The Gourd Seller & Other StoriesKitaab International Pte Ltd, Singapore. 2015
Pages 52 | Rs 295 @ amazon.in (PB)
Haunting stories with raw honesty
The versatile and much-awarded poet and writer, Abha Iyengar comes up with another winning collection of short stories, following on the success of her earlier works: Yearnings, Shrayan, Flash Bites and Many Fish to Fry. The Gourd Seller & Other Stories, a slim volume of eight moving stories which have been critically acclaimed in their earlier publications in reputed journals, gains a great deal in depth by being presented as one cohesive text, with multiple themes and layers of consciousness emerging individually, as well as in an interplay of the various characters in situations, which border sometimes on the surreal.
There is an innate sense of the tragic that runs through the collection. Woman-centric to a major extent, seven of the stories recount, with understanding and empathy, the longings and conflicts which plague the women trying to come to terms with destinies that range from the unfortunate to the disastrous. A sense of betrayal and deception marks these destinies: A woman who has lost her husband in a tragic accident in Delhi, relocates to Kanpur and tries to rebuild her life with her daughter in the title story. Without her being aware of it, and despite their religious backgrounds, her initial disgust with the loud gourd seller, gives way to a feeling for him that she can barely understand. The bond between them is subtle, but magical. As the gourd diet purifies her in mind and body, its regenerative power also saves her daughter; but the price has to be paid. Rising over the personal emotional entanglements, Abha Iyengar depicts the mindless communal violence that claims the life of the gourd seller.
The title story is one of two stories that offer redemption and hope along with the tragedy. A similar regenerative power is evident in the Urdu poetry which the narrator discovers in 'A Matter of Time.' In most of the others, the baser instincts of human nature come to the forefront. The three stories set in the US are particularly harsh and unredeemed. Sundari, in 'A Family of Beauties,' the plain looking girl, molested by her grandfather and responsible for his death, faces further rejection from her beautiful mother and sister, and is exploited sexually by Tom, her sister's beau. The recurring presence of the rocking horse comes to symbolise the meaninglessness of both her life and death. Heidi's and Stan's relationship in 'Jagged Ends' is equally sterile, exploitative and violent and Stan's near accidental death mocks Heidi with its suddenness and what appears as her brush with good fortune – the winning of a large sum of money. The mismatch and futility of this relationship is mirrored in the coldness that grows between Rishi and the narrator in their first meeting in 'Marked Territories.' Isolated individuals, turning in upon themselves in their shells, without even the possibility of communication between them; and the explosion of violence, that snuffs all such possibility.
The intersection of the classes in both 'The Gourd Seller' and 'The High Stool' reflect different dimensions in the lives of the characters. As Reena understands herself and comes to accept the growing bond with the gourd seller, Altaf, and emerges from her dual tragedy with a strong determined will to live; the young mother Tara, in 'The High Stool' realises the hollowness of her Madam's world when she pushes the maid to get into a relationship with her husband to satiate his lust; the cynicism of the story is evident from the fact that Tara, Madam, and Tara's husband accept this situation without protest: the material benefits to all concerned are no match for questions of honour or conscience –
'Now I stay back at Madam's house quite often. My husband and children don't ask any questions. We have moved to a two room apartment in a better area. There is an attached bath with running water. My children are well-dressed and go to proper schools. Many sarees hang in my cupboard, presented to me by Madam. I have bought my family's acceptance, and Madam has bought my silence.'
Abha's strength is her visualisation. The poet-cinematographer in her helps in construction of moving images that continue to haunt. Thus, the opening sentence of the title story –
'The gourd seller's voice could be heard above the morning din. Over the pots and pans that Shantabai clanged in the kitchen. Over the swish of the sweeper's broom in the alley. Over the ratatttattttadddddhhhhh of the machine guns from the game playing of Reena's ten year old Anoushka in her room.'
The Gourd Seller & Other Stories is haunting in its raw honesty. Haunting also because the stories move beyond themselves, embedding themselves in the memory and revealing layers that manifest themselves progressively on reflection and contemplation.