Silent cacophony

May 9, 2021

Anuradha Kumar’s new collection intimately explores the complexities of the human experience

The Persistence of Memory (1931), Salvador Dali.

There is an overarching consensus that short stories offer fleeting glimpses into the self-contained worlds inhabited by a motley crew of characters. If the views of American science-fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi are anything to go by, short fiction is far more focused than the novel and can be likened with “hand grenades of ideas”. Emma Donoghue, the Irish-Canadian historian and novelist, believes that short stories “come in glancing-ly from the side” instead of examining every facet of human existence.

The stories in Indian novelist Anuradha Kumar’s A Sense of Time and Other Stories aren’t accompanied by the noise of hand grenades. The collection follows a calm rhythm that offers the author ample opportunities to intimately explore the complexities of the human experience.

Kumar’s latest offering vigorously resists classification into airtight genres. This works to the book’s advantage and allows the author to enrich her canvas through a whole gamut of poignant stories that are distinct from one another.

It is difficult to view the collection as anything other than a nod to the author’s diverse literary career. In the past, Kumar has penned historical novels under the pseudonym of Aditi Kay. She has also written for a young readership. Kumar seems to have borrowed various elements from these literary endeavours and allowed them to coalesce in A Sense of Time. Even so, the collection ventures into fresh terrain with uncommon assurance and presents engaging accounts on themes that are seldom examined in South Asian literature.

Loneliness remains a pervasive theme in Kumar’s new book. In Big Fish, Kumar explores an unlikely friendship between the guileless Munni and a stranger that resembles “a fish whose lips moved in a low murmur”. The story ponders the role of spiritual connections formed without the blinkers of age and social acceptability. With its stunning evocation of our relationship with strangers, Big Fish makes a biting comment on the sense of isolation that is steered by an unwanted separation.

Pandemic 2021: A Love Story presents another dimension of loneliness, one that is prompted by the loss of physical intimacy. The narrative marries our modern-day pandemic realities with the creative elements of sci-fi writing and constructs a richly imagined, retrospective glimpse into the lockdowns and health regimes spurred by Covid-19. This piece comes across as relatable as it carries the traumas and insecurities associated with our virus-hit world. In addition, it serves as a painful reminder of how historical coincidences are aligned closely with the occurrence of pandemics.

A telling portrait of the measurable human loneliness that stems from emotional distance emerges in Missing. When Shamsher returns to his village on leave after an interlude of three years, his wife Gudiya finds herself racing through the hours. Gudiya’s endless battle against time makes her conscious of the things left unsaid between her and Shamsher. Kumar writes: “She would’ve liked to ask what it was like to fight, to hear bombs raining down on them all around and to eat food from cans, but she couldn’t“. The silences that lay siege to their relationship are eventually ironed out by a tacit understanding that exists between couples.

The mystique of the unfamiliar finds resonance in Dorothy Cries on the Bus. The delicate thread of a fleeting interaction that binds Malati with a woman from another continent reflects our innate search for companionship in an uncaring world.

A Sense of Time and Other Stories

Author: Anuradha Kumar

Publisher: Weavers Press

Pages: 148

Other stories liberate themselves from the predictability of the mundane and examine its hidden wonders. The desire to rise above one’s station in life is evident in An Entomologist at the Trial, which delves into a lawyer’s quest to take on an unusual case and gain the approval of an esteemed high court judge. Alterations is about a character who is driven by the same assiduity, but his motivations have a deeper, internal stimulus. The story introduces readers to a protagonist with a distinct fascination with teeth and struggles to find an outlet for his eccentricity.

Time is a character rather than a measure of motion in A Sense of Time. The author uses this motif in a compelling way in each story. By turns as an onlooker, an interloper and a confidante, time has a strong presence, which is sensed in the midst of the chaos and silence that pervades the lives of characters. Rekha Crosses the Line is a standout story that shows how time alters a woman’s perspective on her transgressions. The title story, which is reminiscent of a premise that figures prominently in the work of Agatha Christie, makes effective use of the concept of time to weave a gripping tale about a murder on a train.

A Sense of Time takes readers into the complicated mesh of worlds where love, loneliness, time and distance jostle for space and are portrayed in realistic hues. Tale after iridescent tale demonstrates Kumar’s ability to present gut-wrenching human realities with a touch of sensitivity.

The writer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya

Silent cacophony