Reading about India has become a discipline unto itself, ably assisted by an uninterrupted stream of stories from a fertile literary landscape. On the one hand is the allure of experiencing, if not understanding, the exotic East, overflowing with people from varied cultures who are unabashedly flavourful to the Western palate. On the other is the growing socio-political might of a fledgling superpower, its relevance unmistakeable and on the rise. The restless tendency to find a uniform India is best satiated by the serenity of fiction, cutting out the cacophony of over a billion voices each commenting about and opining on thousands of issues every day.
The grandiose title of The Great Indian Novel
promises the sort of comprehensive India that most demand. It comes with the added advantage of its author, Shashi Tharoor, being a seasoned politician. Tharoor has recently lit the fuse for an honest discourse about imperialism with his non-fiction book, Inglorious Empire
, which seeks to challenge the revisionist history of those who champion the empire. These intellectual pursuits are absolute necessities on the world stage, but fiction remains the better, more welcoming bridge. Tharoor’s declamatorily, if mischievously, named book (Indian Novel
) notwithstanding, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children
and Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things
generally top lists of Indian books. There is another book that eschews uniformity to discover and celebrate India as a diverse, disparate land rich with differences, stories and humanity. At a time when the country is being poisoned by a fascistic nationalism and religious fundamentalism, Mahesh Rao’s short story collection, One Point Two Billion
, is the perfect apolitically political book through which to have a visceral glimpse of India.
The short story is often thought of as the perennially endangered poorer cousin of the novel, somehow averting extinction despite the best efforts of a publishing industry that views it with reluctance, if not aversion. Rao finds short stories addictive, describing them as “a series of very intense flings [that leave behind] incredibly fond memories.” Daunt Books, an independent publisher whose roots lie in the bookshops of the same name, which originally specialised in travel-writing, brings together fragments of India to collectively be a morsel intended to whet the reader’s appetite rather than satiate it. Within the bold, colourful cover – medley of exoticism – is an unassuming book whose meticulous austere prose paints vivid lives against the vibrant backdrop of India. Rao writes as if rediscovering the familiar, presenting the uniqueness of a vast and varied country with precision, without being tokenistic or mawkish. The reader is transported to another place, but it is relatable. Stories set in the West can have ordinary characters caught in humdrum routine existences, but those set in India cannot subscribe to those rules, for people are meant to be different there, a tad eccentric, delightful, fascinating. The success of One Point Two Billion
is in showing that it is possible for everyday people to live everyday lives even in India, much to the disappointment of many who seek to derive pleasure from the strange ways of the brown men and women.
Rao makes a strong case for the short story with his takes on relationships rendered awkward: A man loving his daughter-in-law a little too much, a little in the wrong way, on a ramshackle tea estate (“The Agony of Leaves”); a mentor left bitter by the dreams of appearing on the silver screen being crushed by the truth of the Bollywood nightmare, selling false hope to his pupil on the fringes of Mumbai (“Suzie Baby”), and a woman coveting her dinner companion while dining at an expensive seaside restaurant with her partner and another couple (“The Trouble with Dining Out”), among others. Rao revels in the awkwardness, teasing the salivating reader with scraps of India through the people who inhabit her, populated with Hindus, Muslims and Christians, zealots and the confused.
One Point Two Billion is at once a good introduction to India, and an essential complementary text for more familiar readers. It is being widely translated, most recently into French. Reading it – indeed, reading India – in its original English is both tantamount to an act of dissent and an act of unification through a celebration of the many Indias that exist within its borders, a preservation of all of them.
The book seems to be aware of the demands of journeying into India for foreign folks. Not wishing to make it too taxing for them, it opens with a story about the nervous manager of a yoga retreat trying her best to ensure the comfort of the guests, whom she finds incomprehensible. The playful indulgence of the tropes common in Western narratives about the mystic East contrasts sharply with the reality, brought home by the misfortune that befalls one of the guests in the story, “Eternal Bliss.”
“Drums” is one of a handful of stories that directly addresses the tribulations of ordinary people in the face of politics. Each instance – refugees caught between soldiers and Naxals (“Drums”), the devastating entitlement and inhumanity of the landed gentry (“Golden Ladder”), an overbearing state machinery extinguishing defiance and lives in Kashmir (“The Word Thieves”) – is painstakingly wrought and unavoidable, even for a writer who actively avoids polemic or political commentary in favour of human stories. If there is a passage in the book that speaks about India, a message from the voice of progressives that is being suffocated, Rao delivers it in “The Word Thieves,” a story about a school teacher in Kashmir, and his grandmother who wonders what might have happened to her other grandchildren, long since disappeared. “This was all he had: the clean fragrance of a new book, the specks and swirls of calligraphy, the comforting plonk of a word that landed in the right place. But now there were thieves at work, trying to deprive him of his only pleasure, alphabet pilferers, vocabulary bandits, plunderers of the lexicon, alive to all the perils inherent in onomatopoeia, the dark intents of alliteration, the jeopardy in rhyme. He saw his favourite phrases rolling up their mattresses, shutting their suitcases, handing back keys and queuing for trains and buses that would transport them to places far beyond the Valley.” Written before India became hostage to the death grip of the far right, these words could be the final cries of rebellion from the flailing, failing progressives in the throes of death. They need to echo in Bangladesh, too.
One Point Two Billion
is at once a good introduction to India, and an essential complementary text for more familiar readers. It is being widely translated, most recently into French. Reading it – indeed, reading India – in its original English is both tantamount to an act of dissent and an act of unification through a celebration of the many Indias that exist within its borders, a preservation of all of them. Rao safeguards and presents the flavours of the different states, the different cities, towns and villages, the different people and classes, caringly. He curates them in human stories, removed from the tectonic shifts in the political landscape. Yet, in the melancholy of their survival, interspersed with moments of humour, breathes rebellion, hope and India in all its glory, both beautiful and ugly, and altogether real. Rao captures snapshots of the people who make the country, and in so doing, posits that, perhaps, looking beyond the noises of intolerance is necessary to grasp this rich and complex land.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a poet and fiction writer. He also writes essays and book reviews. Yours, Etecetera, his debut short story collection, was published by Bengal Lights Books.