Madhulika Liddle has written historical whodunits, and articles on travel and cinema but is best known as a short story writer. In 2003 she was the overall winner of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Short Story Competition. The previous year she received Honorable Mention for another story in the same competition. Silent Fear won the Femina Thriller Contest in June 2001. My Legally Wedded Husband and Other Stories was published by Westland in 2013
I preserve. I nurture. I elevate.
Review by Arvind Passey
I was helplessly spell-bound and I’m sure, like the author, ‘I loved it all. I love travelling, so I was happy just’ reading and ‘drinking it all in.’ The stories in the collection took me into little nooks and corners of strange minds and unknown perceptions and I loved going there. From the unlawfully wedded husband to the co-traveler who could hear the bucket clanking – right there in front of him where nobody was standing! From the discreet Mr. George to Varun and Deeksha to Verma ji… all characters who enter stories carrying their own surprise gifts for the reader… and why just praise mere mortals, even the lowly phone with the ability to capture sound bytes enters with its own mind and plan, almost like the howling waves of Tranquebar do… and you, as a reader, like and wait for the next twist in the next story!
Yes, the twists are what dominate the stories of Madhulika Liddle… they’re just there as if they could not have gone elsewhere… they belong to the story. The story would somehow not remain the story it is unless you actually transport that twist and weave it in the story. And even as you, as a reader, go along with the characters on a drive from Pondicherry to Tranquebar in one of the stories, you know the twist will be sprung at you somewhere at some turn. And so you calmly read the delicious and effortless prose that she writes…
The drive from Pondicherry to Tranquesbar is three hours, and you see Tamil Nadu in all its many colors. There are crowded towns, all charmless and cluttered; there are major temples – Chidambaram, for instance, which Taatoo told me we must stop at on our way back – and there’s the countryside. Green-yellow paddy fields, fringed with serrated rows of toddy-palms, their fan-leaves sticking up like old toothbrushes into the deep blue skies. Little roadside ponds… No, I’m not here to tell you what the twists are or were, nor will analyse if the twists were correct nor get into the morality or immorality of them… I’m here to simply tell you that if ever your mind wishes to be excited and wants to move out to savor some wild moments like the lawfully wedded wife did, you’d agree with this:
My heart was pounding, but I was suddenly feeling deliciously wicked too. Adultery can give you an adrenalin rush.
‘Ah!’ you’ll say with a nod, ‘so I know where all the excitement and twists and the turns are emerging from.’ I will simply smile and tell you that each of the twelve stories in the collection follows a different path in your life and fill it with anticipation. The anticipation that will keep you on the edge of your chair until you reach the last sentence of the story!
Let me also admit here that I did not read all the stories in the collection at one go. Nor was I in any hurry to get over with and then reach out for another book. The first story that I read, and it wasn’t done in a chronological order, made me keep the book aside and let the cold wickedness in it settle down in my heart. For days I just thought of what happened… it’s a mere story, my mind said, but look at what happened. Look at what… well, it was then that I decided to let each of the stories come to me after a gap and, believe me that was the best thing to have happened. The charm of holding a book with stories that make the nerves tingle and send telegrams to other parts of the body doesn’t happen every time. Yes, the plan could’ve flopped if the other stories failed to keep up with the expectant tempo that the mind now sought – but it did not happen, not even once.
The stories in the collection ‘entertain, amuse – but always end with a twist in the tale that leaves a few goosebumps.’ So be prepared to emerge like the misspelt and untidy little note that Hourie showed in one of the stories… or like the moonlit cropland, grey and dim, each field with its own scarecrow from On the Night Train… the stories move along with deceptive simplicity and as you tell yourself that this one reminds you of what happened with one of your friends, it snaps back at you with the suddenness of an angered bitch taking her peaceful nap in the middle of your path! Well, it is then that you begin to go deep into your own life to ferret out incidents that may have turns and twists… this is the sort of effect the stories have. I’m afraid this book might just be responsible to give us all an entire generation of writers who write on the fiendishly clever way that the macabre in life hides behind poetic dawns and sensuous dusks! Each story confidently says: I preserve. I nurture. I elevate. Yes, every spine-chilling moment does, in the end, elevate a reader to some place where he becomes more perceptive!
Is there anything else that I want the reader of this review to know? Yes, I want to tell you not to trust these stories one bit. They will reach out for your insides with their cold and clammy intent and not weaken their hold until you listen to what they want to say. And then you too will conclude, like one of the characters in one of the stories, finally said:
See what I mean? Trust is a dicey thing. You can’t be too careful about whom to trust.
Here is an audio clip where Madhulika Liddle reads one of the stories in the collection:
Number 63 – A short story written by Madhulika Liddle
Diwakar Narayan commented on Arvind Passey’s review: Nice review, Mr. Passey. The collection of short stories are not to be read at one go, for somewhere you become biased with one or more stories and over-read or reject some of them.
Arvind Passey replied: Thank you, Diwakar. Well yes, short-stories do create a specific frame of mind, a mood, and the mind is never happy to hop, skip, and jump from one mood to another too fast. The mind just wants to float in that emotion for a while, soaking in that feeling. So yes, I’d agree with you there that short-storied need to be read with time-gaps.