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A third collection with variety

One of the hazards of a single-author collection is monotony. But in this work, Keki N. Daruwalla offers such a variety of voices that boredom is kept away, says SHASHI DESHPANDE.


"THERE is a tendency on the part of critics," says the American writer Joyce Carol Oates, "to categorise writers ... one is either a writer of prose or of poetry." Readers do this too; which accounts for the curiosity when reading a poet's stories, specially when the writer has as formidable a reputation as poet as Keki Daruwalla has. But in this collection, A House in Ranikhet, Daruwalla reveals only a proficient story teller. It is as if he has in mind what the narrator of the story "Going" says: "I seem to be getting pseudo lyrical and that sure is a danger signal — loss of controls". There is certainly no loss of control in this story of the tangled relations of three generations of women, the most lyrical story in the collection. The tragedy of old age, a celebration of life and the liberation of death: these are put together and framed in the ambience of rain, bird calls, the flight of parrots, and the anticipation of seeing the peacock. The mellow light of evening seems to pervade this exquisite story of a grand daughter sharing the last hours of a loved grandmother.

Remarkably, Daruwalla does not offer the reader the usual Parsi stereotypes, though Freny Batlibhoy in the title story comes close. The Parsi identity is mostly incidental, like in "Going". In "Of Mother", however, this identity adds to the complexity and richness of the story, this detail, like the many others, yielding finally a deeply-etched, finely-nuanced picture. The Parsi family here is from the Punjab, but living in Junagadh in the tumultous times before Independence. History is yoked with an amazing skill to personal lives. The fear of vultures (such an ominous presence to Parsis) nesting near the house and fear for the two sons still in the Punjab, fears of the future of the country, as well as their own (what about Father's job now that the Nawab has decided to join Pakistan?) — all these mingle naturally in this seemingly artless child's narration. But it is, above all, the story of the mother, a woman who seems enigmatic when seen through the opaque lens of a child's gaze. The story ends poignantly with her body, "light as an insect's wing", being laid to rest.

History is a major motif in a number of stories here, but none of them achieve the perfection of this one. The contemporary stories which ridicule the rewriting of history don't go beyond burlesque. More interesting is "Islands", taking a swipe at the historian's role. And "The Yavana Cometh", which, while contrasting Alexander's focus and bloodthirstiness with the Indian kings' hedonism and ignorance, is so infused with humour, that it seems to be playful. But there is nothing funny about the end, in which the one king with prescience makes a compromise that spells out the continuing tragedy of this country.

One of the hazards of a single-author collection is monotony. But Daruwalla offers such a variety of voices that boredom is certainly staved off. If the anecdotal stories are slight, they are redeemed by the humour. But what I call the "police stories" are rather disappointing; no surprises in them. "The Retired Panther" is however worth reading for the opening paragraph alone, which evokes both the drama and the deadly silent menace of the panther.

It seems surprising that, despite this being Daruwalla's third collection of stories, he is no more known as a writer of short fiction. This speaks volumes of the English literary scene, of the predominance of the novel, as well as the importance of publicity and hype.

A House in Ranikhet, Keki N. Daruwalla, Rupa & Co, p. 226, Rs.195

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