By Neha Kirpal
The Punch Magazine recently announced the publication of its debut Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories by Women Writers (Niyogi Books, INR 395). The stories, set in culturally diverse places – from Kashmir to Kerala, and from Washington and London to Rome – are authored by 18 women writers from India and around the world.
The stories take us along the rhythms and ruptures of life, dwelling on the characters’ experiences and memories of a thousand pleasures and pains suspended in the continuum of time. The anthology’s editor Shireen Quadri is the founder and director of Punch Art and Cultural Foundation, which endeavours to chronicle the proliferation of arts, literature and culture in India and globally. She writes, “The short stories by contemporary women writers show us how they compress the composites of life as well as expand its complexities and contradictions.”
Overall, it is the perfect book to curl up with on a cold winter day. In fact, as poet and lyricist Gulzar wrote in his comments about the book, “Why separate them as women writers? They are at par with the world standard. Read the brilliant fiction without any prejudice of the gender.”
Loneliness and Isolation
Hertfordshire-based Camilla Chester’s story ‘Terms and Conditions’ is about Laura, a 36-year-old single girl stuck in a crappy job. Her uneventful life becomes interesting when wishes from her childhood begin to get fulfilled. The whimsical story somewhat epitomizes the saying ‘if wishes were horses’.
Ameta Bal’s story ‘Static A.D.’, which reads much like a monologue, has an unnamed first-person narrator who hasn’t stepped out of her house in a month. Watching daily from her window, the 35-year-old spends her time jotting down her thoughts in a diary, making plans, cleaning the house, exercising and sleeping. Though written before the pandemic struck, the story strangely reminds the reader of our present lockdown times. On an electronic detox of sorts, the protagonist doesn’t waste food in order to postpone going out, talks about environmental concerns and confesses that she doesn’t trust people.
“The thing about investing emotion is if we don’t put value on this nugget and that experience, we’re lost,” writes Ameta. Along the way, the narrator ponders about the different lives she could have lived. With themes of isolation and loneliness, the story also has some dystopian undertones.
Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing
Bengaluru-based Anjali Doney’s story ‘Pandemonium’ is set in Cochin in the year 1981—and makes references to music by ABBA and The Beatles. Young Jessie is interested in a 22-year-old college dropout with dishevelled hair and a rugged motorcycle. Too afraid to confront him directly, she decides to write him a letter expressing her feelings. An innocent story about college crushes and young romance, the tale has a sweet ending.
Author Vineetha Mokkil’s story ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ is about Tara Bakshi who announces to her family one day that she is serious about marrying a fellow IAS officer who she works with. The problem, however, is that he belongs to another faith. The day changes her life, as her family – dead against this union – begins treating her differently.
Retired professor of English from Thiruvanthapuram, Geetha Nair G’s story ‘Falls’ is about a man and a woman, once lovers, who chance upon each other on a trip to Shimla, after a gap of 30 years. The story goes back from the present into the past, delving on what went wrong in their relationship, and eventually drew them apart.
In similar vein is ‘A Tale of Disconnect’ by international development professional Anila SK, a story set in Colombo. Margi, who belongs to Kerala, ends her decade-old dysfunctional marriage in court. The story steers to Trivandrum of the early eighties when she and her husband were children in school. Through the course of the prose, it is revealed that “there was a strong disconnect between what Margi thought was true and saw, and what others said about them.”
London-based Helen Harris’ story ‘Olya’s Kitchen’ is set in Ealing in the nineties. The narrator fondly recalls his Russian grandmother who expressed her love for her grandchildren through her cooking. The children’s lives irrevocably change after their grandmother’s death. Years later, her grandson takes up a job in a restaurant kitchen. He and his girlfriend go onto start a successful food truck serving authentic Russian food. He also decides to pay homage to his grandmother by opening a proper restaurant serving traditional Russian dishes – named after her.
Freelance journalist Meher Pestonji’s darkly funny story ‘Ghost’ is about 10-year-old Kaizad who loves acting the ghost and scaring his four-year-old sister. While rummaging through discarded treasures, he locates his late grandfather’s glasses and dentures. As he plots a midnight ghost rehearsal using these newly found props, a piercing scream from the neighbour’s house startles him – and he ends up learning something new about his family.
The Kashmir Connect
Delhi-based writer-columnist-journalist Humra Quraishi’s story ‘Kashmir Valley’s Soofiya Bano’ draws on the flood fury of 2014, in which the waters bring a son back to his mother from police custody. “I’d met hundreds of mothers in the Kashmir Valley, wailing and waiting for their missing sons, but with Begum Soofiya Bano, I’d developed a certain rapport,” writes Humra, whose essay ‘The State Can’t Snatch Away our Children’ is part of the Zubaan-published anthology, Of Mothers and Others.
Independent journalist Meena Menon’s story ‘The Closed Cinema’ is about Firdaus Cinema, located on Srinagar’s busy Lal Chowk road, which has been lying closed for several years. On the day that the theatre’s owner is captured by militants, he recalls the first time he had watched a film in a theatre at the age of six. The story recounts the series of tragic events that take place the day the theatre is closed. Menon was inspired to write the story after reading a paper by Kashmiri journalist Shahnawaz Khan who researched closed cinemas in Kashmir as part of a fellowship project.
Continuing the theme of the troubled valley is TV18’s assistant editor Shilpa Raina, whose story ‘The Vacation’ is about a Kashmiri Pandit couple living in a tier-II Indian city. Having been married for 37 years, their children have moved away. When the husband is unwell, they decide to fly to a big city to have him operated at a big hospital. During this time, the wife’s mind travels back to 23 years ago in the early nineties when she was forced to leave her house in Srinagar during Kashmir’s militancy days.
In a new city, they struggled to get a job and manage their finances. After about a decade, her husband lost his job, while she underwent depression and survived a nervous breakdown. Spending so much money on a hospital room after all these troubled years seems like a luxury, and they treat it as a kind of ‘vacation’.
Fictionist, poet, critic, curator, editor, translator and screenwriter Rochelle Potkar’s story ‘Honour’ is about 26-year-old washerwoman, Purna, who works at a dhobi ghat in Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi neighbourhood. Her brother is jailed and finally killed for raping and killing a 16-year-old girl. When he appears on TV, everyone around Purna knows about him. “Some stains would never go away, with any ointment, malham or lape,” the story concludes.
Hyderabad-based author Vrinda Baliga in her story ‘The Crossing’ takes up the issue of illegal immigrants who are crammed in a rickety old boat to cross the border across the sea. “What if the place you have run to is as bad as the place you ran from? What if, in its own different ways, it is worse even? What if you have been running around in circles all this while?” the writer wonders.