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Sunday, April 20, 2003
Books

A let-down in Ranikhet
Padam Ahlawat

A House in Ranikhet
by Keki. N. Daruwalla. Rupa & Co New Delhi. Pages 226. Rs 195.

A House in RanikhetA collection of 16 short stories, the book gets its title from one of the stories. That and a cluster of other stories are based on characters in Ranikhet. Out of all the stories, this story stands out for its ironic humour. Cynthia Craig comes to Ranikhet after 50 years to relive her childhood. At the small hill station she goes to Tripathi, a homoeopath, for her asthma. She finds the thin, mousy-faced Tripathi sporting a phallic ash mark on his forehead. She likes a cottage called Pine View in which Tripathi lives. She returns in winter and the wily Tripathi talks her into purchasing Pine View for two and a half lakh rupees. Tripathi moves out, leaving an old locked cupboard, which, he says, belongs to a previous tenant. One day a maid comes looking for a memsahib with a foreign-sounding name. Then one day a buxom lady drives in calling for the chowkidar. It is then that Cynthia learns that the house belongs to this lady called Freny Batlibhoy. She calls the long-haired, mouse faced Tripathi a fraud, and describes him as a "thin fellow, looked as if he had just been hatched from a lizard egg". They complain to the district magistrate and finally reach Lucknow to meet the chief minister. Instead, they meet the justice minister, and who do they find but the same Tripathi, who cheerfully accepts having sold the house to Cynthia. The story ends on this cheerful note.

 


The stories are varied and one is about lovers who long for each other, but fail to unite. The lovers are overtaken by age and ill health. There is one story about shikar, The Retired Panther. It is presumed that the panther is old and has taken to killing dogs and cattle. The panther attacks a herd of cows being grazed by a dumb boy. There are no warning calls by animals and the boy loses his job for causing the loss. The author fails to evoke fear and thrill in such stories. Two very short stories on Alexanderís invasion fail to evoke the excitement and danger of war. They seem to deal with everyday events. Both deal with the crossing of Jhelum by Alexanderís troops on a stormy night. There is one story about two small princely houses of Rajasthan reduced to pawning their jewellery. The characters seem unreal as they lack depth. They seem to bear pain and adversity in a matter-of-fact manner.

It is not that common people have not been portrayed in the stories. The common people, however, seem to be more like city people. The story titled, Life in a Big City is interesting but its end is incredulous. A police inspector is posted from the district to the state capital. There he is called by the governor to find out who has sent an e-mail suggesting that the governor is selling tarkari. He is next called to investigate the theft of an idol from the Shiv temple. He recovers the idol from a farmhouse, along with the incriminating e-mail. But, it turns out, the farmhouse belongs to the chief ministerís son and the girl arrested is the son's girlfriend. The governor wants the case to be prosecuted but the chief minister wins over the judge who contends that God cannot be taken from one place to another as he is omnipresent and by this strange logic, avers that there has been no theft.

Some of the stories are interesting and told in style but, at times the people seem unreal.