This book has fifteen short stories. All of them are intense, multi-layered and varied in texture and flavour. Her commendable use of words portrays each situation and character so vividly that it draws the reader deep into their lives, with complete identification. The crisp and evocative narratives are hard hitting and make one introspect. Each story is cohesive yet unexpected, with plot twists that usually finishes with unpredictable end. Another praise worthy aspect of her writing is that she is not at all judgmental. Throughout her book she plays an observer’s role.
I would like to touch upon certain aspects of her writing, which come out distinctly in this collection. One of them is the author’s empathy for the marginalised and down trodden. The author beautifully depicts their suppressed grievances, their unfulfilled aspirations and their unrealisable vindictiveness. This aspect reveals itself strikingly in Checkmate and Fish Curry. In Checkmate, which won ‘A Book for Borges Award’, the lead protagonist is a marginalized woman, Maggi. Maggi, who graduated from a maid’s daughter to maid in Seth Haridas’s household, has been subject to constant humiliation by the employer’s impudent children. When the insinuation becomes unbearable, Maggi “vowed there and then to rise above her rank, no matter how. She would bide her time, she decided, till the time was ripe to strike, hiding her hurt and angst under a garb of meekness, as befitted her lowly position.” The same sentiment is echoed in Fish Curry when Hiralal, an illiterate boy from flood-ravaged village of Bihar was equally determined to get “… freedom from slavery and poverty, …” “…pursued his goal of becoming a Sarkari Naukar with an almost demonic zest.”
Another dimension of her writing is that Time is a constant protagonist in some of her stories. Time is also a great teacher. Take this passage for instance from Out of Time – “ ‘It has lost only three minutes,’ the old man murmured. ‘People set their own time for doing things…for not doing things’… his voice trailed away, getting lost in the haze of the distant past, a lifetime of living.” In another occasion in the same story – “ ‘Ha, as if you can recover the time gone by,’ the old man snorted.” In The Clock setter, Sheena, a working woman, a wife and a mother of two unruly sons, asked Mrs. Shenoy, a mature, relaxed and very competent house maker – “But how do you pass time?” Mrs. Shenoy wondered – “Would time stay on hold if one chose not to pass it? Or change its rhythm, if one were to choose to prolong a day into days, an hour into untold minutes, or a minute into amyriad seconds?”
Achla has a special skill to deal with elderly people’s voices and their memories, which bring back poignant moments with a new understanding. In Penalty, when the lead character’s (nameless, therefore could be anybody) married son, Aneesh, stands grinning at her and says – “May I use your mirror?” her mind goes many years back. “It was still there, his fingerprint on her dressing table mirror. Faint, but discernible to her sharp eyes. They had seen many such impressions over the years, the first one coinciding with his thirteenth birthday.” Again in Size Number Eight, Mrs. Verma contemplates as she looks at the mounting flab on her hand. “When she had first stepped into this very house as a bride, her slim wrists and fragile hands had been the talk of the neighbourhood…Ma rejected many girls just because of their large bangle size, her husband had said on their wedding night as he lifted her hands gingerly, and sat holding them, looking at them with rapturous awe.” In Eye Contact, while Shibani is visiting her son, after her husband’s demise, one of her son’s friends says: “How do you like Mumbai,aunty?” Her mind goes back to when – “ She was seventeen. After having spent the better part of these frisky years behind the prison gates of a convent, she was at last free to discard her summer white andwintery grey divided skirts, set free her unruly hair… her sister determined on acquainting her with only the glossy side of Bombay, kept it at bay till her departure. Not content with the ‘done’ things like chaat at Chowpatty, coffee at Sun-n-Sand, shopping at Colaba… she had an ace up her sleeve as the climax of her stay- dinner at an exclusive restaurant showing belly dance.”
Price : `395
Pages : 160
Another touching story is The Fly, also dealing with an elderly couple. It portrays the insecurity and vulnerability of old age. When the wife comes to know about her impending operation, she begins to worry about his being left alone if… no, they will die together, she decides… does she plan their future?
Some of the other stories are equally memorable. For instance, Release haunts, when you find that even the mother fails to show her love and acceptance of her ugly and dark daughter, whereas she dotes on her fair and good-looking son. Not only that, when dressed in lahenga-choli, while she was standing next to her fair and beautiful mother on her seventh birthday, someone murmured…“ Beauty and the Beast,” laughed another. Her mother’s cruelty, however unintentional it might have been, leaves an indelible dent. Does she realize what kind of permanent damage this can do to her daughter’s psyche?
The author, Achlabansal, is from Delhi. Did her schooling in Jesus and Mary Convent and her graduation in economics from Miranda house. Now, happily settled in Delhi with her equally accomplished husband, R. K. Bansal, a senior Railway official, who has always been supportive. Her stories have been published widely in the leading dailies and journals including prestigious Skrev Press, UK. She has earlier published three collections in English. Her stories have been translated into Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu and Urdu. The Hindi collection of stories and a novella is under publication.
I can assure, you will find this book extremely readable and may learn some lessons. And if you are lucky enough, you can even meet Achla, a gorgeous lady with mischievous smile sitting, with her husband some where in India International Centre’s coffee lounge, with her favourite dessert – Vanilla Ice Cream & Chocolate Sauce. Who knows this may be the name of one of her favourite stories in this collection too.
By Madhumanti Sen Gupta