Book Reviews

The Arithmetic of Breasts and Other Stories

Rochelle Potkar ‘s The Arithmetic of Breasts and Other Stories (20Notebooks Press ISBN 978-93-5174-900-4) is an outstanding collection of just seven and a half stories with the Front cover design by Erin Lark Logo design by Deepak Shinde. The book appears to be erotical from its cover design and the title. But if one delves deeper they will be amazed by the creative fecundity of Rochelle as a short story writer.

At present she is on a residency programme for creative writing in Iowa City in the USA.

Her book The Arithmetic of Breasts and Other Stories has been shortlisted for the Digital Book of the Year Award 2014.

In the Foreword to the book Rochelle wrote : “My first story belonged to the speculative fiction genre. In those days, I didn’t understand much about genres. I just knew I compulsively wanted to tell a tale. I wrote 40-50 stories in the past few years. I put them together and sent them to a literary agent. When they were returned, I pondered over what could have gone wrong and realized I had clubbed ghost-paranormal, women-centric, general-themed, and romance stories under one roof. I have now neatly separated the oranges from the apples.”

It is very clear from the content of the stories that she is not interested in erotica. “ I won’t go into why I wrote these stories. It is not that I am interested in erotica alone. I am interested in life. I am interested in most subjects. I am curious objects, philosophy, nature, animals, science, ecosystems”. Whatever she says , the opening of the titular story ‘ The Arithmetic of Breasts’ is quite erotic where she describes the physicality of Munika. :” Narain always had a semi-hardon when Munika was around. She had the most delicious-looking breasts he had ever seen on a woman. A supple 38 D cup size for sure. Only after his eyes had gorged enough on those juicy mounds, taking care not to appear like a letch, did they veer towards her navel peeping from her sari, teasing him from a distance.” It is a bold description in a novel written by a woman. The tragic story of a woman later getting breast cancer is told in such a seductive way , that the reader only feels pain when the tragedy occurs. All passions spent and calm of mind yet to come because the story ends in the tragic. The beginning is giving no impression of this painful ending and the writer weaves the story with so much intelligence and craft that a little lack of alertness can mislead one to describe the story as erotic. The description of the waist is also equally sensuous “Her narrow waist led his eyes to her thighs beneath her sari pleats, and then to her firm pair of plump buttocks. Those too were ample when compared to the other women he had seen around, and they somehow suited Munika’s slightly broader frame.” .This is the magic of Rochelle’s narrative. She can make the narrative vivid for visualisation.

There is something like Marvell’s cataloguing of female items in the story. But the more we enter into the story the mystery of the body gets more revealed and explored. What is more interesting is the description of the man’s motive from the female viewpoint. Rochelle describes the attitude of Narain in wonderfully lusty language “He knew he would have to go slow with imagining what lay beneath her blouse that dipped into a valley in the most delectable vertical karp reduction symbol he had ever seen.” . It is a bold visual offered for the readers and very rare for any young female novelists of recent times in depicting what she calls ‘Female Utopia’’(p9)The novelist rights says that ‘drooping eyes convey what his arrested tongue could not.” Her sarcasm comes so transparent in the following description of the scientist “A math scientist himself, he intricately studied curves, surfaces, objects in a plane, and three-dimensional spaces. Maybe he studied them outside the institute too. He liked shapes anywhere.”

Never before in any fiction mathematical knowledge of a topologist like Narain is used so beautifully in the exploration of human nature. There are wonderful reflection on the female shape :” Desmond Morris says that the round shape of a woman's breasts evolved as a sexual-attraction counterpart to the buttocks,’ his friend would muse, ‘A frontal, secondary sex characteristic to encourage face-to-face copulation in the missionary position for the upright, bipedal human being.”(p.11) There are lovely really appealing description of a female body when gazed through a male eye : “his Sisyphean microscopic gaze over her lovely dunes held in the lace calligraphy of her humble bra and a pink cotton blouse underneath the sheer print of a light mauve sari.” (p.11) All these show how Rochelle can capture the attention of the readers by graphic erotica when the story is not at all erotic.Silence is one very important feature in this story and at one place silence is so nicely described :” silences grew like a deafening drone”(p12) Each line of a part of the narrative can be cited as a very frank and realistic graphic of physical union and the height is reached : “Twice a day, and four times on a holiday.” But it had to be done every day. How could one live without it? He remembered his colleague’s words, “All we need Narain is a desk to work on and a bed to fuck on.” Now he had both! And he chided himself if he were to not turn all those masturbation energies over the imaginary woman-of-his-mind multiple times over into her, now that she was real and his wife. Don’t be a blabbermouth! Prove it!”

Frankness of a novelist’s narrative is a forte of the novel. Indian Kamsutra is fictionalised in the most modern way in smart English narration which is almost seductive: “ They tried the Catherine wheel, ape position, butterfly and dolphin position, bridge and plough position, suspended scissors, and standing wheelbarrow positions, their limbs akimbo, her breasts dangling precariously. The magic mountain position, her breasts squashed over three pillows. The snail, G-force, grip, Y-curve, and shoulder stand position, her breasts jiggling happily.” Lovers of the world must learn their lesson to relive their sensations and like Keats they too may cry out “ “ O for a life of sensation rather than of thought!’.

The transformation of the vivacious woman into a mother of two kids is sensibly described : “The sight of her gleaming breast pressed like a dough ball over the tiny baby’s face. The way the feeding baby’s tiny hands clasped her mother’s lactating, nourishing orb like Atlas holding the world in place.” This is the twist of the story that ends with the description of Narain’s mental condition when the breast cancer operation occurred. : “Now, Narain could barely remember the way he would palpitate and salivate over Munika's younger breasts. To him, it was just anatomy—one part of her whole, first what was filled limber like a landfill, and now excavated like a mine, the earth of bruise-skin still being where it was, and the same.”(p26).

A woman as the mother is no less beautiful than the woman as the wife.

Rochelle is a little sarcastic too in the description of the hunger of Narain for the breasts “Their love-making though was now not as adventurous and frequent as a nightly gallop. Even twice or once a week was just as fulfilling.”(p18) This is what happens to conjugal life. The same dullness everywhere when the kids are born with the sensuous magic disappearing. The dullness and boredom described at the end of the story engage the reader’s attention no less .it is painful rather than frustrating : “ Munika and he lived with each other’s silences. He, subconsciously following her day’s routine without losing concentration on his work. After the breast operation she got artificial breasts and the writer tries to unfathom her mental condition:´ From the outside, her breasts didn’t look different, but Munika knew which side weighed heavy with the real her. Her breasts had never been a big deal to her.’The ending is just superb ,all great expectations just belied.:” He was so into Munika now even without being inside her that he kissed the cross-stitched flatland of her chest several times.”

In the story ‘The Room with a Seaview’ is also a beautiful one in which sometimes the writer uttering maxims :” Butterfly and air cannot be held, sir. Can it ever?”What a satiric description of Jaganlal the 70-year old man the womaniser after his wife’s death. Rochelle describes : “Jaganlal was 70. He would give paintings from his collection to any woman who gave him a feeling from where none was easily possible. He could speak for hours and hours on any subject that even Satish, vernacular in his language, impatient with nuance and restless about real-estate sales targets, would sit back and listen to.”(p29). Then there is the character of Dia and Rochelle’s description is still more ironical : “It was perhaps the best relationship Jaganlal had had outside his marriage, though he hardly realized it while he was in it. He would have wanted her to stay, but could you hold on to air or a butterfly that sought freedom, adventure?” The flirtation of Dia is so candidly described ” Repeating things were not her habit and the novelty would die down soon, but here it had been five months and they had only kissed”.

Rochelle defines love from Dia’s point of view : “What was love? How was it defined? Wasn’t it being lonely or young or hormonally supercharged? By that definition, she could have been in love four times a year. Did it matter? When they couldn’t even define what it really was. A certain togetherness? Familiarity? Recurring fondness? Memory? Or habit? (p34) This swayambara of Dia is beautifully described and the feelings of Jaganlal when Dia left him like La Belle Dame Sans Merci of Keats’s poem. : “Meera! Jaganlal could see her in Dia every morning in remembrance, every evening in person. She who had opened him up like a surgeon about to perform an invasive, incisive surgery, but had changed her mind midstream, leaving the patient open like a bag on the high table. With so much reflection on poetry, more lyrical than the actual verses, so much musing on musical scales, more evocative than the actual melodies, she was gone, undoing him, unstringing him.”(p37) Again another bold story on love and relationship. So real yet so fabulous way of telling. In the story ‘ The Sky Park ‘ we get another wonderful plot revolving around Nick and Jackie. Here Lee says frankly :” I don’t talk. Talking is endless, futile. Besides, I have a slur that I don’t like any of my girls to know about. My language is of the body. I like to watch my girls scrape their soft backs sore on the stones, mud in their hair as we make love. I pick and choose them. They can’t be just anyone. They have to have something that sets them apart. I can sense their souls through their bodies—the smaller the better.” P.(42) The narrative is a cluster of monologues. The story ends with Jackie’s frustration :” That's why I got you back. And now I am alone again. He lives, and I die inside myself.” (p.48).

Other stories of this book such as ‘Dr.Love’, ‘The Scent of a Conscience’. ‘A Place They Call Scary’ (first published in Nasau Review) and ‘Our Lovers’ are equally powerful narratives. One portion of the story ‘ Our Lovers’ again show Rochelle’s bold style of telling about life and love :´” Malaika had many lovers while I just one. But I dreamed of her lovers—Derek, Vishal, Bobby, Prem, Sylvester, Dilip, and Anil—each time I made love to Glen. It was my way of equaling the scores, besides having a secret harem of male lovers at my disposal.”(p 85).Rochelle is a powerful writer of fiction , never sentimental anywhere, her imagination boundless and sense and sensibility awesome. But everywhere she talks in the female voice , the voice that is very much unconventional , iconoclastic and bold. In recent times, among the young writers emerging in the fictional world , Rochelle is undoubtedly ahead of many in the race and she may beat many others in her telling of the stories with a strong social message. She is a good story teller too.


More by :  Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee

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