Writing on castaways and people inhabiting the fringes of society is not always easy. Ask writer Palash Krishna Mehrotra who walks down the dark alleys of India's urban underbelly in his debut collection of short stories.
Thirty-three-year-old Mehrotra's "Eunuch Park: 15 Stories of Love and Destruction" has been published by Penguin Books this month.
"Choosing short stories as my format was deliberate. I am comfortable with the genre - my natural talent lies in short stories. A novel works well in a homogeneous society like England, but in a multi-cultural society like India, short stories allow you to explore the multiple realities - and to get closer to the truth," Mehrotra told IANS.
Mehrotra, who has studied at St. Stephen's College, the Delhi School of Economics and the Balliol College in Oxford, has been influenced by writers like Raymond Carver, Emile Zola, Patrick Hamilton, V.S. Naipaul and Amit Chaudhuri.
"I am inspired by V.S. Naipaul's simplistic style. He usually compresses his prose into 15-20 word formats. You can work it into complex stories. Simplicity is a style I have consciously worked on," says Mehrotra.
To illustrate the "huge amount of storytelling and simplicity of prose" that can be packed into short stories, Mehrotra cites "Dancing With Men" from his collection as an example.
The protagonist goes out one night to dance at a night spot with male friends - after a drink in his favourite pub. He meets people who inhabit the middle earth - somewhere at the surface of respectability.
A sailor and his girlfriend, whom he befriends at the dance bar, narrate how they met. The sailor says, "This time, when I got off the ship, I just had one thing on my mind - marriage. The girl says in a nasal voice, "Even I was desperate to get married."
The sailor boy says, "Thank god, I met a girl... I was so desperate to get married that I would have a married a goat." "Same here," says the girl.
Mehrotra, who has taught creative writing at Doon School and worked as a journalist for a year, says he "has honed the irreverent style over a period of time to give the story a stark, cynical and effortless feel".
Mehrotra shines his torch on prostitutes, cross-dressers, murderers, drug addicts, students and stalkers, portraying their perversions and vulnerabilities with equal insight at the slums, call centres, college hostel and rented rooms.
"I used to go to the Okhla slum to smoke joints - and that's where I met some of my key characters. Now when I look back at the book, I find I probed several things that people don't usually take on like male identity, male consciousness, homosexuality and seeing the world from a male perspective," says the writer.
"Eunuch Park" - the representative story after which the book is named - is the one that moves Mehrotra the most. A young couple - Anmol and Roshni - is looking for a place to make love. No place offers them the privacy they need.
Anmol takes Roshni to the Eunuch Park - a shady park in the city for a few hours of intimacy. The eunuchs who control the park extort money from the couple. An exasperated Anmol takes Roshni to his hostel room. As they make love, the dean and the hostel warden knock on the door.
A frightened Anmol bundles Roshni in a quilt and stows her under the bed - but the men, on finding her wrapped up like a child under the bed, metamorphose into eunuchs and threaten her with a knife.
"I would get bored reworking old fables, especially when I see reality slipping away from the narratives. I am a contemporary writer and I want my books to hold a mirror to society," he said.
He has also edited the "Recess: The Penguin Book of Schooldays".
Mehrotra, who has relocated to the capital from Derhadun, is working on a non-fiction about urban youth in contemporary India - "The Butterfly Generation". It will be published by Rupa & Co.