Friday, July 14, 2017

A Life of Adventure and Delight

Four stories into this collection of short stories, I was wondering why Akhil Sharma had decided to call it 'A Life of Adventure and Delight'*. Because none of the protagonists of the first four stories seem to find their lives either adventurous or delightful. On the contrary, they are all stuck in situations they don't want to be in. 

The first story ("Cosmopolitan") is a gentle one, it floats along like a boat in a slow-moving river. Gopal, intensely lonely after his wife leaves him, starts a relationship with his neighbour, Mrs Shaw. He doesn't know much about her apart from that she's a divorcee and a guidance counselor. His motives for the relationship seem clear, but what are hers? Why is she interested in this obviously pathetic man? 

From questioning HER motives, the reader moves on to questioning anybody's motives for entering into a relationship. What loneliness or need drives anybody into being emotionally dependent on somebody else? 

By the end of the story, all doubts are laid to rest. Or maybe that's my positive spin on the ending.

This is who we are, he thought--dusty, corroded, and dented from our voyages, with our unflagging hearts rattling on inside. We are made who we are by the dust and corrosion and dents and unflagging hearts. Why should we need anything else to fall in love?

The second story ("Surrounded by Sleep"), on the other hand, is a breathless one. It starts by knocking the reader's breath out:
One August afternoon, when Ajay was ten years old, his elder brother, Birju, dove into a pool and struck his head on the cement bottom. For three minutes, he lay there unconscious. Two boys continued to swim, kicking and splashing, until finally Birju was spotted below them. Water had entered through his nose and moth. It had filled his stomach. His lungs had collapsed. By the time he was pulled out, he could no longer think, talk, chew, or roll over in his sleep.
And throughout the story both you and Ajay are haunted by those three minutes. What if they had found Birju a little earlier? What if he just woke up from his coma and returned to normal? What if Ajay could pray harder and tell God to make Birju normal again? What if what if what if? 

It's a heart-breaking story, but less for Birju's mishap and more for its effect on Ajay. His mother starts emotionally distancing herself from him, he feels that somehow what happened to Ajay was his fault, he thinks his mother sometimes wishes it was Ajay who lay for three minutes at the bottom of the pool, and not Birju. 

The fourth story ("If You Sing Like That For Me") was the highlight of the collection for me. It starts with a woman waking up after an afternoon nap, seven months after her wedding day, suddenly in love with her husband. 

Her marriage is like any other arranged marriage. She met her husband once before she got married, and she only got to know him afterwards. The first couple of days, she dreams of going back to her parents.
I would think of myself with his smallness forever, bearing his children, going where he went, having to open always to his touch, and whatever I was looking at would begin to waver, and I would want to run. Run down the curving dark stairs, fast, fast, through the colony's narrow streets, with my sandals loud and alone ... and finally I would climb the wooden steps to my parents' flat and the door would be open and no one would have noticed that I had gone with some small man.
The evening of the day she realizes she is in love with her husband, her husband comes home carrying a plastic bag of mangoes. It is just another day as far as he is concerned. But for Anita and for the reader, the evening builds up like a time bomb. Will she tell him of her love, will she won't? How will she tell him? How can she ensure the love stays? 

The other stories, all shorter than these, didn't make much of an impression on me. In fact, I had to go back and refer the book to remember what they were about. 

But the three main stories more than make this collection worth it. All the stories are in the spare distilled prose that Akhil Sharma is famous for. Five out of the eight stories are set in the US, but most of the characters are thoroughly Indian.

(Though sometimes they do strike a jarring note with American usage. Here's an example from Anita's story, set in India - "I made rotis and lentils on a kerosene stove." #Okay)

*It turned out that the collection is named after one of the later short stories.
• • •