Here is a small, slim book that packs a commendable punch. And not just for its quixotic title, which needs a moment’s figuring out.
|21 UNDER 40: NEW STORIES FOR A NEW GENERATION |
Edited by Anita Roy
Price: Rs 295, Pages: 200
In a world alarmingly obsessed by youthfulness, it is inevitable, of course, that age should sweep over a categorisation of writers, and just as inevitable that we find new markers for the post-midnight’s children generation: Under 40 is as good as it gets, aiming at arousing admiration, envy and suspicion all at once—admiration that they have done it so young, envy that they have done it so young, suspicion that they have done it so young. And yet, writers, artists and filmmakers get younger everyday, and in a faded lexicon, 40 is surely over-the-hill.
So here is a collection of 21 short stories by young women of South Asian origin under the age of 40. The notes on most contributors actually delineate date of birth/age at the end of the book—one cannot help but worry about the fruitlessness of such a gesture, given that we are all aware of how age creeps on, if at a petty pace, even as we peruse our fiction in leisurely fashion—but the point is taken, of course. Interestingly, the title of the collection does not indicate that all its writers are women; that clue is easily found, however, in its publishing house Zubaan, an off print of the older Kali for Women, of India. The subtitle of the collection New Stories for a New Generation—both claims a lot and nothing at all, depending on whether you take it figuratively or literally: much depends on how you interpret “new”, I presume, predicating it on philosophy or mere age. There can be some quibbling with the “newness” of the generation, for those of us who have had the privilege of encountering some truly, amazingly, experimental fiction from undergraduate students may want to posit the possibility of “newer” stories from a yet-newer generation, the Under-21s. But therein lies another book, for some courageous if intrepid publisher: is Zubaan listening?
But all this is not to detract from the strong merits of the collection under review. Anita Roy’s brief introduction informs us that it evolved through a call for stories that resulted in over 200 submissions, of which these are the final (winning) pickings. Roy promises a wide range of “form, style and subject matter” and one is not disappointed in fiction that moves from the historical detective story (Madhulika Liddle) to the fairly-new graphic short story that takes us back to our comic-books of childhood (Epsita Halder), with e-mail and chatroom fiction in between (Meena Kandasamy and Nisha Susan). In fact, one wonders if there is irony in the fact that perhaps the most “dated” story in the collection, from historical as well as narratival perspectives—Liddle’s ‘Murk of Art’, that tells of the cold-blooded murder of an artist of the Mughal courts—is one of the most enjoyable, proving yet again that there is nothing better than a good story well told.
I have to say that reading 21 very different stories all in a rush is not my favourite way of savouring a collection of short fiction, and I may be forgiven for admitting that not all of them now remain clearly etched in the mind. But it may be, in fact, a good way to decide on the most memorable of the stories, even if the method arises out of expediency. Tishani Doshi’s ‘Spartacus and the Dancing Man’ is compelling, a story of tender love and terrible desolation, narrated in a Faulknerian style. Meena Kandasamy’s ‘The Suicide’s Inbox’, the short story via e-mail, pulls one in because we are all closet voyeurs of others’ intimacies, and mail is the most riveting of the lot, however banal. ‘Something Special About Sayyida’, by Shahnaz Habib, is an enjoyable account of a bride-hunt in lush, sweaty rural Kerala. Annie Zaidi’s ‘E.C.G.’, Anju Mary Paul’s ‘Sunday Christians’, Narmada Thiranagama’s ‘The Third Cloud’ and Ashima Sood’s ‘Everyday’ are touching in diverse ways for different reasons. Mridula Koshy’s ‘The Large Girl’ and Diana Romany’s ‘Ferris Wheel’ are bold, evocative. All in all, a testament to women’s writing that has come of age, combining simplicities and multiplicities with daring ease.