A Symphony of Chance Encounters
Collection of short stories & poems
Notion Press. 2016
Pages 152 | Rs 210
Offbeat characters and bold women
This reviewer has an eye for books that do not hit the mainstream bookshelves. Accordingly, she would like to introduce one such offbeat books to the readers of Muse India. It is a collection of Short Stories and Poems written by Sayujya Sankar. Sayujya has done M Phil in English from University of Hyderabad. She is presently a Faculty member in the English Dept. at Stella Maris College, Chennai.
A Symphony of Chance Encounters is a fascinating collection of short stories and poems written by Sayujya Sankar about the people and tales we chance upon in our lives. The people are mostly commonplace but Sayujya’s eye for the sublime and the profound stimulates the reader’s imagination and makes the read a fascinating one.
In the author’s own words, “some of the people you'll meet within these pages will tell you that the person you see or get to know is not necessarily who that person really and truly is.” This evocative subject matter and the slightly mysterious descriptions of the stories leave behind a sense of wonder in the reader.
Wonder is also created when the author does not fall in line with the norms of writing. Poetry, prose and illustrations gladly flow together defying genre. In the age of the market, where genre has become a selling point, it is daring of the writer to be experimental in only her second book. Her debut book, Firefly in the City, is a vibrant collection of poems.
The first story in the collection, ‘No Lingering. No Pause,’ is an atypical detective. Mr Dileep Sunderesan, owner of Vetri Industries Ltd is found dead in his bedroom and his murder is unravelled by the journalist narrator; it is a fast moving fragmented sketch, with each line taking the story to the next step. In the process of unravelling the murder, a whole range of ideas that fall between the thin line dividing sanity and insanity in human relations is brought to the fore. This is not just a short story, but a wonderful ficto-critical narration like The Mad Woman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar.
Just when one thinks the first story was rich in discourse, the second story, ‘A Sane Insanity,’ takes us through the vulnerability and innocence of childhood. It reveals to us the fragility of human emotions, whether child or adult. The child narrator is anxious about her father’s reaction to her bad exam grades; she needs her father's approval and comfort. Similarly, the father also seems to require his little daughter’s compassion when he has a breakdown.
The rest of the stories in the book have a common feature, that is, the chance encounter between strangers. So besides the symphony of the chance encounters between the readers and the author, the readers and the characters in the stories, there is also the encounter between characters within the stories. Times of crises lead these characters to encounter each other beyond their social setting.
A college teacher, Vishaka, is abandoned by her family for some bold decisions she makes. She finds solace in her acquaintance with the construction worker Mani and his wife Kamatchi who don’t judge her for her decisions (‘An Incomplete Building’).
Similarly in ‘Aarohi,’ the girl in a boring marriage steps out and dances under the neem tree in the pouring rain and is soon accompanied by an amateur dancer who feels constrained by the walls of his dance studio. The love for dance brings them together; a crescendo of emotions builds up in these strangers through the art of dance.
There are also depictions of the day-to-day doodling, strolling, observing the passers-by and letting one’s thoughts fly. ‘Wonderful Tonight’ is about a couple who are cooking, eating, dancing and living together. A test to their happy life comes in the form of the girl’s family wanting her to marry the ‘suitable groom,’ she stands up against them and the couple's bliss of the mundane continues.
Though the characters appear ordinary, on second thought they are not so commonplace. The stories are also about women doing things that they generally do not do. Women occupy new spaces in these stories; they dance under a neem tree in a public park, smoke cigarette in a construction site, visit a roadside coffee-shop in the early morning hour. In ‘An Almost Rendezvous,’ a working woman on a busy working day sits in a Choco-Cocoa-Stop sipping hot chocolate observing a black kitten and the fellow customers.
Nisha, in ‘Of Dragon Fire and Cuckoo Song,’ sits “alone at a table amidst people in a roadside coffee shop” with “an un-ruled notebook filled with scribbles and doodles and words” in front of her in the early morning hour. It is offbeat because it is not an everyday sight to find a woman sitting alone in a local roadside eatery. She befriends Thangajam and they go around the city discussing poetry and music over samosas, chaat, ice-golas, fish-fry and ghee rice, and whisky and vazhakka (raw banana) chips in the age of Multiplexes and shopping malls.
These stories transcend petty concerns and provide the alternative of seeing people simply as people. Most characters in the stories do not expect any material gains from their encounters; they just absorb what comes of the interaction.
In ‘Alone,’ Tamarai has a well-paying IT job, she is well-settled, but she yearns for something more. She is curious about what it feels like to be held and caressed. Her friends advise her to gain weight, wear attractive clothes and behave in a certain way. She knows she would get more attention if she does these things, but she probably doesn’t want that kind of attention. When she does have the encounter with her stranger, she runs away from it.
An interesting aspect of these stories is the vocabulary used. Sayujya generously uses non-English words, especially Tamil words. It is interesting because most of these words have Hindi alternatives that are established words in English writing, but the author chooses to keep the Tamil words. For example Marudani (Mehendai), pottu (bindi), Thaali (mangalsutra) and vethalai (paan).
There are also characters like Phoenix and Minotaur, which are culturally new to the Indian setting and make the book a colourful one. So, for an offbeat, genre defying variety of read – Symphony of Chance Encounters is a perfect pick.