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Tania James’ debut was impressive; her Atlas of Unknowns was applauded by critics and readers alike among the Western audiences. On this side of the world, the book was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Ms James has also had prestigious bylines in Granta, Guernica and Boston Review. Which is what makes her short fiction anthology, Aerogrammes and Other Stories, an anticipated one. This reader’s verdict is an encore: it’s brilliant.
The stories of this eclectic collection do lean to some degree of diaspora. One might presume an inevitable comparison to Jhumpa Lahiri, which is not entirely gratuitous. But Ms James’ protagonists, like those in her debut fiction, hail mostly from the south of the Indian subcontinent. One can foresee a label of a “Kerala Lahiri”, but this reader will beg to differ; Ms James definitely has a style of her own. The treatment of the premises and the premises themselves are like a breath of fresh air.
Ms James presents nine stories in all. Across 180 pages, and in various locales on the globe, she scatters an assortment of characters ranging from wrestlers to ghosts to pet chimpanzees to middle-aged dancers. The author blends humour, compassion and loneliness in words that sketch some displaced souls floating in a culture that they simply don’t merge into.
The opening story, “Lion and panther in London”, is about two Indian wrestlers in London, who are looking for challengers and discovering that life offered more real challenges than the ring. Gama’s and Imam’s dilemmas in an alien arena compare well to that of a pet chimpanzee in the next story. The creature is brought all the way from Sierra Leone, along with a girl from the same country. They grow up as almost siblings in a household in America. Later on, when the pet moves on to a zoo, he has more human tendencies than animal. The dilemma of displacement is evident here too; only the shades are singular. This story, “What to do with Henry” is, in fact, among the best in Ms James’ repertoire.
The third story, “The Gulf”, scores in portraying the helplessness of women, albeit in allegedly obscure tones, while the narration is focused on a weak man and his failures. “The Gulf” is a many-layered tale; it opens up new vistas with each read. In “The scriptological review: A last letter from the editor”, a son undertakes an analysis of his deceased father’s handwriting and endeavours to bring out a journal with it, irritating his mother and her lover; the reader also peeps into the past worlds that he fears. Ms James’ talent for using humour surfaces in this tale, even though the story is not one with the usual incidents worthy of humour.
The title story, “Aerogrammes”, has an ex-grocer and widower, Hari Panicker, who lives in a home for the aged, ostensibly a temporary measure till his son is settled. As the story evolves through the minor incidents in Panicker’s life, the reader realises that what Panicker believes – and wants us to believe – is not the truth. This is one of the stories that deal with the angst of the displaced generation. The story “Ethnic Ken” has another widower grandfather, who wears a “mundu tied up like a mini skirt”, speaks only Malayalam and lives joylessly with his son and family in an American suburb. He is obsessed with the bathroom drain and asks it, “why am I here?” — a monologue that holds the heart of the reader in a tight grip.
The story of Minal Auntie, the dancer who never arrived and who keeps fretting about a dark complexion, is a poignant tale. So is “Escape key”, in which a writer protagonist realises his writing is terrible even as he discovers his invalid brother’s trauma with life. In the final story, “Girl marries ghost”, a girl actually marries a ghost in an arranged marriage. It’s a finely chiseled account of a world that is at once real and unreal. This is also the only story that fails the writer’s crafting skills to an extent.
All the protagonists of the anthology are bruised folk with complicated personalities. And they are all desperate to connect with another human heart. Ms James has succeeded in handling the real with the unreal with equal ease. Her characters are strongly etched, while their relationships with each other are very gentle. The prose is pithy and the style of writing sans trimmings. The reader can sense the two worlds in the characters and is led to empathise with them.
Ms James’ opening sentences are master strokes, drawing the reader right in. See the opening sentence for “Ethnic Ken”: “My grandfather believed that the guest bathroom drain was a portal for time travel.” In “Girl marries ghost”: “That year, thousands entered the lottery for only a handful of husbands.”
Aerogrammes and Other Stories is definitely a book to read and re-read.
AEROGRAMMES AND OTHER STORIES
Random House India
180 pages; Rs 399