Out-of-the-box, original flights of fantasy
Reviewed by Aradhika Sharma

The Three Virgins
by Manjula Padmanabhan,
Zubaan. Pages 250. Rs 499

Manjula Padmanabhan’s writing is a roller coaster
Manjula Padmanabhan’s writing is a roller coaster

the most striking feature about Manjula Padmanabhan’s short stories is the imagination of the author. She can get into the skin of the characters and situations you’ve grown up with — Dracula, Ravana, and the Sati pratha — and change them for you forever. It seems like her imagination has a life of its own — darting hither and thither — being fanciful, fearless and free.

The collection of short stories is one of the most original and whimsical works that one has read. Not one of the 10 stories featured here sticks to the "regular" format of what one would expect. Wonderful flights of fancy and fantasy streak each one of them. Manjula herself may say, "Alas, the ideas that arrive at my desktop are all rude, unsightly wretches who belch and pick their noses and expose themselves in public." Reading her stories is a journey on a roller coaster. There are unexpected twists and gusts of fresh ideas. Thus, Mandodari (Mandy), Ravana’s demon wife, shows up in her earthly form to spill the beans about being the cheated upon wife, her husband with 11 heads, (not 10), and her take on immortality. She chooses the TV journo, Basra Dott to speak to for her news-breaking story. Her idea of blending in is to assume the human avatar of a seven-foot tall blonde "Lady GooGoo". Tall and statuesque, feeding on flesh, she is as fascinating as she is weird.

There is another Ramayana-inspired story in the anthology, called Exile. It’s the re-telling of Rama’s saga from a changed perspective. Rashmi (Sita) is banished, along with her sister and husband, to 14 years of exile and she must rescue him from the ogress, Raveena. A darkly droll story is Teaser, where she describes the adventures of an eve-teaser (read molester) who preys on girls travelling in local buses. Told from a "different" angle, one reads it with "repulsed amusement". Finally, the teaser is worsted by a girl, but not quite in the way the reader may expect. In Hot Death, Cold Soup, we meet an American woman, Sally, who is bent upon committing Sati on the pyre of her not yet dead husband. She contacts a journalist to help her with the arrangements and in the duration of her stay, the journalist discovers some truths about the family. In Feast, we meet a Dracula who has come on a gourmet visit to India but is struck with a peculiar challenge. The title story, The Three Virgins tells of a more modern preoccupation, losing the virginity. We meet three people (of both sexes) who lose their virginity in different circumstances. The tales are enthralling and macabre but also humorous and fast paced. If for nothing else, read the book to fly with this woman’s imagination.