The title of Murli Melwani’s collection of short stories should have been “Against Many Skies.” More than half the stories crisscross India and her myriad cultures; the rest follow the ancestral trading trails beyond India’s borders trod by the hoary ancestors of a unique community, the Sindhis.
I was so impressed by the perspectives the stories present that I could not help but make brief comparisons with the reality that exists today.
“A Bar Girl.” The story touched me greatly. The life styles that both Amar Badlani and Rak have chosen prevent them from stopping and evaluating their lives or asking where there are heading. For me the significant event was the visit of Amar Badlani with Rak to her village; it brought home to him the fact that his estrangement from his family had its roots in his working life. His damage control efforts lead him to finance the nursing education of Rak and make overtures to his kids and grandkids. His efforts succeed. As a kid in Jakarta, I remember seeing and hearing about Sindhi men with local wives. People talked disparagingly about them. But then that’s life, you take the sour with the sweet and turn it into bhel.
The young Jimmy Ramnani, In ”Writing a Fairy Tale,” had literary aspirations. But the attraction of money and the ties to family that made his comfortable life possibly distracted him from his dream. In Carmen, the wife of one his bigger buyers, he found a kindred spirit who revived the dormant literary aspect of his personality. However, when push came to shove, he put family before his own happiness. Had he married Carmen, (a) his family would have lost the business of the cash-cow client of theirs, (b) his family may have cut him off. Was he ready to start life with an almost entry-level income, and a wife who had known a luxurious life with her present husband? Call him a nice and warm human being but a calculating one.
The writer brings out the effects of “Mei Mard hu” attitude of Hassaram in “ The Mexican Girl Friend” and of Metha(Mike) Uttamchandani in “ Hong Kong Here I Come” quite forcefully. The feelings and unhappiness of the women in their life matters little to both men. Metha’s ego justifies his coldness to the wife he selected with such clinical calculation in the gallery presented to him in the (arranged) marriage market. Will he treat Gita(Rita) differently as he promises himself when he takes his halting steps on the road to financial recovery? Or will it be a forgotten pledge?
“Requital,” apart from the refreshing atmosphere of the North East, reminded me of Sindhi young men, who steal the customers and sources of supply of their bosses – they bite the hands that gave them a start in life.
“The Bhorwani Marriage” captures the comic drama, rather the mini dramas, enacted when a marriage is being arranged.
The best story in the collection is “Water on a Hot Plate.” The narrative flows with events, meaningful conversations, memories. The issues touched up are the classic dilemmas of expatriates. In this case an element of poignancy is added by the fact that the chief concern of the older characters is about the loss of their unique culture with its blend of Hindu, Islamic and Sikh traditions.
“Gift for the Goddess.” When modern engineering and superstition collide in rural areas, who wins? You guessed it: superstition. What I wonder is that when men think of evil, why do they attribute it to a goddess/ a ma?
“Sunday with Mary” is typical of middle class life and yet it is atypical. How many couples take that trouble to ferret out that little space in a hard existence for each other and organize the day and week around it? Six days of spoken and unspoken bickering? These are the marriages that survive all the odds and there plenty of them around.
“Teesta Holiday” was chilling. A life changing experience, I would imagine, for all four. The question is, or the better or worse? Will they never venture into the hills again? Or will they learn to appreciate life better after coming face to face with death?
In “Shiva’s Winds,” we are not shown people coming face to face with death. The story is about those who challenge the elements. We are told about the reasons why the seasonal laborers trek to higher altitudes, the vagaries of weather, and the final surprise about the baby who conquers the elements while the adults don’t.
“The Inner Light” reflects the reality of religion exploiting the gullible. What is different about the story is that the young kid has been brainwashed into the role practically from birth! I am quite horrified by all the reality shows featuring children; their parents put them through such terrible wringers for those 15 minutes of fame in the idiot box.
“The Guerilla's Daughter,” “Sunday on a Green Lawn” and “The Seasons of Contentment” are love stories on the surface, but their unstated undercurrent reflects our innate refusal to accept each other and shows our biases towards background, economic status, caste, region, or religion. Why do we insist on creating and drawing lines instead of dissolving them? We have a hoary history of merging and mingling.
“The Village with Gandhi's Statue” is also about our propensity to draw inimical lines. Who decreed that death by fire was the punishment for stealing two brass tumblers?
I love the irreverent in “Waiting for Leander Paes, Sania Mirza or Somdev Dev-Varman.” It speaks up, while examining the players’ personalities via their playing styles, and mastering it's master!
“Eight Rupees” reminded me of my own experience with a shoe shine boy years ago. Wonder where he is now? He belonged to group of enterprising young with the capacity and drive to go places.
“The Shrine” is yet another take on sati, after Padmavati, this time for a lover where the husband failed to ignite.
Let me confess. As a post-Partition Sindhi, these stories evoked so much delightful nostalgia for a long gone past, those memories of eavesdropping on conversations of homecoming uncles and cousins, accidental overheard chatter, tales of wheeling dealing, adjusting to different environments, the second families abroad, the celebrations, the songs, looking, listening, absorbing, until one day one realized - so this is what being Sindhi is all about!
I’m sure that the various layers of the stories will appeal to different sensibilities, which means to a lot of readers.