Not Just Another Story
Collection of Short Stories
New Delhi: Lifi Publications. 2017
Pp xiii + 170 | 225
Unputdownable stories with unique strokes and universal appeal
The enigmatically titled Not Just Another Story by Dr Subhash Chandra is a collection of 17 stories; and each of them can undeniably serve as a practical definition of an ideal short story in every aspect. Subhash’ consummate narrative skills, thematic diversity, plot construction, realistic characters coupled with a flawless command of English, spruce syntax, lively dialogues and captivating style make the book simply unputdownable.
The dexterity of Subhash, a former professor of English in Delhi, in weaving a web of stories around incidents, persons and situations – he got in touch with or observed – is pleasantly palpable. Whether some of the stories must he having an autobiographic flavour, one would wonder. Yes, they do have it, for I have phoned and crosschecked it with the writer.
Like any collection of good stories, here too, the burden of message is basically the conflict between the good and the bad, between the appropriate and the inappropriate, between the desirable and the undesirable. Every reader would find a reflection of themselves or of some of the people known to them in one story or the other in the book. Thus the characters in Not Just Another Story are not isolated and strange individuals but a “species,” and “they are the genuine progeny of common humanity, such as the world will always supply, and observation will always find,” to adapt Dr Samuel John’s words vis-à-vis Shakespeare’s works.
The stories offer a wide canvas of themes, backgrounds and characters – rural and tribal folks and gypsies – the good and the bad about their lives; primitive justice system in the kangaroo courts of certain communities; feudal exploitation; refugees from Pak during partition and their transitional trials in getting reacclimatized; bibliophiles and their idiosyncrasies; poets and writers and their passion for writing and longing for some space; cases of hypocrisy of literary/poetry festivals; brothels, pimps, and prostitutes; the hijras – their ways, predicaments and manipulations; the ordeals of underprivileged women; discrimination against the fair sex, aversion for the female child; ostentatious display of wealth by the rich; ways and woes of senior citizens; conflicts due to generation gap; philanders and rakes; lesbian attractions; lethargy in government offices; prevalence of superstitions even among the scientifically educated; weakness of seduction, pornographic proclivities, extramarital and incestuous liaisons. All these stories, together, reiterate that goodness or badness, morality or immorality runs across the board, irrespective of one’s socio-economic standing. There are the good, the bad and the ugly all over.
One welcome feature of the book is, it opens on the Contents page first, which is reader-friendly. This reviewer also has followed the same plan for his poetry collection Sunny Rain-n-Snow and also for a few books he edited.
As Malashri Lal puts it in her Foreword, “The storyteller’s art lies in showing not preaching, in hinting not explaining, in dramatizing not over-reaching,” and the reader would readily acknowledge that Subhash Chandra is an adept in such art.
Here is how Cyril Dabydeen (Novelist and Poet Laureate, University of Ottawa, Canada) appraises Subhash’s work: “A master story-teller who creates character and situation with great warmth and affection. The quintessential Indian scene is captured in all his stories. A command of narrative technique and dialogue make his stories fascinating.”
And Parveen K Dogra, Chief Sub-Editor, Millennium Post, Delhi observes that the “Riveting stories… [in the book] compel you to look at life and the world through a different prism.”
Everyone who reads the book can’t agree more with the above three critics.
Now let’s have a coup d’oeil of the individual titles.
While we are warned of the repercussions of extramarital liaisons (Moksha); lesbian pulls are delineated in ‘That Many Splendoured Thing.’
‘Catapult’ slings us down to the depths to which feudal exploitation in some of the rural and tribal areas can degenerate, where the hapless victims eventually get reconciled to it, in what can be a Stockholm syndrome.
The rigors and details of catapult practice on the part of Bhera in the story testifies to Subhash’s eagle-eyed power of observation and fecundity of imagination.
In the humorous, tongue-in-cheek story (Speed Post), the idiosyncrasies of book lovers regale us. A satire on the lethargy of a typical government office, the story is a demo of generosity to the lowly, forgiving their minor infractions.
While a couple of stories portray the Hindu refugees from Pakistan during the partition times and their transitional throes of finding moorings in a new land, one such story (Poet Father) also talks of a poet-tailor’s passion for writing and reading his poems. The story pokes fun at the type of poetry or lit fests that put a premium on glitter, elitism, snobbery, promotion of one's self or select individuals, rather than on the muse proper, and how they are run with a farrago of biases.
The precarious life of a harlot and her uncompromising morals and conscience, in her own way, along with an alert to the pitfalls of patronage of brothels is showcased in ‘I Have No Name.’
The story ‘Mukti’ presents us a peep into the work and lifestyle of a tribe of gypsy ironsmiths, where the womenfolk do all the hard work; and the men do very little work but luxuriate in relaxation, booze and gossip. How the hidebound communities shelter promiscuity and incest and have a queer way of dispensation of justice by the tribal Panchayat in the case of disputes.
The stories ‘The Gynaecologist’ and ‘Amma’ empathise with the predicaments of the hijras, their manipulations and machinations, their internecine feuds, and their strong intra-communal bonding. How the hijras are practically excommunicated by the apathetic society is pointed out well. Subhash’s pen-portrait of a Delhi-based Tamil woman in ‘Amma’ in all her traditional finery and the way he spells the Lord of Tirupati as Srinivasa (not something like Shrinivas, and by not referring to Him as Balaji) highlights his faithfulness to the native detail – especially in a casual environment where even the educated from other parts of the country misspell the place names, ignoring their official spellings. For example, while many north Indians say it is Vijaywada (instead of Vijayawada); many Tamils say it is Thirupathi (instead of Tirupati).
Some of the women feeling harassed in their families flee for greener pastures; but most of them end up in a worse predicament (Fresh Vegetables).
The lavish and meretricious weddings of the rich are lampooned and the greed of the unethical priests in the name of a mumbo-jumbo of rituals is exposed in ‘The Magic of Moolah!’ – which witnesses the solemnisation of an inter-caste marriage.
The story ‘Sorry, Father!’ besides focusing on the generation-divide, where the older lot find themselves at the receiving end, presents an interesting dialogue on the art of story writing and literary criticism, how personal prejudices could colour one’s judgment of a literary work. It also throws light on the respective attitudes of the critic, the common reader, and the reviewer. There are stimulating observations like: “Realism in a story does not mean it should be just the representation of reality. Fiction is reality plus x or minus x.”
How even highly educated people can be hoodwinked by smart soothsayers is captured in ‘Astrologer in the CCU’ where Subhash’s medical knowledge is evident.
‘It’s All Over’ deals with a bizarre psycho-sexual case laced with a certain amount of gullibility on the part of an innocuous man who, though assured of a strong legal support finds himself pleading guilty. The story touches upon the porn proclivities even among the older lot, and Subhash’s savvy of legal nuances can be noticed here.
The weakness of husbands to seduce maid servants is the meat for ‘The Neurotic,’ a story with a tense build-up and psychological insights.
‘Siblings’ adopts a novel technique of holding a dialogue between a female and a male foetus, with a very crisp and subtle narration, and an aside on how political and bureaucratic strings are pulled for wrong causes.
And then, there is a story, entirely different from the rest. It’s ‘Wah Taj!’ – an eerie story redolent with magic and mystery. This is the only story which defies a logical explanation of the things. When Taj is there, can love be behind? No, that’s why a female character poses, “Can love be so tender and so cruel at the same time?” In this story, we find some descriptive lines suffused with effusion, again different from the other stories in the book. Has the collection been christened ‘Not Just Another Story’ keeping an eye on the unconventional pervading this ‘Wah Taj!’?
Though the writer may be having his own ideological predilections, they never come to the fore in any story in the book. His treatment is so eclectic and universal in appeal that people on both sides of the divide will get a feeling that the author is speaking for them. His characters get down to brass tacks, without indulging in vapid screeds.
What could be the reason behind the perfection of the stories in the book? Is it because Subhash was an English professor? But not every English professor can be a creative writer, and a perfect one at that? It may be in his genes, it may be from his sapience founded on hard and systematic study and practice.
In conclusion, I would like to acknowledge that Not Just Another Story has ensconced Subhash Chandra as one of my most favourite short fiction writers.