Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Githa Hariharan: Stories to Die for

It is said that the scientist looks at the extraordinary and explains it in terms of the ordinary, whereas it takes a poet to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary. "Art of Dying", by Githa Hariharan, promises to do the latter, and though a compilation of short stories, in parts it is pure poetry.

A short story writer is like a miniature artist - with a few strokes she must sketch out enough of the narrative to draw in the reader. I thought Githa Hariharan was primarily a novelist - her novel The thousand stories of night had won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best First Novel, and In Times of Siege had been recommended to me (though I haven't gotten around to reading either). But here she reveals herself as a master of the short narrative as well.

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This is a thin volume - twenty stories - most of them seven or eight pages long. A quick read, but it had been sitting on my shelf for five years perhaps, before I finally got around to reading it. But was I glad that I did!

It was an astonishing read. I was left stunned. There is no preponderance of drama, just a quiet narrative, highlighting the dramatic in the everyday humdrum of a daughter looking after a dying mother, or a young boy becoming aware of his budding sexuality. Despite the title, it is a tenacious affirmation of life, rather than death, that drives these stories home. It is one of the most moving story collections I have read in a long time.

The stories are unobtrusively set in a vivid south Asian context: ironing a sari ("the kind of counterfeit silk sari we have always given servants when there is a marriage among them"), the brahmin widow lusting for cakes containing egg, killing a mosquito ("it leaves behind a small blotch of brownish-red, stale blood on the white net"); and yet there is the touch of the universal, as in this paean to an aging mother:
The tenor of my life --wifing, childbearing -- has been determined by the subtle undulating waves... Bleed, dry up; expand with life, contract with completion.
Many of the stories do deal with death. In the opening story, Unfinished poem, a retired tubelight-salesman, a poet at heart, and his wife, are trying to kill a rat that has been vandalizing their garden. He sits at his desk, pen in hand, but words elude him; he has only platitudes:

Tell me, koel, when you heard him last
My little boy in the wooded past --

Meanwhile, every night the rat attacks the roots and stems in the garden, but does not eat them - "it is a song of pure destruction." Finally, the poet decides to sleep outside, next to the creeping jasmine, and try to capture the creature directly. The rat's "thick, slicky slime of his blood" becomes his last poem.

Some other stories, like Remains of the Feast, while dealing with death, are really about the repressed desire in an widow.

The theme of death forms a subtle backdrop to the title story, which is one of the most moving stories here. The sparkling first-person narrative focuses on her aging mother, still caught up in the untimely death of her beloved son, balancing it with some vignettes from her own experience as a psychiatric councillor. Several case histories are sketched, in tight, crisp, detail.

One sexual history is reminiscent of Sudhir Kakar: A couple comes to see her; though married for four years, they can't have a baby. She sends them to a doctor, who pronounces her fine, but a virgin. It is only on their subsequent visit that

He says, the words tumbling out of his thick lips: She calls out to my mother when I touch her.

And what does your mother do? I asked.

She has been sleeping between us every night for the last four years, he replied, his hands still at last, clasped furtively on his lap.

These stories live in these nuances; the furtive hand, the gecko's eating the moth. In the title story, her mother's illness moves slowly, and there are flashbacks to the dead brother and his white girlfriend, Janet: "He was not sure whether he wanted to marry her." Several times in the story, she talks of memory as a Time Machine that can only move back, to the days when one is younger:

when my body was something precious, not just a machine
to be oiled and exercised at the right times, but
examined, caressed, even, on occasion, flaunted -- I
had a buffer between me, that living, demanding thing,
and death.

But while tending to her bed-ridden mother on her last days, she has a furtive wish to to "relieve the burden... It would be simpler to help her forward. It would take only a minute or two to give her what her heart yearns for. ... Her real self, the young, full-blooded woman with long, thick, hair... He [her son Ram] awaits her, his chest as broad, his face as unlined as in his framed photograph, the eternal lover."

The themes range well beyond death; in "Field Trip", a city boy, "ten and a half years old", is laughed at by the village boys for his delicate ways, and feels tormented when he is given a bath by a woman, her tight blouse inches from his face. He feels "an empty throbbing sensation in the pit of his stomach... like the time he had looked out of the twelfth-floor balcony in Bombay."

One point that struck me in several stories is a references to children, brothers, mothers, but the absence of a husband. Later a friend mentioned to me that Hariharan had won a celebrated case which empowered children in India to be named after their mother; clearly she has little need for a husband.

On the whole, these stories constitute and an amazingly accurate, insightful portrayal of everyday life in India. It may not carry the magic realism of Rushdie, or even the nuanced grace of plot as in Ghosh, but it is nonetheless among the more powerful stories I have encountered. One wishes it would find publishers outside India as well, which seems to be the quickest way for Indian writers to get noticed in the world!

The Art of Dying and Other Stories, by Githa Hariharan,
Penguin Books 1993, 166 pages
ISBN:0140233393 [buy]

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