Crisp, clever, captivating: this anthology offers 13 unexpected ways to look at Indian lives.
Short on length, long on skill
Review by Urmi Chanda-Vaz
Mahesh Rao’s anthology of short stories, titled One Point Two Billion, is one striking book, and I’m impressed. It’s hard to maintain that cool distance of a critic from such talented writing and say measured things about it. So I’m going to allow myself the luxury of gushing, and tell it like it is. I love everything about this book! Right from its red-black-yellow cover with kitschy illustrations, through plots and characters and Rao’s style of writing, to the fact that they are short stories!
Reading Rao’s book took me back to my undergrad days, reminding me of the lovely memories of lit class, where we would gleefully slice and dice the Poes, Chekovs and Wildes. It’s where I fell in love with the short story. I fell especially in love with RK Laxman’s little tales, perfect examples as they were of wit and craft. It has taken me eleven years to find another short story writer whom I’ve loved reading just as much. Perhaps it’s the Indianness of it all that makes both these writers so appealing.
But there’s much more to Rao than “Indianness”; his breathtaking scope, for example. The settings and characters are so eclectic, they well justify the title One Point Two Billion. The author takes on multiple voices – of a vulnerable receptionist at a spa resort, a philandering lawyer, a kushti apprentice, a widowed pensioner, a rich, spoilt teenaged girl and a schizophrenic mother’s son, among others, with equal ease.
Rao’s effortlessness in sketching characters is remarkable. One deft stroke here, one sublime hint there, and his players rise from the pages. His observations about the human condition are so nuanced that they made me feel like I’ve walked the earth with my eyes closed thus far. Also, his stories are set in dizzyingly different locales and he seems at home everywhere – a tea estate in Tamil Nadu, a small house in terrorism-torn Kashmir, a swank poolside where the rich splash water and wealth, the hut of a dirt-poor labourer or the haveli of zamindars.
Inevitably, some of the stories and characters are more memorable than the others. Of the thirteen stories in the book, the best ones in my opinion are Minu Goyari Day, The Pool, Golden Ladder and The Agony of Leaves. The first revolves around a woman trying to get justice for a phantom while her son grapples with tough realities. The second story is a take on the posh side of life through a teenager’s eyes, with a shocker as an ending. The third tale digs up the dirt on zamindars and their culture of unscrupulousness, while the fourth takes a look at loneliness from a widower’s point of view. But the other stories are sure to resonate with other readers, each in a different way, with bits and pieces of the plot clinging to their skins long after they’ve closed the book.
And if I had to pick my favourite characters, they would include Nams from The Pool, Farooq from The Word Thieves and the nameless protagonists of Hero and The Philanderer. Rao has an affinity for the underdog, but then most storytellers do. The range of emotions and relations explored in these and the other stories is vast. He contends with almost every conceivable relationship – children and parents, siblings, teachers and students, lovers, married couples and, most importantly, the self.
The story of our lives. No, really
Rao trains his lenses on our biggest failures, our basest desires and offers no apologies. He celebrates the little victories nobody lauds us for. He gathers beautifully the complexities of being human and being Indian in neat little bundles. Mahesh Rao’s style of writing is just as artful. His tongue is sharp, his tongue is tender and his tongue is everything in between. He is also good at getting under the skin of his characters; so good that there’s very little you can see of him. What you see is crisp writing, with not one word where it isn’t necessary.
Rao knows well the tact of brevity, which is so essential to the short story form. He drops robust clues, pushing the narrative forward clearly. He is equally gifted with metaphors, which do their dainty dance right amidst the gritty stories. He gets the balance of simplicity, lucidity and beauty just right. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to find a page where I haven’t mentally marked hearts next to a sentence or two.
Dear Mahesh, you’ve packed so much beauty into one book, I’m almost tempted to call you – to use your phrase – zoi se zalim
Link to the review: https://scroll.in/article/769676/one-point-two-billion-reasons-well-almost-to-read-mahesh-raos-book-of-short-stories
Moving short stories from across India. From murder in Assam to a drowning in Delhi, Rao’s tales combine atmospheric evocations of place with surgical examinations of emotion.
Review by Anuradha Roy
Like many of Mahesh Rao’s stories, “Minu Goyari Day” is a slow-burning fuse. We are in the imaginative universe of the boy next door, who is fascinated by volcanoes, the internet and Rasputin, and terrified of wetting his bed. Only by degrees do we realise we are watching him watch the unravelling of his mother, whose husband was blown to bits by a roadside bomb in Assam when the child was a year old. The man’s shoes were unaccountably untouched, and the boy, who has no memory of his father, confesses he thinks of him “mainly when he goes to Bata and sees rows of lace-ups and loafers gleaming on their brackets all the way to the ceiling”.
In the best stories here, meaning shimmers between the lines; apparently humdrum observations and innocuous happenings, taken together, create a resonance that lingers in the air like a vibration. In “The Agony of Leaves”, set in a Nilgiri tea estate where there is nothing to do except watch the rain and play rummy, a man falls in love with his daughter-in-law. The inexorable accretion of the old man’s misreadings of glances and words turns a harmless bit of daydreaming (“A man my age must be allowed a last frolic in his head”) into tragedy. Punctuated by the sound of taps dripping, caustic exchanges between father and son, the smell of tea, and the cataclysmic effect of low-cut blouses, the story carries echoes of Yasunari Kawabata’s fiction, and a similar magic.
The title refers to the population of India, and the book traverses, with a kind of dizzying thoroughness, the length and breadth of the country. The thread that binds the stories is not culture or religion or language but violence. In almost every piece, seemingly inconsequential flutterings build up to a storm of aggression. An old crone imprisoned in an internment camp in central India feeds her starving body with revenge; a spoilt rich kid in Delhi drowns her little step-brother-to-be in a hot tub; a wrestler in Uttar Pradesh leaves a friend half-dead; a mass grave is discovered in lands belonging to a feudal family in Rajasthan. There is terrorism, jealousy, police brutality, infidelity and mass murder as well as comedy and high-society gossip.
https://i.guim.co.uk/img/static/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2015/1/26/1422267362328/5db1dc9a-253d-49fc-be12-efba2e3fe92e-bestSizeAvailable.jpeg?w=460&q=55&auto=format&usm=12&fit=max&s=12f17f80ddc82cabf0bc881ad0176656Link to the review https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/24/one-point-two-billion-by-mahesh-rao-review-india
A Sympathetic Gathering of Lives
Review by Urvashi Bahuguna
Are Wallace Stevens’ thirteen notes about a blackbird too few or too many? How many stories are enough to speak for a nation with disparate parts? Is thirteen too timid a number for the world’s largest democracy? I ask these banal questions because they seem central to this book’s success. The title of Mahesh Rao’s book One Point Two Billion (which is the population of India) makes an audacious claim: can the book back it up?
The people who inhabit these thirteen stories are the ones we don’t see, but there is nothing exotic or outlandish about them. They live in the same spaces the rest of us do, they occupy the vision at the corner of our eyes as we work and survive in increasingly globalised and modern towns and cities. But their stories haven’t been told yet. Their masks stay intact when they speak to us, even if we speculate about what they are hiding. The sex life of a woman who takes care of her elderly, invalid parents. The teenage girl who navigates being rich with the new intrusion of her father’s girlfriend. The man who trains under a guru in an akhara to become a wrestler. The girl who returns from Ithaca to deal with the discovery of a mass grave on her family’s property in Assam.
In an article about this book, Anuradha Roy wonders how he did it, whether he learned ten languages and travelled widely to learn these stories. When I finished reading this book, that was the question that sat at the centre of me: how does he know? How does he know us and our neighbours so well? It is not his access to these stories that is incredible. It is his manner of recreating their private universe so insightfully that the reader lives empathetically inside the story in a way that Indian literature has rarely done before. He does not minutely describe the traditional meal or idiosyncratic rituals of a particular community. Instead, we enter into the lives of the characters through their minds. He appears to have been observing them long enough to see them as more than unusual, more than representations of cultural specificities. There is more to them than the obvious and he takes the reader on that journey of slowly comprehending who these people are and why they do the inexplicable things they do.
The characters in this collection are haunted by the past or by a world just beyond their reach. They speak of and speak to a disillusioned India who was promised a different world from the one they eventually got. Each story has a different narratorial voice, which sets it apart from most short story collections. Rao’s mastery of his craft is undeniable, but some of his stories are more compelling than others. In sentences such as these, he slices to the heart of situations: “They realised it was the family’s good fortune that she turned out to be more shrewd and industrious than any of the Chauhan brothers, but that she also possessed the caution to disguise these qualities.” In a sentence, decades of a grandmother’s life, invisibly at the helm of her family, are described. In a bid to be understated, some stories remain just short of compelling. The best ones, in my opinion, are The Philanderer, The Pool, and The Agony of Leaves. These stories are the ones that unravel self-assured characters and remind us of our own vulnerability.
I will admit I was sceptical when I picked up this book. I knew Mahesh Rao grew up in Nairobi. I was wary of the expatriate eye on life in India. Growing up, I was alienated by the work of Naipaul and Rushdie who wrote about India as if they could not bear it, so of course it was an unbearable place. Rao’s prose does not dwell on Indian-isms, criticise or generalise. Instead, his book is a sympathetic gathering of lives. His India is recognisable at times, and believable at others.
Links to the review: http://helterskelter.in/2016/04/book-review-one-point-two-billion/