Evocative tales
Reviewed by Kamaldeep Kaur

Laburnum for my Head: Stories
By Temsula Ao.
Pages 107. Rs 150.

THE Naxalite movement has occupied a lot of mind space and news space in recent times. More often than not the Naxals are hordes of faceless, nameless, ghostly figures that ‘infest’ (sic) an area and have the power to unleash unimaginable terror with their intelligent strategy and meticulous planning.

A majority of the stories under review attempt to give a name, a face and a human quality to the Naxals. The complexity of politics, the youth, infatuated with idealism, the urban-rural divide, and most importantly, the people caught in the crossfire of violence are all portrayed vividly in the stories. But it is the disillusionment with the movement and the gross failure of the Naxals to fulfil their flawed, albeit utopian goals that takes centre stage.

The Letter is an evocative story about a villager (disguised as a Naxal) who tries to browbeat the poor villagers in order to extract some money for his son’s board exam fee (as earlier in the story, the Naxals had robbed him of it). The desperation of the father is captured poignantly as he uses the means of the Naxals out of sheer necessity. The Naxals or ‘underground government’ are no better than the oppressive ‘occupation’ forces that are stationed to ostensibly maintain peace.

However, one wishes that there was deeper psychological insight into the characters to lift the stories above the ordinary. This is where they fall short, becoming mere descriptions rather than explorations of the characters’ inner selves. As the plots become complex the characters fail to keep pace.

One story that arrests the reader’s attention is Laburnum for my Head. It is about a widow’s fascination for the Laburnum tree (‘Amaltas’ in Hindi) to the extent that she wants it to be planted on her grave instead of having the customary tombstone of marble or granite. The story cocks a snook at all human aspirations of attaining immortality. The writer says, "This consecrated ground has thus become choked with the specimens of human conceit`85 . But nature has a way of upstaging even the hardest rock and granite edifices fabricated by man." Lentina, the protagonist, is enchanted with this tree because she associates it with femininity and humility, unlike the garish gulmohars with their bright orange flowers. She goes to great lengths to fulfil her wish, antagonising her children and her kith and kin in the process. It is beautiful story, narrated with a great deal of tenderness and compassion.

The last story, Flight, is somewhat reminiscent of the creative writing tasks given in one’s school days. Written in the first person, it tracks the journeys of a caterpillar and its captor, a boy who is terminally ill. One is metamorphosing towards becoming a beautiful butterfly; the other is moving inexorably towards death. It is a moving metaphor of flight that could have been more nuanced and reflective.

All the eight stories make for easy reading. Though set in North-Eastern locales, they describe the universal human pursuits of joy and experiences of pain in a manner that will appeal to many.