Houses, Hills and History

City Stories: Tales from Here and There

Scholastic, 2008, pp. 194, Rs. 195.00

 

Victory Song

By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Puffin, 2007, pp. 131, Rs. 150.00

 

Running up the Hill

By Anita Krishan

Prakash Books, 2007, pp. 152, Rs. 195.00

 

City Stories: Tales from Here and There from Scholastic is a collection of ten stories from, as the subtitle helpfully informs us, here—Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram, and there—Lahore and Colombo. While city-specific anthologies are quite common for the adult reader, it is refreshing to find one for younger readers, a sort of travelling circus around the subcontinent, to be welcomed with much drumming of dhols.

A pity then that the opening story, ‘A Fate Verse Than Death’ by Santosh Desai, should be such a let-down. Apart from the cringe-inducing pun in the title, here is a story that has absolutely nothing to do with the city it purports to represent (Delhi), apart from the cursory mention of roads, schools and public gardens—a fact which would be of little consequence if the story itself were brilliant. Alas, quite the reverse. The beginning is promising—‘I woke up feeling funny. Not ha-ha funny, but spoilt-milk funny. My tongue seemed to have grown a beard and my mouth hated it’. The thirteen-year-old narrator wakes up to find he has been struck with the affliction of speaking, to use his own words, in rather ‘lame’ couplets. His ‘stupid rhyming stunt’ as his sister labels it, earns him a dubious heroic status after school, and at home, but by the next day, everyone, including the reader, is tiring of it. How his ‘alternative disease’ gets cured is net-net what’s left of the story, which leaves you with one question—why would a thirteen-year-old guy with no previous interest in poetry, say wonderfully adult and self-deprecatory things like ‘Not great poetry, I grant you’?

Rehan Ansari’s ‘27 Nisbat Road’ is a memoir about a house in Lahore that would have been much better if the reader got some sense of the child the adult-narrator once was. Nostalgia is an adult preoccupation, and this going-down-memory-lane tale, with its oddly dry reportage style is one I suspect child-readers will remain unmoved by. As they will by S. Sanjeev’s ‘The Red Signal’, the story of IIT assistant professor Shamshad’s return to a transformed Thiruvananthapuram.

In sharp contrast to the above, Siddhartha Sarma’s ‘Bock Makes His Bones’ is a story that takes you there. Not just inside the specific predicament of fourteen-year-old Bock, loner and devil (as-yet undiscovered) drummer, but also to an understanding of what it might be like for such a creature to live in the city of Guwahati, with its troubled history, its traffic snarls, its eateries, its strange particularities and changing topographies. Here is a well-written coming-of-age story with lots of attitude, charged with credible emotions. Anushka Ravishankar’s ‘Going Back’ is another that is wonderfully attentive to language, and to the emotional landscape of its intelligent young narrator, coming back to Bombay—‘it’s Mumbai now,’ she says, ‘but it was Bombay then, and I can’t come back to a place I was never in.’ Here is the heart of the predicament tearing this city apart. Here also, as the story progresses, is a beautifully written, deeply poignant, sensitive yet unsentimental look at being Muslim in post-Babri riot-hit Mumbai.

Nakul Krishna’s ‘Abu and Abril and the Amnesiac’ is a treat. The precocious twins Abu and Abril are delightful, as they find themselves at the centre of the rescue of Elango X, leader of the Panthers, terrorist, thief, ‘hero to some, criminal to others’. Bangalore becomes the site of the contemporary, the political, the fantastical, and the historical, all in one grand and lucidly entertaining mix. Vijita Fernando’s ‘The Beast’ is to my mind a dark, gritty look at the life of teenage deprivation in Colombo. Upul’s story is no urban fairytale, unlike Timeri N. Murari’s Chennai-based ‘The Pickpocket’. Esther David’s ‘The Worry Box and the Laughing Lady’ describes the walled city of Ahmedabad with vivid affection. And Bikram Ghosh’s ‘Vibes’ has its hilarious moments portraying, as it does, Calcutta as ‘a city of school fests’ and unforgettably for me, describing Dhakuria as a spot ‘only famous for criminals and a little bridge over the train tracks’!

All in all, a collection in which the pleasures happily outweigh the disappointments.

Victory Song by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is set in a little village in 1939 Bengal. Its heroine is the tomboyish Neela, her mother’s despair, her father’s delight, and we meet her on the morning of her elder sister’s wedding. More interested in milking her favourite cow Budhi than in the niceties of moulding herself into a marriageable young lady, Neela is given to thinking revolutionary thoughts like ‘why can’t a girl choose her own husband?’ Being twelve years old, she still has three whole years before that spectre looms before her. Meanwhile, there’s a whole world out there she knows little of, and which she will get drawn into by the turn of events. Freedom-fighters arrive at the wedding, asking for donations to the cause, Neela gives them her brand new gold chain, and wins, we suspect already, the heart of sixteen-year-old Samar, who is one of them. The rousing speech by their leader inspires Neela’s father Hari Charan to act on it, and he travels to Calcutta to join a big demonstration. When he fails to return, and when a wounded Samar turns up to take refuge in Neela’s barn, the story propels Neela towards the big city, in a mission to rescue her father from the British Jail.

What rescues the story from implausibility is the telling of it, enabling the reader to willingly suspend disbelief. The plot crackles, the characters are engaging, especially Neela and her old baoul friend, Samar and his rich cousin Bimala, and the resolution is suitably uplifting. After all it is a victory song, and one has grown fond enough of Neela to want her to succeed, with a little help from her friends. There are certain jarring moments, when the author feels the need to over-explain Bengali phrases and words, like Neela’s mother saying ‘turmeric bath ceremony’ only a few lines before Neela describes what ‘gaye halud’ is all about. Alnas and luchis appear with gratifying confidence that context alone is enough to understand these ‘foreign’ words, only to be destroyed by ‘puffy fried bread’. Also, the potted history that Hari Charan and other men deliver—as background material for the reader—is tonally wooden, lacking the ease and veracity of alertly-observed, keenly-reported conversation. Divakaruni seems to have a better ear for conversations between women, they have that lightness the men seem to lack. She handles moments of tension, fear, humour deftly, and constructs the friendship between Samar and Neela in a natural way, though Neela singing Vande Mataram at the end, instead of telling him how much she likes him, is just a teeny bit saccharine. Victory Song is a pacy read, and proves that historical fiction needn’t be a bore.

Running up the Hill by Anita Krishan is an autobiographical tale of how Fluffy, a cute little Lhasa apso transforms the author’s life as a young girl growing up in Shimla. A potentially engaging subject, it is drenched in schmaltzy descriptions, and marred by archaic vocabulary and the occasional atrociously-constructed sentence. So much so that the author’s natural aptitude for humour, detailed observation of natural flora and fauna, and a very real sense of having lived in and loved a place get overwhelmed to the extent of being almost-lost. The three sections, ‘Those Carefree Days’, ‘Youth and Maturity’ and ‘Farewell’ are prefaced by cloying little verses on friendship, wisdom and parting, as the reader is walked through life in a hill town, which the ten-year-old narrator says is ‘a monotonous affair’. With Fluffy’s riotous entry into their lives and landscape, Shimla seems suddenly to be anything but monotonous. If only to showcase Fluffy’s courage and devotion to his mistress and her family, the author pulls out a line-up of bizarre characters—a scary mad man who turns out to be a Pakistani spy in disguise, a college-boy playing peeping tom, a sinister duo of thieves described as the tube light and the bulb, a fake Sadhu, a snowman that gets mistaken for a ghost by a gullible visitor from Bombay, a coiled cobra in a child’s schoolbag, snakes in the grass, leopards, marauding Himalayan bears, and a mysterious scoundrel dressed in an all-encompassing blanket. Unfortunately, none of this adds up to anything more than a predictable litany of Fluffy’s virtues. And when Krishan uses hyperbole to describe her narrator’s emotions—‘My innocent imagination then would take exhilarating flights to enchanted fairylands in far off unknown places’—the reader literally winces.

At moments, one gets glimpses of what the book could have been, with more work and sterner editing. There is, for instance, a fascinating description of a Canadian stove that becomes ‘the focus of all our indoor activities’ in winter. Here is a fine passage that conveys how things—here the iron stove that is the source of both warmth and hot water—can become the emotional centre of our lives, transcending functionality to achieve the kind of grace that memory bestows on favourite objects. Somewhere in this book is also a vital message about the need for conservation, landslides that are caused by indiscriminate tree-felling, the strong sense of connection the narrator feels to her place of birth and growing up, but alas, it is lost among all the curlicues of the prose. It is essential, when writing for children, to write from the heart. But when the heartfelt is overloaded with adult sentimentality and disfigured by careless language, the result can only be inadequate.

Sampurna Chattarji

Sampurna Chattarji writes poetry and fiction, for adults and for children. She is the translator of Abol Tabol: The Nonsense World of Sukumar Ray, reissued as a Puffin Classic titled Wordygurdyboom!, and the author of The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Mulla Nasruddin (Penguin/Puffin) and Three Brothers and the Flower of Gold (Scholastic). Her poetry book for adults, Sight May Strike You Blind, was published by the Sahitya Akademi in 2007 and her first novel Rupture is forthcoming from HarperCollins.

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