The recurring character in most of the stories in this anthology is the train. If you have had anything to do with Mumbai, then you will be familiar with the recurring metaphor of this city—the suburban trains and the teeming, busy life that is lived on either side of the tracks and stations. In fact your ‘class’ in this city is very often decided by your postal address ‘West’ or ‘East’. In most of the stories the events are woven around the train.
Did I like all the stories—no, some were puerile while others were sublime.
The book has been edited by Ahmed Faiyaz. While I can relate to many of the stories, some seem to be pushing the envelop. I loved the story of the marginalised kid and his vivid yellow bicycle that is the object of green eyes. The sins of the father are mirrored in the ostracised kid, Hako—unfairly and touchingly redeemed by his dashing attitude. The ‘Bai’ who sees it all in the different establishments is a common character in films and fiction. Gayatri Hingorani beautifully captures this breed of getting-to-be-extinct breed of househelps. Her role as ‘observer’ and solace giver is neatly presented. In ‘Priorities’ the ‘Bai’ is a victim whose dreams of her son redeeming her from her life of drudgery is callously and casually demolished by the family she works for.
‘Daaru’ is something that hits you with its strong and sickening smells in urban encounters, especially on trains. The Old Monk rum on the breath of the protagonist, the outsider who wants to disembark at Borivali has many levels to it. The suspicion that is based on archetypal characters after the Mumbai Blasts is woven into ‘Hunch’.
The suspicion that has taken over our perceptions fuelled by abuse and exploitation comes out in ‘Song of the Summer Bird’. It is the story of the little girl and her teacher, a watchman, who introduces her to birds and sounds of nature. The story of the starving kid who has to feed the crow is a tight story that contrasts belief and reality. On the other hand there are the stories of part-time fathers desperately trying to squeeze the maximum from brief encounters with kids. The exploitative rich brat who milks his father, his teacher and his child minder, and the affluent mother who is scared stiff about her daughter being stalked or the heavy burden of parental expectations counterpoint parent-child and the world outside equations.
Exploitation is another theme—whether it is Chanda the prostitute’s story, or the one-book wonder writer who is caught between his wife and the sexy neighbour, the Yoga practicing doctor who gets caught in an embarrassing public scene that makes him ‘Breaking news’. These stories are part of the human drama peopled by characters so familiar and yet so eccentric who are part of your urban life.
The eerie and other worldly stories too are featured like the traveller in search of a night’s stay in a dingy, sleepy town who sees a baraat on a silent night and the maid whose loyalty is challenged by her lover, the driver of the family who has dark thoughts about his emplyees.
Finally the stories are about human relationships..successful, failed and tentative in their nascent stage like the Beast in the call centre and his Beauty who redeems his isolation or the pink-slip hand outer who becomes the target himself finally. Mind games that people play on each other is part of many of the stories.
A good read, Urban Shots, is doing what magazines like Illustrated Weekly of India did many years ago. ….giving the short story format, a good airing. The story tellers have been influenced by the Jeffrey Archers and Poe’s…but the Indian influence of regional literature conveyed in the English language milieu is an interesting development in Indian fiction. I look forward to reading more from the storytellers like Pantosh Uttam, Reeti Gadekar, Sharath Komarraju, Malcolm Carvahlo, Saritha Rao and others.