Sunday, July 29, 2012

Guest Review: Urban Shots - Bright Lights

Reviewed by- Shantanu Bhattacharya

Book edited by - Paritosh Uttam 

This is a short story collection edited by Paritosh Uttam. Now I am an admitted fan of the short story genre ever since I read the first O. Henry story in school. That was one of the reasons I decided to take up this review in the first place. Also adding to the allure was that this was going to be the first "Indian" collection of short stories I would be reading and reviewing. I also expected to be objective because I had never read any of the authors ever before.

Given the expectations, overall the experience was disappointing. While there were a coup of nice ones, most of the 28 stories in the book left me dissatisfied, and in some cases thinking why the story existed in the first place. A case in point is the first story, 
Amul by Arvind Chandrashekhar. It is supposed to be a bittersweet story of a broken family, told from the perspective of a young girl who loves Math. As the sordid story progresses, you learn that her drunkard dad killed her unfaithful mother, who had been carrying on with the cable techie, her dog had died, she kicked a cat, and finally, in a brutal denoument, she has cancer. Basically sadness all around. Not sure what Math had to do with it though.

Silk by Salil Chaturvedi is a nicer story about crumbling marriages laden with some overwrought imagery of blood which was quite unnecessary because it added nothing to the story. The theme of an affair as self actualization is interesting though. Across the Seas by Ahmed Faiyaz is a  slice of life snapshot of a Muslim family with one son abroad and how the family both misses him and is proud in equal measure. It is probably set in the early '80s when getting a telephone connection involved long waiting periods and bribes. Alabama to Wyoming, written by the editor, Paritosh Uttam mocks Indians' USA obsession, as well as our presumed right to cheat Americans of their money, all in the backdrop of a visit to the Taj.

Double Mixed by Namita V Nair is a contrived schlocky story of cheating spouses who discover they have been cheating with people who are also spouses. Totally filmy stuff. This is followed by another Ahmad Faiyaz story, 
Good Morning Nikhil. Faiyaz seems to be a complete family person because this is another small scene from a family where nothing happens. And ends with a dedication to his son! Fortunately Maami Menace by Pradeep Raj strikes a lighter note, being a funny story about a overly familiar old woman who tends to take advantage of a nice family's politeness. The next one Peacock Cut by R Chandrasekhar is a very mildly amusing froth about an American wrestler/basketball player wanting a weird haircut in India. 

In Father of my Son by Roshan Radhakrishnan, I found the first really interesting story in the collection. It's a delightful little story of a little boy's naughtiness and repercussions told in a funny, matter of fact manner from the father's perspective. The strict mom and the lenient dad might be cliches but still fun to read nonetheless, especially as an example of familial love. The Bengal Tigress by Malathi Jaikumar also deals with family but in a far more trite manner and purports to show a single act of defiance by a submissive wife as some sort of emancipation for her. In true Hindi movie style earns the respect of her husband by that one line of dialogue she utters. It does not help that the author gets the Bengali milieu and name wrong.

Mr. Koshi's Daily Routine by John Mathew is a touching and plaintive portrait of a sad, bitter man forced to conform and compromise all his life because of the demands of family and expectations. The story comes to a head with a final act of symbolic defiance that is his plaintive cry against all that is wrong in his world - his old boss, his dim colleagues and his supercilious but successful neighbor, Waghmare. In contrast, the next story Mr. Perierra by Ahmed Faiyaz strikes a sadder note, with a story of an expat visiting India and getting to meet an old terminally ill teacher who had influenced him a lot as a child.

The Wall by Saurabh Katiyal is an evocatively written description of ennui that strikes a young corporate executive of 31. The same corporate sales environment is covered in the next, mildly diverting story Jo Dikhta Hai Woh Bikta Hai by Sneh Thakur which is a portrait of a sales based FMCG company where rookie salespeople are being inducted.

The Interview by Manisha Lakhe shows two faces of a famous and legendary film star, the accidental knowledge of which shakes the beliefs of an adoring reporter covering him for a profile. Paisley Printed Memories by Sneh Thakur describes a happy wedding in the memories of the bride, ending with a wrench that forces one to question how reliable or transient those memories are. Heaven & Hell by Shachi Mail shows how a short encounter with a mehendiwalla causes a woman to reevaluate her entire existence.

Cats & Sponges by Meena Bhatnagar is an interesting little amorality tale of interpersonal intrigues set in a hotel, while You Eternal Beauty by Naman Saraiya is a story that begins with promise but loses itself in a litany of Calcutta cliches. Wrong Bangla to boot - "Amar ke jete hobe", anyone?

The Window Seat by Salil Chaturvedi is perhaps among the best of the lot. Deals with a chance meeting between a laid off, divorced pilot and a girl who has just broken off a relationship with a married man, and how they help each other. The fourth Ahmed Faiyaz story in the collection, It's All Good does nothing to redeem his impression on me, being a silly little morality tale on spending beyond your limit set in a sales dept in an organization.

The Pig in a Poke by Mydhili Verma is based on the Nigerian scams, and starts off promisingly when a teenager responds to the con email in a funny manner, but disappointingly loses steam when we realize the response was not being sarcastic! Bummer! Ready, Jet, Set, Go - another one by Uttam's favourite writer Ahmed Faiyaz. There seems to be a clear pattern here. Ahmed seems to have a chip in his shoulder about new India. This time he takes on chick lit and Indian bestsellers and the kind of gauche people who publish and read them. Another trite storyis the next one, called Things That Can Happen In A Park by Gagan Narula. A pointless vignette of an interaction between a young research scientist and an old geezer in the park.

Also set in a park, but more interesting is Hot Masala by Jhangir Kerawala, where he describes a set of morning walkers and their encounter with a mugger who might be one of them! The Raincoat by Rashmi Sahi is a nice, touching story of a family bonding together in penury via a hand stitched raincoat. This is followed by The Weeping Girl by Kunal Dhabalia which is the story of a guy being trying to help a girl seemingly in distress. The problem is, you can see the conclusion coming a mile away. The final story in the book is Hot Pants by Arefa Tehsin. It's an
amusing story of a young girl suddenly free of her mother's strict supervision for a night.

In a collection of 28 stories I can hardly count 4-5 that I genuinely liked. Most of them were either boring, pointless, or just plain bad. This is supposed to be the 2nd collection in the Urban Shots "series". The most benefit of doubt I can give the editor is that maybe he has used up all the good ones in the first part. But that being true, I wouldn't hold my breath for Part 3.

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