Sunday, February 22, 2009

On Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

“In this game of love, women have immense power...much more power than we do,” writes the Scottish painter Jack Vettriano, whose works often depict couples netted by one another, oblivious to the world. “They can really tie us up in knots. We’re animals by comparison.” It is a long stretch from Vettriano’s coolly erotic portraits of beautifully dressed (or undressed) men and women, bright in their own power, to the lawless longing, veiled wooing, insecure dependency, and difficult mingling of unequal partners in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s startling debut story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. But the root feeling is the same. Many of the best moments in Muenuddin’s book involve men who are “wholly masculine” – that is, secure in their place and role in a man’s world, confident that they know what life is – being humbled by a power that disarms their own strength, being surprised by eros or by an emotion that they fear is love. Two of the eight stories in Mueenuddin’s book take their titles from the names of their female protagonists, and at least two more could have.

Mueenuddin’s linked stories – this has now become a convention in short fiction, but in this one instance the material demands it, for the characters are part of an ancient and elaborate hierarchy – wind their way leisurely through the great Lahore house and even bigger country estate of KK Harouni. A pillar of Pakistan’s old feudal order, Harouni rules over a world “as measured and as concentric as that of the Sun King at Versailles”. But Harouni is now aged and enfeebled. Unable to watch over his holdings with the same care of old, he is squeezed of his riches by his extended family of servants, retainers, managers, and workers (many of whom figure as characters in their own right, and are therefore granted a higher status in Mueenuddin’s construct than that of their master, who only cares for them insofar as they contribute to his comfort and standing).

But Mueenuddin’s stories are fascinating not only for what is present in them – the beautifully relaxed, wheeling exposition that recalls the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, the love of the natural world expressed in ripples of memorable language, the dramatisation of the jagged route that human beings take towards understanding themselves and others – but also for what is absent, which is a criticism of the feudal order through which these stories wander. His gaze is curious but uncritical; he sees the world as his characters, who mostly accept the rules of the game, see it; it is as if the world can only be this way. His interest, in fact, is in those individuals who are secretly ambitious in a world where everybody is expected to know their place; his gaze halts upon those who want to rise, and those who can raise.
In the story “Provide, Provide”, Harouni’s elderly and opportunistic estate manager Jaglani, who has long been appropriating his master’s property, takes as his mistress a married woman, Zainab. Zainab gives him whatever he asks for by way of service and bodily pleasure, but stoically, as if performing a duty. When she says she must return to her husband, Jaglani impulsively decides to marry her, although he has a family and children. Shrewdly tracking his thoughts, Mueenuddin tells us that Jaglani feels he is so powerful that “now he deserved to make this mistake, for once not to make a calculated choice”. Jaglani’s marriage brings him pleasure and pain in equal measure; he finds that “although he had made a career of fearing no one”, he fears his wife, and “yet his love kept increasing.” It is only later, when the deed has been done and its consequences have taken hold both in his home and in his mind, that Jaglani begins to regret his actions. Now he cannot even go back to the estate, which he loves, without being reminded of his folly. Here is a paragraph from Mueenuddin:
Yet Dunyapur has been spoiled for him by the presence of Zainab. He minded very much that he had given his sons a stepmother of that class, a servant woman. He minded that he had insulted his first wife in that way, by marrying again, by marrying a servant, and then by keeping the marriage a secret. His senior wife had never reproached him, but after Jaglani told her she quickly became old. She prayed a great deal, spent much of her time in bed, stopped caring for herself. Her body became rounded like a hoop, not fat but fleshed uniformly all over, a body thrown away, throwing itself away, the old woman sitting all day in bed, dreaming, muttering perhaps when left alone. He reproached himself for taking his eldest son’s daughter and giving her to Zainab, transplanting the little girl onto such different stock. Secretly, and most bitterly, he blamed himself for having been so weak as to love a woman who had never loved him. He made an idol of her, lavished himself upon her sexual body, gave himself to a woman who never gave back, except in the most practical terms. She blotted the cleanliness of his life trajectory, which he had always before believed in. She represented the culmination of his ascendance, the reward of his virtue and striving, and showed him how little it had all been, his life and his ambitions. All of it he had thrown away, his manliness and strength, for a pair of legs that grasped his waist and a pair of eyes that pierced him and that yet had at bottom the deadness of foil.
Among the many satisfactions of this passage is the way in which the pleasure of the thought – a kind of Macbethian regret at an expensive dream gone sour – is both paralleled and improved, the two linking hands as prose writing of a high order almost always does, by the acuity of Mueenuddin’s syntax. It is worth thinking about the impact of phrases which effect small, rueful inversions like “how little it had all been, his life and his ambitions” and then, immediately after, the similar, “All of it he had thrown away, his manliness and strength”. And also the sentence: “Her body became rounded like a hoop, not fat but fleshed uniformly all over, a body thrown away, throwing itself away, the old woman sitting all day in bed, dreaming, muttering perhaps when left alone.”
This observation is an example of a very characteristic and striking register of Mueenuddin’s prose, which is a sentence that seems about to close, to expire, until it suddenly takes a new breath and then runs on strongly again, as if it has seen something new late in the day (here the anticipated close might be “a body thrown away”, and the revival “throwing itself away”, which both changes the tense and, through repetition, better indicates the effect of continuous stress this is having on Jaglani’s mind). Her is another example of this kind of sentence, from the story “Lily”: “It wearied her that this memory came now as she turned and stood, appraising Murad’s clothes, loafers with unfortunate tassels, pressed jeans, white shirt tucked in – resembling somehow an army officer out of uniform, the effect touching to her, sincere, a gentleman calling on a lady.”
“Provide, Provide” works itself through to an exceptional conclusion that features neither of the principal characters, thereby greatly enhancing its beauty and strangeness (a strangeness seen again in “Nawabdin Electrician”, a story about a man shot by a thief, and who lies on the road thinking he is going to die, remembering, of all things, “the smell of frying fish”). In his attention to the minds of Zainab and Jaglani, or that of Husna, the impoverished distant relation who, in the title story, infiltrates the household and then the affections of Harouni himself, Mueenuddin serves up a series of masterful character studies set into the massive edifice of Harouni’s world.
In keeping with the need for economic security or love of luxury revealed by so many of his protagonists, Mueenuddin’s writing has a heavy, beguiling materiality. “The hard blue sky stood enormously tall over Paris,” he writes at one point, throwing us right into the scene with that unusual adjective “tall”, which is a tautology – what else could the sky be other than high, or tall? – and is yet expressive, here, a sense of freedom and possibility being experienced by the narrator. Describing Nawabdin’s prowess with tampering with electrical meters, Mueenuddin offers this bouquet of explanations: “Some thought he used magnets, others said heavy oil or porcelain chips or a substance he found in beehives.” When Husna begins to live with KK Harouni, she hoards a secret stash of goods in “two locked steel trunks, which she filled with everything from raw silk to electric sandwich makers.” A couple make love in a small hotel in the French countryside: “The loose bedsprings made long rusty sounds, like a knife leisurely sharpened on a whetstone.”
In Mueenuddin’s hands the material realm often seems to take off, almost become ethereal: “Nawab would fly down this road on his new machine, with bags and cloths hanging from every knob and brace, so that the bike, when he hit a bump, seemed to be flapping numerous small vestigial wings; and with his grinning face, as he rolled up to whichever tubewell needed servicing, with his ears almost blown off, he shone with the speed of his arrival.” It might be said that many of his characters, too, seem to be flapping “small vestigial wings” when they accrue for themselves some precious good. Some works of fiction, by their excellence of craftsmanship, singularity of worldview, and richness and precision of language, announce themselves instantly as classics, and this book of many wonders is one such.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

At the Sun Temple of Modhera

This essay appeared in the January issue of Outlook Traveller, and on the site, where you may prefer reading it, it is improved by the excellent photographs of Kedar Bhat. The photographs here are by my friend Mayur Ankolekar, whose fluent Gujarati also proved very useful on the trip.

Surya, the sun: the source of light, life, time, its daily round the oldest story of our aging planet. At the Surya Mandir at Modhera in Gujarat, a hundred kilometres north-west of Ahmedabad, the sun has for nearly a thousand years risen over, and flooded the arches and friezes of, a monument built as a kind of rest-house, if not home, for it on earth. The Rig Veda, a text drunken with the sun’s gifts and glories, extols the sun’s eye at dawn as the force that “reveals creation”. On a wintry December morning in Modhera the rising sun not only reveals the world – the sleepy village with its jumble of nondescript houses, the fields and a placid lake part-covered by lotus leaves on which long-legged birds stand still in meditation, a tourist bus disgorging a platoon of chattering schoolboys – but also completes it, as it enters with slowly advancing strides the monument expressly constructed with the arc of its journey in mind.

The idol of Surya inside the garbhagriha, or sanctum sanctorum, of the Modhera temple is long gone, plundered by Mahmud of Ghazni on one of his many raids on northern and western India in the eleventh century CE. The temple’s spire, or sikhara, too is broken. But to completely destroy the temple’s heliocentric spirit, Mahmud would have had to have possessed the power to throw the sun itself off its course. Twice every year, on the days of the March and the September equinox, the rays of the rising sun glide over the Suraj Kund (the deep tank that forms the first of the temple’s three distinct but axially aligned features), pass through the arches of the music-hall or Ranga Mandap (pictured above), pierce the entrance to the main chamber or Guda Mandap, and illuminate the sanctum, where the idol once stood. The spectacle has disappeared, but the thought – of the sun bringing its own image to life on a pre-appointed day as if keeping a vow, of the trajectory of a distant star and that of human intelligence and devotion meeting in a kind of architectural handshake, of a sense (even if fabricated) of concord between the earthly and the celestial realms – thrills the mind yet.

On this morning, as the caretaker unlocks the door of the Guda Mandap for the schoolboys and us, the sun – “red as the cheek of an angry ape”, as the eighth-century Sanskrit poet Yogeshvara puts it – is rising south-east of the structure’s welcoming arches, and its rays enter the temple at an angle. We are not the first to enter the temple, although this was our aim; as soon as the door is unlocked three pigeons, as if awaiting this moment from dawn onwards, hasten above our heads into the murky interior. Inside, the sanctum is locked and remains so always, as if hiding the absence at its heart. To one side, another locked crevice, this one leading downwards, is apparently the opening of a tunnel built as an escape route. The caretaker insists that it goes all the way to nearby Patan, the capital of King Bhimdev of the Solanki dynasty (also called the Suryavanshis or sun-worshippers) who built the temple in 1026 CE. Circling the sanctum, we come across the temple’s most permanent residents: rows of small black bats (or kankadiyas, as the schoolboys call them) ghoulishly suspended upside-down from the ceiling, waiting for the day to run its course before they emerge.

I circle the temple from the outside, where the sun is bringing to life cascading bands of ornamental friezes. Under the gaze of the chipped figures carved onto the temple walls, from the repeated one of Surya on his chariot of seven horses to scenes of sexual congress and childbirth, long-legged peacocks sprint across the temple grounds as if escaping after a heist, and squirrels, sparrows, and pigeons nibble shoulder to wing at titbits amidst columns of worked stone that must have once been part of the monument. No rites are now performed at the desolate garbhagriha; the daily round of flowers, incense, and fire is now performed at a small Shiv temple, no bigger than a shed, north of the main structure. The most attractive feature of this little outpost is a stone image of bright-eyed Ganesha at the entrance, with his trunk curling, unusually, to the right. I move on to the ornate pavilion of the Ranga Mandap, smaller but taller than the adjoining temple, its niched facade hosting a profusion of sculpted figures depicting scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Mandap can be entered from all four directions through symmetrical arches or toranas, and the east-facing one leads down to what today is the site’s most enticing feature, the great Surya Kund or water-tank.

The tank has two attributes that break up, and fruitfully complicate, what would otherwise be the monotony of steps leading into a pit. One, a number of small shrines, each holding the image of a deity, are built onto the steps on all four sides, giving the tank the air of a self-contained universe. The most striking of these shrines is an enclosure on the east side showing Vishnu reclining on his sesh naga or coiled serpent, surrounded by other forms. And two, the visitor makes the journey down to the water not so much from step to step but from terrace to terrace, which are linked together by steps that cut away to left and right so as to make series of triangles between each terrace.

The visitor takes a slow, zig-zag path into the tank, as if walking through a maze; what might be a simple sequence of parallel lines is turned into a set of complex geometric forms that emanate an autonomous allure and mystery within the larger design. The steps and shrines are reflected and doubled in the water below, thick and green as spinach soup. And as one goes down, following the rising sun as it burrows deeper and deeper into the pit and its stonework, the looming Sabha Mandap itself seems to gain in size and stature; the tank elevates and aggrandizes what is otherwise a hall of modest size. To sit by the porch of a shrine halfway down the tank graven with figures from divinity, watching the water break into little circles below and the shadows of flying pigeons dart across the dome of the Ranga Mandap above, is to enter a realm of marvellous stillness and beatitude, to find oneself at the centre of a framed and concentrated view of the world like that in a painting. At the lowest level, a number of stone slabs jut out above the water, and in better days must have made for a convenient point for drawing up water in pots or studying one’s reflection. Climbing up again to ground level, the visitor feels himself transformed from the one who went in. If our legislators met here rather than in parliament, might they not be a little more conscientious?

One might think of the tank as an appetiser for the other great architectural landmark in the vicinity, the Rani ka Bav or queen’s stepwell at Patan, less than an hour’s drive from Modhera. Stepwells are a common feature of the landscape of Gujarat and Rajasthan, and this one, built within a few decades of the Sun Temple, is among the most marvellous examples of the form.

Like the tank, the stepwell has a staggered descent, but it can only be entered from one side, the east; the other three sides run straight down at right angles to the ground and form the shaft of the well. Descending, I feel as if heaven and earth have exchanged places; I go past level after level of sharp-nosed, full-figured, deities reverentially captured in different poses, faces serene or half-smiling, eyes darting left and right, legs splayed or crossed, arms delicately outstretched or holding up weapons or musical instruments. Every wall, pillar, arch, or nook in the bav ripples with the agitation of faces and limbs suspended forever in stone, and as the day progresses the sun begins at the western face of the well and works its way downwards to light up this rapturous panorama level by level. Just as vividly as the gods have generated the forms and colours of this world, so too have humans in turn envisioned the life of the gods.

Two-thirds of the way down, at the point where the Archaeological Survey of India has barred further progress, one gazes through the aligned openings in a series of pavilions to see Vishnu on his sesh naga on the far wall of the well – as entrancing a darshan as any. The stepwell is surrounded by beautifully tended, rolling grasslands, and as the afternoon sunlight grew strong I lay down on the fragrant grass beneath a neem tree and drifted off into a blessed slumber.


Modhera is just over 100 km from Ahmedabad; Patan another 25 km. State transport buses link all three places, and private buses from Ahmedabad to Patan and back are available through the day (Rs.60). The closest railway station to Modhera is Mahesana, which is about 30 km away. A private cab from Mahesana to Modhera, Patan, and back costs about Rs.1000.


The Sahara Bridge hotel in Mahesana (02762-230823), ten minutes by auto-rickshaw from the station, offers comfortable rooms from Rs 1100-2000. Alternatively, stay at one of the hotels in Patan, of which the best seemed to be Hotel Surya (02766-232544), which has rooms from Rs.700-1200. Modhera itself has very little by way of lodging except for the very basic rooms at the Mata Modheshwari Temple, a few minutes from the Sun Temple (Rs.50-150).


The Mata Modheshwari Temple is worth a visit at Modhera, although its lurid colours and exuberant foliage of plastic flowers veers towards the kitschy. Patan has a number of old temples worth exploring. The town also offers a range of great Gujarati snacking. I spent an entire evening sampling the street food, and in two hours ate my way through fafda (a crisp cracker made from gram flour, eaten dipped into kadhi), samosas with green chillies, jalebis, dabelis, and cholafali (another crispy snack eaten with green chutney and shredded green papaya). Having worked this off with a long walk and a visit to the local cinema to catch a fearsomely high-pitched and melodramatic Gujarati movie, I rounded off the evening with puris and potato curry or shak, and a big paper bag of dried dates and figs for dessert.

And an old travel piece from 2005: "Seven Views of Puri".

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Things I've been reading, new books received, Badrinath on the Mahabharata, and Naissance

Some things I've been reading recently: Simon Schama's splendid essay on our need for art, "Unnatural Beauty" ("Art replaces seen reality rather than reproduces it"; "Art is life under new management - the management of picturing's resident conventions: coherence, harmony, tonal balance"), and, less sympathetically, Vijay Nair's recently published piece in the Hindu about India's three recent Booker Prize winners , "And the winner is...".

Nair argues that, given our colonial past, the fact of an Indian writer winning the Booker for a novel in English "qualifies as the ultimate act of subversion" ("English writers vie for the same prize and that makes the victory sweeter"). But back in India these writers encounter only the hostility and resentment of the press and of Indian readers, ostensibly because they portray harsh truths that we would not like to acknowledge.

Given that Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children won the Booker in 1981, inaugurating a new era for novels from the Indian subcontinent (particularly those in English), Nair's view of Indian literary accomplishment as it impacts the Western literary world is, to my mind, nearly three decades out of date. And even as his piece celebrates the subversion of the established Anglophone literary order, which is forced to concede one of its highest prizes to writers from former subject nations, it also ends up perpetuating the very categories that it enjoys seeing subverted, since, if for some reason these novels had not been awarded the Booker Prize, there would have been no reason to celebrate them as amongst our best books. While it is true that literature cannot be divorced from politics, this does not seem like a literary politics that can take one very far, or any closer towards making independent judgements.

I found it entirely characteristic of Nair's argument, then, that he allows for no literary reasons for Indian readers and critics not liking one or the other of these books, only political or personal ones. I thought Shashi Deshpande's rejoinder to Nair in the same newspaper last week, "Debating Spaces", a very clear and cogent response.

Also, I have been attending some very good events at the Kala Ghoda literary festival, and wanted to say that if you are at the festival any day between the 12th and the 14th of February, drop by at Nyela Saeed's exhibition of paintings Naissance, about which I'd posted a short text here in November (the show had to be cancelled then because of the terrorist attacks). The works are on view from 11 am to 6.30 pm at Kitab Mahal building (192, DN Road, 4th Floor, Fort, Mumbai-400001), which is just opposite Central Camera as you go down the road from CST station towards Flora Fountain. Art's deepest urge 'is to trap fugitive vision and passing sensation", writes Schama, and it seems to me that these paintings do just that.

Lastly, some great new books have turned up at my door in the last month from all over the world: Chaturvedi Badrinath's The Women of the Mahabharata (here is Badrinath's short essay "The Karma Conundrum", which quotes the sixth-century text the Yoga-vashishtha on the subject of fate, "There is no refuge other than the conquest of the mind") ; the Turkish novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar's classic novel A Mind At Peace (translated by Erdag Göknar, who is also the man behind the brilliant English translation of Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red); the Israeli novelist S.Yizhar's Khirbet Khizeh (judgement on Yizhar's prose style is pending, but what a great hairstyle!); the Dalit writer Baby Kamble's autobiography The Prisons We Broke; and the Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson's translation of three versions of the same story of vengeance by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, An Oresteia (some of Carson's translations of Sappho are here, with the original Greek text alongside).

I hope to be able to write about most of these in greater detail soon, but for now here is a paragraph from the introduction to Badrinath's book, on the relationship between truth and empathy:
[I]n bringing up the undeniable paradox that the personal can be understood in the light only of the impersonal, the Mahabharata does not ever disperse the individual, the person, into some grand philosophical abstraction. Truth does transcend the mere personal, but it does not for that reason become unfeeling. It is a gross insult to a human being to answer his, or her, dismay, outrage, unhappiness, suffering, by saying: 'but remember that life is transitory, a huge illusion, and so is your unhappiness and pain', or by delivering a discourse on the origins of suffering, or by talking of the wisdom of forgiveness and reconciliation always....Some of the women of the Mahabharata show how, when expressed without feeling, grand truths produce the greatest untruths of all.
I was also intrigued by Badrinath's idea that "Irony is the laughter of truth", and his contention that "In being a most systematic philosophic inquiry into the human condition, the Mahabharata does not see the meaning of a story in the way it ends. The particular end of a story is not the whole of its meaning."

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Kingdoms and prisons in Jahnavi Barua's Next Door

For the great American short-story writer Eudora Welty, fiction’s reach, its themes, were universal, but at the same time the power of a story was “all bound up in the local”. Her simple explanation for this was that human feelings, which are the source and also the subject of all fiction, are inextricably bound up with place. Human beings, like trees, have roots in particular places, and often it is fiction that best articulates this particularity.

In Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay’s Kolkata story “Canvasser Krishnalal”, we are told that “for the last eleven years Krishnalal had been living in room number seventeen, a hole in the wall in the western end of the long, two-storied tin-roofed earthen building that stuck out like an eyesore on 25/2 Ramnarayan Mitra Lane”, and perhaps the most convincing detail in that sentence – the trick that persuades us that Krishnalal actually lives here, and not that Bandhopadhyay has just “set” the story here – is that number “25/2”. Similarly, in the great Portuguese novelist Eça de Queiros’s novel The City and the Mountains, the wealthy and discontented hero of the story, Jacinto, lives amidst a surfeit of worldly riches at No.202 on the Champs Elysees in Paris, and as the story progresses the narrator has only to say the word “202” to encompass the torments that plague Jacinto. Seen through the filter of the human mind, place becomes an extension of the self, and literature, which is text, shows us how place too is a kind of text through which human beings continuously refract their hopes and fears and memories.

Indeed, it is the strength of feeling with respect to place that distinguishes the stories of Jahnavi Barua’s debut collection of stories, Next Door. Barua’s stories are set in Assam – a territory not very commonly represented in Indian fiction in English – and they glow with an affection (demonstrated by both the narrator and the characters) for the region’s forests and fields, for the surging, lifegiving Brahmaputra river that cuts a swathe through the state and rushes on into Bangladesh, and the sun that wheels over the land all day and sinks finally “behind the dark hills of Bhutan”. Further – and this is one way of bringing out the peculiar power dynamics of Indian families – many of Barua’s characters either feel trapped by their houses and live in bitterness and resentment, or else love their homes and their gardens intensely, and can be found in their vicinity all day long.

In one of the best of these stories, “The Patriot”, we are shown a retired government servant, Dhiren Majumdar, and his two houses. One is the old, dilapidated ancestral house in which he grew up, and which he cannot bring himself to knock down (and this abandoned house seems to to move and speak, for we are told that “When the wind blew in from the river, laced with sand and the smell of fish, he house strained at its joints, moaning piteously”). The other house is the smaller and meaner, but habitable, dwelling alongside which was all that Majumdar could afford to build for his family. Every morning, we are told, Majumdar sits down in his compound with a cup of tea, and “examine[s] his kingdom as if he were seeing it for the very first time.”

One evening Majumdar sees a flicker of movement in his old house, and is alarmed. He goes across to investigate, and finds a youth lying in the darkness, badly injured. The boy is an insurgent, and he wants Majumdar to get him medicine and food, and to keep his presence a secret. Majumdar, we have already been told, has a grown-up son who is a successful civil servant, but somehow there is no feeling between them – indeed, Majumdar feels abject before his son, as he used to do before his superiors at work. Now, as Majumdar huffs and puffs under the burden of the arrogant young insurgent’s demands, we feel – although Barua never states this explicitly – that he is being fulfilled as a father for the first time. Barua delicately grafts the bloodshed and violence of the insurgency onto the pathos and neediness of the old man’s life.

And here are the opening paragraphs of Barua’s story “River of Life”:
It said so in the morning papers. Santanu had read it himself, so he knew it was true. Sometimes, when Anu-nobou read out the newspaper to him, he did not believe everything she said. He was certain she was teasing him – flying vehicles that alighted on the moon and circled the stars; sheep that halved themselves to make more sheep, exact copies of themselves; guns fired in America that landed on targets half a world away. She must think he was slow-witted to believe all this.
He knew better than to believe everything he heard. Ma had warned him, before she passed on: before she died, she had impressed on him urgently, all the time, to think for himself. ‘Don’t trust anyone but Dada, Santu,’ she had said. ‘And not even him sometimes.’ She had gone on about the house, until he was sick of it. ‘I have left the house to you, boy,’ she always reminded him, ‘I have signed everything there is to be signed. Do not, in any event, sign any papers. Ever! Do you hear?’
His ownership of the house weighed heavily on Santanu. Every morning he emerged from his flat, dreamless sleep feeling as if an enormous boulder, like the ones he had seen in Umtru, near the waterfall, was strapped on to his back.

As the story progresses we find out that Santanu is indeed “slow-witted”, but Barua’s opening, by holding Santanu’s heaviness and the world’s flight in delicious equipoise, swiftly trips us onto the side of the protagonist, making us doubt the world like he does – a skepticism, we see, that he doggedly, almost heroically, employs not just from his own nature but on his late mother’s orders. Like Dhiren Majumdar, Santanu has a kingdom to think of, but he has been reminded of this so many times that he now repeats it continually to himself; no wonder then that he feels weighed down by a boulder “like the ones he had seen in Umtru”.

Many other stories in Next Door also take the relationship between parents and children as their theme. In “Sour Green Mangoes”, we experience the frustration of a young woman, Madhumita, at the way her aging parents (Barua’s phrase is “her withered, rickety parents”) control every aspect of her life. Barua’s writing works beautifully here to give us a sense of a home as a prison, even as we Madhumita is shown leaving it:
The brooding house is enclosed in a ring of dark mango trees that holds it in a tight embace. In the backyard, a cluster of areca palms stand tall and vigilant, their slim, strong trunks smothered by betel vines that crawl jealously up them, their glossy dark leaves gleaming in the half light. [...] Madhumita wrinkles her nose delicately and then, feeling eyes raking her back, briskly unfurls her umbrella. A sudden spark of anger flares up in her breast; if flickers briefly and, just as quickly, dies down. Every morning, her father and mother stand concealed behind one of the blind windows of the house and follow her progress to the front gate and then out on to the narrow road that runs in front of the house until she reaches the corner, their gaze clinging to her greedily until she is out of sight.

The phrase “blind windows” here, although literally true (the windows look like blank crevices; the house itself is without light), also appears to have a secondary meaning as a transferred epithet, for of course it is Madhumita’s parents who, even as they follow her progress greedily, are “blind”, oblivious to their daughter’s wants and needs. With time Madhumita has learnt to harass her parents as they harass her, yet even this gives her no satisfaction, for she knows that her reverse pettiness is ultimately yet another symptom of her sickness. “She will not let them defeat her now,” writes Barua, “but what was done was done; she has already become what she is today.” This is an observation of great empathy and subtlety.

Some of the stories in Next Door may strike the reader – to use a metaphor in the spirit of Barua’s work – as ripening buds rather than flowers in full bloom. At times the plotting seems slightly rushed, and I felt there were points when the dialogue seemed to hit the wrong notes. Yet there are very many deft and pleasing touches to be found on these pages, and all in all this is an original and striking debut that marks its author as someone in the top tier of contemporary Indian short-story writers.

Another old post about fiction deeply attached to place is here: "Home and away in Anuradha Roy's An Atlas of Impossible Longing", and there are some more thoughts on the power dynamics of Indian families in "Mathematics and rebellion in Nikita Lalwani's Gifted"