Anthologies, whether they comprise stories by one writer or several, are tricky things to get right. If the anthology has stories by different authors, the quality of the book as a whole is likely to appear inconsistent, if only because of the reader’s own preferences. If the stories are all by the same author, even one of your favourites, there are often a few stories where you feel the author’s sure touch has slipped, especially if new stories have been written purely for the purpose of populating the anthology. There are very few anthologies in which a reader is hard put to pick out her favourite stories, because they are all so good – Salman Rushdie’s East, West and Jeffrey Archer’s A Quiver Full of Arrows come readily to mind.
Paro Anand’s I’m Not Butter Chicken, comprising a dozen short stories written in easy but lapidary prose by a master storyteller who has honed her craft over three decades, is one of those rare anthologies. The collection isn’t new – it was first published in 2003, and a second impression came out in 2011 – but the concerns of its stories’ teenage protagonists are still as fresh, relevant, and universal as they were over a decade ago. That by itself is the hallmark of good story-writing, but what truly sets these stories apart is the kind of sharp, clear insights each one affords into the teenage psyche. It is perhaps the fact that Anand has not only always written for and about this age-group, but has also worked with teenagers across demographics and geographies – in genteel urban schools, in under-served tribal regions, in juvenile prisons, and in conflict zones like Kashmir – that allows this kind of perceptive (and deeply empathetic) writing to emerge.
What are Anand’s stories about? In this book, all kinds of things. In one, a young boy learns that his parents are about to get divorced; in another, a girl slowly comes to terms with the loss of a beloved grandmother. There are stories about exams – a girl tries, and succeeds (but does she really?), in getting out of writing one exam; a boy cheats and escapes getting caught (but does he really?) to do better in another. There are stories about the huge burden of genius; about discovering never-before courage and heroism within; about friends and family and love and redemption and fitting in and growing up. And, of course, there is a story about butter chicken, which is not really a story about butter chicken at all.
There are also Anand’s own notes at the end of each story, reminiscing about how the story came to be, which add a nice personal touch, apart from giving young readers a peek into the writer’s mind.
What is it about these stories that makes them stand out? For this reviewer, personally, a sense of nostalgia, for Anand’s stories took me back to the wonderful stories I read as a teenager in the fabulous Target magazine. Stories by fine storytellers like Sigrun Srivastav, Vijaya Ghose, Geeta Dharmarajan, Vatsala Kaul, Manjula Padmanabhan, Subhadra Sen Gupta, Ranjit Lal, and Anand herself.
The stories in this collection echo the Target stories in their unwillingness to sacrifice good prose at the altar of ‘coolness’; and in their willingness to take the difficult questions head on, treating them with equal parts of toughness and sensitivity; to tackle concerns that seem desperately important when you are a teenager not only with the requisite seriousness, but also with lightness, pragmatism and humour; and to keep a short story crisp, hard-hitting, and well, short, resisting the impulse to gild it with unnecessary verbiage and maudlin sentiment.
But if I had to pick one overarching quality about Anand’s writing that makes I’m Not Butter Chicken a very good anthology, it is this: every single story, whether it was a happy story or a sad one or somewhere in between, made me tear up a little at the end, and made me want to hug my children. In my lexicon, that is the mark of a keeper.
By Arundhati Roshan B.
I AM NOT BUTTER CHICKEN AND OTHER STORIES FOR TEENAGERS
Author: Paro Anand
Roli Books, 2011
Subject Category: Contemporary/Fiction/Young Adult