Shinie Antony – The Orphanage For Words. Rupa Publications. 2015
Shinie Antony is one of those writers who deserve a larger readership: her writing combines a playful inquisitiveness into various dimensions of reality with linguistic legerdemain. The Orphanage For Words is Shinie Antony’s fourth collection of short stories, following Barefoot and Pregnant, Seance on a Sunday Afternoon and Planet Polygamous. She won the Commonwealth Short Story Asia region prize in 2003. Shinie Antony has also written two novels: Kardamom Kisses and When Mira Went Forth and Multiplied. “Kerala, Kerala, Quite Contrary” and “Why We Don’t Talk” are the titles of anthologies she has complied.
Sad Truths of Life
Review by Janaky Sreedharan
There are times when one comes across a book that strikes one numb for a while and makes you want to walk out for some fresh air, take a deep breath and come back to meet life, healed and trusting. Shine Antony’s recent collection of stories, enigmatically titled The Orphanage for Words, clasps you tight in a lethal embrace of traumatic intimacies, intensely desired breakups, accidental encounters, and bizarre loyalties.
Surely, those who are familiar with her earlier work would be thrilled to savour once again the spirited irreverent strokes, the merciless play of irony, that relentless voice, that blunt tenor relishing in understatements and self-disparaging snigger. But they might not be quite ready for this meditative leap into pensive philosophical dwellings on the interplay between words and human selves. Because, as deadly as the lure of human emotions are the lairs of words trapping within them incomplete universes of their own.
Shinie revisits the familiar dark terrain of domestic theatre in the contemporary urban idiom, and offers a fascinating palette. A rich buffet of emotions. A dizzying trapeze act from startlingly novel perspectives at once riveting, eerie and uncanny. It throws you often out of your narrative comfort zones and you come up panting for air only to be sucked into yet another swirling eddy which merrily lets you flail your arms about. These stories breathe from the frayed edges of life which we sadly stopped caring for some time ago. But after reading ‘A Talk’, you cannot meet the news of an accident without a knife twisting your insides. The effect is visceral as the dead child’s voice describes her own death after she is hit by a car “I saw my shoes walk the sky”. Nor can ‘Dolls’ leave you smiling in a kindergarten mood. Ordinary life and taken for granted moments assume an unnervingly menacing life and mind of their own.
The taste of the tale is in its telling. And it follows the movements of the female will wanting to be caught in a net of absurdities. There is that woman whose sole ambition is to be happy, making a brilliant expose of the vacuity of happiness. Sometimes sorrows, joys and tensions are hung out to dry and you wince as all the colours bleed white. We move through parallel worlds we invent to make a life livable. It is not the big picture at all that interests the author, but the miniature spaces and moments where we gather our splintered selves together to form a whole, only to crumble once again into funnier, more pitiful shapes. That shared cup of coffee after office, a trip to see an old lover whose memory plays hide and seek, a woman out of touch with her body, a body remembering a thousand wounds and insults — a new vocabulary unspools itself.
Shinie prises open the innards of words. There are posthumous voices tantalizing us with the could-have-beens revealing the gothic in every day. There is the surreal journey of a frock, which is a colourful monstrosity but with a soul of its own. Shinie invests every single creation with a consciousness and capacity to feel hurt so much so that many a story just overwhelms you with the enormity of it all. Enormity of existence, enormity of even the silliest of choices in life. And there are emotions which refuse to subside into nothingness, refuse to be at the beck and call of rules of logic. So a wife is just not able to forget her dead husband and leaves every door and window open to let him in at night after her present husband has slept. Some have pleasantly tumbled over into the other side of sanity and the yellow wall paper’s legacy moves on in Shinie’s imagination exploring the manic topography of female life today. ‘Breasts’ leaves you disturbed as it oscillates between a language honed for sex goddesses and the medical terminology of enervating cancer. The perfectible body peddled through our daily intake of image industry breaks down pathetically, as the pen cuts through the fluff of cosmetics and fashion into the smell of hospitals, medicines, radiation and artificial limbs.
‘Hard longing’ is balanced by a hilarious poverty of feeling. A mirthless laughter rumbles in the background as “silence clicks like a gun”. Shinie goes behind surfaces to recover the pathos at the bottom of all that vehemence and violence. The art of storytelling and the possibilities of short fiction are mined in innumerable ways and the power of imagination holds you under its spell and reaffirms your faith in this primordial art to revitalize our dried up springs of sympathy. Children are the unacknowledged custodians of unwanted emotions and words. Who else would say to a dead dog in the neighbourhood ‘Sleep on Browny’ or apologise to a doll?
And words are at the centre of it all. The best part is the last, the rumination on words which drift away from us as certain worlds disappear. And we teeter at the edges of a philosophic pause between the word and the world. “Nothing more ear-splitting than a dying word. Listen.”
Reviews in other newspapers and journals:
An interview with Shinie Antony
Writing is a Complicated Joy
Interview by Radhika Jha
Why did you write The Orphanage for Words? Do you think something has changed in the way words are used in our times as compared to our parents’ or grandparents’ times?
The emotion behind the words disappears, rendering the words null. Or the context moves on. If your dad is gone, there’s no one to call ‘dad’ anymore. If your mom has Alzheimer’s, she won’t answer to ‘mom’. When you like someone; for the duration of the like, even ‘darling’ doesn’t begin to express what you want to say. But the minute that affection is gone or mixed-up with other feelings, you can continue to say ‘darling’ but it won’t mean a thing.
Why is the book dedicated to your dad?
Like for most daughters, my father was the love of my life and he, without any warning and most impolitely, passed away two years ago. Which in a long rambling way — after beating myself up for not saying this, that and the other to him when I had the chance — brought me to examine what words mean anyway. Hence this book.
Is this book different from your previous work?
My first book, Barefoot and Pregnant, was about dysfunctional motherhood;Planet Polygamous about infidelities and Seance on a Sunday Afternoon about urban loneliness. This collection is about loss, about coming to terms with it. Let’s start with the words that make no sense, have no place in our life anymore. Loss demands a de-cluttering.
What motivates you to write?
Each story comes from a particular point within us. You start by thinking people so wily. But you yourself are so wily, so unknowable, with shifting loyalties, wary of others. In the end, you are what you call people. These connecting points — the emotions that swamp ocean-like but are the same commonplace stuff that everyone goes through at some time or the other — form a kind of invisible hand-holding and the need to share stories.
In the first story, ‘Girlfriends’, you say, “Hope, a refined form of self-abuse…” Can you talk a little about what hope means for you at this point in your life?
Relationships may be built on laughs and gossip and good times but the acid test is loss; a body part, a parent, a child… you lose any of these and your intimacies shape-shift. Your relationship with the world changes. Real bonding comes through only at times of such acute grief. Whom can we turn to, whom to trust? And is there such an entity — ever-understanding, all-forgiving, non-judgmental — that we can turn to? Our search and belief can scar us…
How do you know when an idea is ideal for a short story or as a novel? Are short stories more difficult or easier to write than a novel?
I think each story — whether you are saying or writing it – comes with a predetermined number of words. You can’t make it longer or shorter because an editor says so. Novels and short stories are so different — one is a leisurely telling, the other an urgent whisper. Writing is a complicated joy. There is joy in expressing yourself but then have you expressed yourself well? You have said what you wanted to say but have you said it in the best possible way you can? To some, this can be done only within the framework of a novel; for others, within the pointed location of short fiction. You can read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite-Runner as three short stories strung together, and P.D. James’s The Private Patient, despite being a novel, ends with — to me — almost a short story about love and grief that can even be seen as separate from the rest of the story. I think whether reading or writing, I see only short stories.
Your stories remind me of Katherine Mansfield’s stories. Are there any writers who you really admire, or who have inspired you?
Poetry is much more touching than prose. The connect is immediate; the membrane thinner. And sometimes the crafting — the sheer elimination of the unnecessary — can knock you down. To under-say or not say… such writing cuts though our defences. The unsaid becomes a thing of beauty. Annie Proulx, Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry, Tilman Rammstedt, Anita Brookner — all writing such compelling stuff.
You said that you didn’t think there was any point in writing anymore. Why do you feel that?
The noise level in the book world is so high, it feels like all of us are talking at once. I am not sure about any medium… Maybe everyone knows everything, nobody needs to read or listen anymore.