Some books that one gets to read are like a spoonula of creative thought and expression and then there are a whole lot of others that make the critics say that we ‘have turned literature into a cesspool of mediocrity’. Well, the PR and marketing games fill up the virtual and the real spaces around us and it isn’t easy to judge the category for which a book qualifies.
‘Café Latte’ by Amit Shankar is, as the blurb says, ‘a collection of eighteen unusual stories.’ Well, if the writer also happens to have music on his mind and a love for rock, jazz, and the blues, can the stories be prosaic and without the same lilt and beat? As I went through the list of titles in the book, I decided to start with ‘The Jazz Player’ and see if the writer was like the crowd in the story ‘not even bothered about his existence or music’ and was the writer out ‘to create some ambient interlude to support the ongoing conversations or to create the perfect film scene’? As I read the story of Julias, I let his story smile and lift my spirits… I let my mind imagine the beauty of the easy numbers that he played, and then also heard him castigate himself and go on to the tougher numbers. Yes, I did feel it was me walking out of that much needed assignment with the money and the bottle of wine… and then the unexpected happens.
Well, I love stories that go about and embrace unexpected twists… not that the straight-forward ones have any less merit. Stories that just tell you what they need to tell without adopting the guiles of a twist or without making you go around chasing an intrigue are as difficult to write because they too need to have the power of a keen narrative and description walking hand-in-hand. In fact, stories get a limited space to develop the character/s they decide to involve and must remain keenly focused on the spectrum included.
But coming back to the stories that Amit Shankar has chosen to write, I must add here that they do take the reader along in different directions… though what I did distinctly feel was a whiff of preachy writing creeping in to make some of them sound more like the ‘and so this is why you should do this’ kind of behaviour. ‘Well, Amit,’ I murmured, ‘we aren’t reading a school reader, are we? So we don’t have to necessarily include a moral lecture at the end!’ But then, if this is what makes a collection of stories complete in all ways, I welcome it with open arms.
And so we have a writer of unpublished works in a late night conversation with his intended victim, a rebelling young son of a seller of lingerie discovering that if his choice of vocation too ‘lead him to the world of lingerie, where he was supposed to discuss bra and panty over the call with his father, then he might do the same within the confines of his own shop’, the eerie happenings as Bikash waited for 26 Down, the way a letter written by a fauji on the battle-front to his son helps him make his choice of profession… they are all stories that tickle some or the other emotion within us, and this is one of the facets that any reader would appreciate.
No, I didn’t quite like the sloppiness of the editors at many spots and an ‘r’ missing from what should have been ‘your’ is not a major gaffe but jerks a reader out of the flow of the narrative. The mind slips away from the story-telling and gets arguing if readers need to bother so much about grammar or not. Well, isn’t it better to avoid such meaningless conflicts and resolve them by better editing? It is because of these jarring errors that I must quote what Amit expresses in the foreword: ‘As a practice, I follow my heart. So here I am, with a very unusual compilation. Like my earlier work, this time also, I have just played the medium, typing the stories as they happened.’ I hope Amit did not take his own words too literally and handed over the manuscript without the mandatory revisions… because if he has, he will need to share some of the blame with the editors!
This collection of stories doesn’t go in the past and is happily exploring the present… and so we find even technology like the smart TV that hasn’t yet reached the hoi polloi, gets to assert itself. However, like any other area, even technology needs to be thoroughly dissected before a writer uses it in a tale. I mean, if Ravi Subramanian wasn’t so sure about bitcoins and how the entire system around it works, he couldn’t really have written a novel that revolves around this virtual world fad! It is with this apprehension that I read one of the stories where a smart TV made its appearance, and I must ask the experts to tell me if a mere Bluetooth handshake with a device will make a chat miraculously appear on the TV screen. I am sure this doesn’t happen as there will always be at least another layer of command to activate any app or program. However, the story was indeed one that filled even my heart with an unknown dread and I know that the day I buy a smart TV I am going to test this facet rather closely.
Come on now, I am not going to tell you everything there is in all the stories. All that I will reveal is that there is a set of eighteen stories… and two of them are not written by Amit. I was initially surprised by their inclusion and thought, ‘Why will a writer want two outsiders to have their stories included? Why?’ This could have remained a mystery but I happened to read a small note in the foreword that said: ‘I have also included two stories of super-talented kids, Kartikey Sharma and Vasundhara Goyal, aged ten and sixteen years respectively, whom I was fortunate to meet during a writing workshop.’ A pat on the back for these inclusions because it tells me that there is now a beginning for young talent to be show-cased. A great start and I hope this trend catches on!
The stories did manage to make me go from one to another, though not in the sequence that they are featured in… but then I am one undisciplined reader. But I will tend to agree with Amit when he writes in the blurb that the book ‘takes you on a tantalising foray into the unusual with some refreshing and some startling narrations.’ I’m sure Amit will soon give us more collections of stories that have more than just some startling narrations!
Details of the book:
Title: ‘Café Latte’
Author: Amit Shankar
Publisher: Vitasta Publishing
Price: Rs 150/- (in 2014)
Cafe Latte 18: Unusual Short Stories at Amazon.co.in
10 November 2014