Nice smorgasbord

Release and Other Stories
By Rakshanda Jalil.
HarperCollins. Pages 108. Rs 299.

Reviewed by Aradhika Sharma

WHAT a gem of a book this is! The 10 short stories contained in the book are lyrical as well as descriptive. Like a consummate stage performer, she takes you through a gamut of emotions — the reader may feel happy and sad, and tranquil and excited— s/he’s a puppet as Rakhshanda the writer pulls the strings of the readers’ emotions and imaginations with her words.

The writer concentrates on the Muslim diaspora in India. They are the essential Indian Muslim middle class, a class she identifies with well. She’s tried to dispel the myths of the Muslim stereotypes that have been perpetuated by Hindi films, which, as an aside have done quite a job on many other communities as well, and she succeeds tremendously in doing so. These are the men and the women who live and walk amongst us, whom we are familiar with, and whom we go to school with and break bread with. Quite separate from the haveli wala navabs or the scary butcher-types that we are usually exposed to.

The book is a collection of ten short stories, written over a period of nearly two decades. That is remarkable because it reflects on the range of the stories told and the experience of the storyteller at various points of her life. The title story Release is especially poignant. It is about childhood friendship that blossomed into young love, which was never allowed to reach its conclusion because of the indecisiveness of the lover. The story is not a new one, but the characters, the setting and the sheer tenderness of the sweet love are enormously touching.

The nicest thing about Rakhshanda is that she’s telling a story — as in a quissa-kahani story — that the readers can get their teeth into. Too often the short story writer falls into the trap of obscurity, leaving the reader wondering what the whole experience was all about. Thankfully, Rakhshanda follows the traditional style of storytelling, which means that the story has a beginning, a middle and a clear end that let the reader have a sense of closure as opposed to bemusement.

The writer has, of course, explored different settings and scenarios. The Failure is about a married couple who take a trip in the hills and find a completely secluded posh hotel in the middle of nowhere, run by a gentleman, clearly belonging to an old aristocratic Muslim family, a sahibzada, no less. The place is in a complete state of readiness, but the couple realise that they’re the hotel’s first customers in two years.

The Perfect Couple and The Big Heart are about two completely different sets of characters and experiences, but the underlying sense of forgiveness and empathy is common to both.

In A Real Woman, we see a negotiation between a man and a woman for a hotel tariff (Two thousand rupees per day, with meals, without sex); The Incident of the Frozen Snake is a creepy sort of a story about the rivalry between two starlets.

It’s a nice smorgasbord that Rakhshanda has on offer. Do sample it!