Short stories have a strange way of bonding with strangers. They create a set of images that go deep into the database of your mind and then are able to search out some distant cousin of theirs who is uncannily similar to what they look like. You immediately mutter, ‘Hmmm… I know a bit of this story.’ This is true even when there is intrigue or an unexpected twist in the story, for even life is really so full of intrigue and twists and turns. But the charm of a bouquet of stories is that they take you on a tour that spans years, almost like the trips that Mrs Lal opts for in ‘A Golden Twilight’…
Each day she would select for herself a phase of her life, a decade or a moment, and give herself up to it completely. And it would reward her with a flood of emotions and memories and feelings, as if in a torrent of gratitude, just for being recalled again.
…and realising this, her son ‘would not force her to go with him. She stayed back, moving into a cottage on Pine Hill.’
Navtej Sarna’s ‘Winter Evenings’ is a collection of nineteen short-stories that make you stop and wonder how he could have known the characters you have met in your life, or the way you have thought about an evening or the way you have lived a dual existence in your thoughts and your words… so uncannily familiar are Dr Anand and Rao from the first story in this collection, that you as a reader shudder and smile at the same time:
‘Dull day today.’
And usually, thought the doctor, your hole of a bank is a veritable hub of activity.
But aloud, he said: ‘How come?’
‘No mail, no work. Not one potential borrower.’
‘They are all frozen, or sick. We really need that new hospital.’
Back to the new hospital, thought Rao, can’t we ever talk of anything else?
And aloud: ‘How’s the work going?’
The author has the same words working for him as they are for any of us, but the way he ushers you into ‘a silence in which the pouring rain did not matter and one could hear, somewhere, the breaking of a twig’ and then takes you out into ‘…the cold, brittle darkness was crowded with stars’ one cannot help but be like ‘…two unlikely companions thrown together by some strange destiny, only to be separated by it again, but for the moment tied together by the love of verse and words.’ Yes, the writing that is there in these pages is what the poetry of life is all about.
As a reader you squirm restlessly when Rao and Dr Anand of ‘Winter Evenings’ let you know that what we say isn’t always what we want to say, you too remember the times there were Shekhars in your life and you were the Ranjana of ‘Sunrise at Mashobra’, you too have loved strolling with your past as Mrs lal did in ‘A Golden Twilight’. Haven’t you ever felt as helpless as the sahib in ‘Rumki’, or as full of frustrations as Shammi in ‘Forgotten Tunes’? What I am trying to say is that these stories that aren’t too long and that never take much time to finish reading stay on in your being as if that is where they were supposed to be. Almost like Navtej writes in ‘Barrier Beach’:
Sometimes you know that some things will happen. I knew that I would catch up with her and talk to her. It was as if everything else, the ferry, the island, the weather, the low-flying gulls, the cycles were all stage props for this one central act.
Navtej takes you on a metaphysical hang-glider for a ride of a lifetime, and then brings you straight on the ground giving you descriptions that you recognise as absolutely true-to-life… and he sometimes does it in a single story! Just look at the way he takes you around the lanes of Pinjore in ‘Raya’:
Old, small houses with little verandas huddled close to each other. I found the house I was looking for. The rolled-up bamboo chicks had been let down to shelter the veranda from the afternoon sun. A street dog slept near the three steps that led up to a door painted chocolate brown. He opened one eye briefly as I stepped around him and then went back to sleep. The brass bell had an old fashioned ring that seemed to reverberate back into my hand.
…and then, in the same story, we fly away to a Moscow of 1953 where the writer in the story meets Raya Kanieva and like him, you too are lost in ‘the days of walking around with Raya, listening to her, looking into her black eyes while sipping lemon chai would remain only a dream. Perhaps a dream wrapped up in a lace curtain with small flowers cut into it, the kind of curtain that covered the window of that twentieth-floor café.’ You, as a reader, love the soft-toned philosophical stances of the writer in this story within a story and you agree when he writes:
I heard her and I did not hear her; I saw what she showed me and I did not. Because all of me seemed to be on a slow fire as I walked beside her on those wide streets, as I changed bus for train for tram… and at the end of the day all I would remember was how the weak sun softened the black of her eyes or how she gently stopped to pick up a leaf that had floated down from a branch to the pavement.
The metaphorical content of the stories and the imagery that his sentences have in them are only too obvious even in short ones where ‘he put out the match with a vicious twist of the wrist and let it drop into the ashtray with a caressing gentleness.’ You appreciate the blunt incisiveness of that ‘well-read, elegant escort, a very high-class prostitute’ on a vacation in ‘Barrier Beach’ who spouts meaningful lines of poetry at every given opportunity:
There will be time, there will be time,
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet…
Insights. Yes, little insights into human actions, reactions, and behaviours is also evident in a lot of these stories. There are so many examples that I came across that it was actually very difficult to finally choose just one to illustrate what I am talking about. This one is from ‘It was drizzling in Paris’:
‘You tell me how things have been with you since we last met. Let’s not talk about me.’
When a man says that, it is clear that he wants to talk about himself but will instead go through the motions.
There is another little emotion that I was nagged by as I went through the stories. There was an undefinable restlessness and a tinge of sadness there that was trying to remain controlled and away from unnecessary attention… this perhaps made those bits all the more powerful, and made instant connections with some or the other part of a reader’s life.
I know I am going to go back to reading these stories someday again… like I read and re-read those that Scott F Fitzgerald wrote.
Title: Winter Evenings – Stories
Author: Navtej Sarna
Publisher: Rainlight | Rupa
Price: Rs 350/- (Hardbound) (in 2013)
17 January 2013