘ It is past eleven- should you  not be getting up?’

He woke up startled: with a wide eyed gaze. ‘ Eleven? Why didn’t you wake me up earlier?’

‘Don’t go tonight. Stay with me,’ she said.

He got up and wearily sat down at the edge of the cot.

‘I am so groggy. How will I drive all that distance?’

Gazing at his body- gleaming like a flame in the light- she gently closed her eyes. Her heart sang: ‘Your body has reached my pyre- no, bed-carrying its secret destiny…I cannot escape now, Your body is like a golden harvest of  ripe grains. It has been created from the meat of the full moon…’

‘Now it will be past midnight when I reach home. What excuse shall I give today?’ He asked her.

‘Why don’t you stay the night with me? Won’t you give me one night?’ She asked him.

‘You know very well that it is impossible. I cannot act so irresponsibly.’ He said.

Seated on the stool before the mirror, he wore his socks. Tied  the laces of his shoes. His hair- a mix of steel and black  curls- reflected on the mirror.

‘Don’t you feel any obligation toward me?’ She asked.’ I am your kept woman, your slave: do you feel no obligation towards this unfortunate woman?’

‘I love you,’ he said mechanically, ‘ I love you even when you tell me about your colleague. I will love you even if you marry him. You know that very well.’

‘What is the cost of such a love?’ She asked.

‘I don’t know,’ he replied.

‘Shall I marry him? Shall I become his wife with your permission? Tell me, do you have no objection at all?’

‘Why should I stop it?’ He asked,’I am a man who is aging fast. A married man. He is young and handsome.Your colleague. I do not think that you will stop even if I were to object.’

He moved towards the door, while she lay on the bed.

She called out to him: ‘ I will give him an answer tomorrow itself. I am greatly relieved that you have no issues with it.I will have to stop seeing you. But eventually I shall forget that pain. My dear, you are so compassionate.’

‘I will see you next week. Call me tomorrow afternoon,’ he said.

At the  sound of  the door banging  shut, she felt that she had been shattered to bits. She was a woman, she was a fragile piece of  glass. She felt that every tiny shard of glass wanted to hurt her, make her bleed..

She picked up the phone from the table, and woke up the young man who was in love with her. ‘Hello’, he said: ‘ Hello!’

‘Hello’

‘Who is it? Mini, you?’ He asked.’ How come you are awake at this time?’

‘ Today, you asked me if I wanted to be your wife. I thought I will give you an answer now. That is all.’

‘What is the answer?’

‘ It is not possible.’ Putting the phone back into its cradle, she snuggled under the covers and closed her eyes.

She was convinced that for her- who was accustomed to the arms of a man who was successful in all aspects of life-there was no satisfaction  to be gained from  marrying  an ordinary man.

**

Note: For the sheer power of the narrative from the other woman’s perspective: not a whiny, complaining tone, mind you- but  that of a woman in control of her destiny- I found this gem of a short story written by Madhavi Kutty in 1969, an iconic piece of feminist writing.

It was when I read Telugu writer Volga’s interview ( She won the  Kendra Sahitya Academy award in 2016 for her book Vimukta:  Translated as The Liberation of Sita, Harper Collins )that I realised  again that the mind’s freedom to question  everything was the greatest gift of existence.

She mentioned about a classic Telugu short story by a famous writer in early 1920s when Sita jumped into Ravan’s pyre instead of stepping into the Agni Pareeksha.  She was speaking of how intolerance has increased in society nowadays, since Vimukta- a series of stories showcasing Sita’s bonding with Mandodari, Soorpanakha, Ahalya et al..was pilloried by some.

Inexplicably, another memory came: Of reading that great short story , ‘Sunstroke’ by Ivan Bunin. Perhaps it was the nonchalance of the women in both  stories which bemused me.

And then, I could not resist translating this gem!

😁

 

Rooted In Words

devi

When we went inside the bookshop, my father announced to the bill clerk, ” Whatever she buys, I am paying.” The bespectacled young man looked up for a moment and then went back to his job; apparently he was used to such specimens who wandered around , making irrelevant comments, squealing with delight at an unexpected find, shaking heads when not finding what they were after.

When we staggered back into the car, my father was almost regretting his impulsive promise. He had forgotten that I was starved for both my Mother’s fish and Malayalam literature; after a forced diet bereft of both, in distant  lands-away from sea smells.

To the tune of the monsoon incessantly pummelling my window panes, Priya A.S, Sithara S, Santhosh Echikanam, Vatsala, Sarah Joseph, Basheer,  M.T., Adoor, Benyamin, N.Mohanan, EV Sree Raman  et al walked past- a troop of brilliant writers, belonging to many genres, keeping me awake late into the night, revealing to me the sheer magic of my sweet mother tongue.

For a moment, I remembered listening with awe as Sastry Sir read out a travel memoir of KuttiKrishna Marar back in tenth standard ,”…so the writer’s train crossed over the Northern plains and he started thinking of Balram toiling in the fields with his great plough and drinking his evening delight, that reflected Revathy’s beautiful eyes..”

The boys had tittered at the reference to Balram’s weakness for his drink, and all the girls had sighed deeply at the beloved’s eyes reflected in his drink..what an imagery!

Later, when Sir taught us the description of Krishna as ParthaSarathy, we recited along with him, as Sanjaya described the ineffable Lord to the Blind King.

“Madumozhimaril valarnna ragavum, chapalanmarodu kalarnna hasavum…”

(He, full of growing passion for honey tongued lasses, full of mocking laughter at the petty men around..)

This time the boys sighed over the honeyed women, we tittered at the petty men.

Sastry Sir, had managed to turn many of us into life long devotees of our vernacular literature.

When I had the choice of turning to either Malayalam or Hindi for my second language for Pre-Degree, I embraced Malayalam with no inhibitions. The Professors at Maharajah’s College for Women lighted up many more lamps in that wonderful journey. College was worth attending for the Language classes alone!

” Ha Pushpame, adhika tunga padathillethra, sobhichirinnithoru rajni kanakkaye nee.. Sree bhuvilasthiram asamshayam innu ninte yabhuthyingu puniringu kidappithorthal”… (Ah, how you had shone like a queen atop that plant, hey fallen one! Prosperity in this world is so tenuous, if one sees  the depths to which your beauty has fallen  in time..) and then the learned Lady Professor would interpret an innocuous sounding word “Aye” for one hour!

”  Kumaran Asan, the poet with the magical touch, has captured the respect, reverence, pity, compassion, regret   for the fallen woman/ flower in just one word..Aye..it is not just a word..look into the deeper connotation, the shadow within..,” she said, transforming a rather decrepit classroom, in a dark afternoon into a repository of light and sound.

For some time,I entertained the wistful thought of ditching Maths and Science for Malayalam Literature, like Prof Leelavathy and Co. But fate had other plans.

I probably read  N.S. Madhavan’s Higuita  to get over the bitterness of Engineering Mathematics. The former classic short story, I swear, has served my life better than all the Maths in the world. When I face  trouble, I think of the kick of Higuita and grin to myself.  And then I go for the goal!

***

I try to teach my little girl Malayalam.

A, for Amma.

Aa for Aana..

She looks at me with wise eyes.

” I know both- you and elephant. Besides, I know to write too-Ma, Haathy.”

I give up. May she learn to love and enjoy  Hindi literature , I pray.

I am sure that the sparkles of the stars fill all the human languages of the world with equal light.

May my kids learn tolerance,compassion and humility by reading the same great human story, in as many languages as possible.

As for me, it is time to re-read Mathilukal (The Walls), as Adoor Gopalakrishnan beautifully crafts his screenplay from Basheer’s great, lovely writing.

Narayani’s voice (From the other side of the Jail Wall): Will you remember me?

Basheer:Narayani, your mark is present all over this world!

Her voice: All over this world? Why do you tease so flippantly?

Basheer: Not at all. The absolute truth. Walls! Walls!Look, these walls travel all over the world!

Her voice: Shall I please cry out loud for some time?

Basheer: Not now. Maybe in the night, remembering…