Courtesy of The Antonym. Cover art: Photo by Neil Davidson, Ewen Maddock Dam, Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.
A bunch of startling stories sewn together by a replete sense of despondency, marked by a delusional need to escape the real while hanging precariously on the edge of magic realism. ‘Stalks of Lotus’ is a fleeting anthology of translated tales about people who are misfits and wanderers, their very existence a paradox, as they are simultaneously fragile yet rebellious, like a domesticated predator hiding under the bed. The vulnerability of the protagonist’s mindscape, kind of grows onto you, to the extent that you start anxiously awaiting their apocalyptic end, the collision of their imagined lives with the lived experience. A quaint appearance that laces all these stories, almost making one the extension of the other, is the lurking presence of an animal. A python in ‘Neither Night Nor Day’, a horse in Samaresh’s Life Force, and a tiger in Stalks of Lotus, The First day of Monsoon, A Poor Conductor. These animals are metaphors of escape, acting like portals into an imagined existence, offering semblance and solace. Just like the protagonists, these inhabitants of the wild accept their doomed domesticity with stoicism and yet hopelessly failing to repress their animality. They are all like a piece of puzzle that doesn’t fit anywhere.
The stories poignantly enwrap the reader with the charisma of translation, as one begins to wonder at the gaps of meaning making and connect it to its original script. Every reader while reading a translated script is aware that certain expressions can’t be exactly communicated in another language, lending the work an emotional translucency, as if looking against a frosted glass, making it a tad more mysterious and complex.
The anthology begins with the story ‘Neither Night Nor Day’, a very potent expression that sums up the dichotomy of the entire series. Maya and Nasreen are like Biryani and Gulab jamun both delectable in their own rights but rarely completing each other. Maya and Nasreen perfectly embodies what plagues the two neighbouring countries: India and Pakistan, a hostility stemming from the misplaced ideology of nationhood and religion, a political victim to industrious men bawling over insignificant rivalries. The namesake of the story, a book written by thirteen Pakistani women which is gifted to Maya by Nasreen help them bond over their collective silencing, repression and marginality. The heart-breaking search of Maya for the metaphorical market that barters sorrow which eventually leads to her doom was something she borrowed from her neighbour Nasreen. Maya’s obsession for water and selfie’s on social media was a way of dealing with her unquenchable thirst for a meaningful existence that she was continually denied of. Nasreen through her words and stories left her a trail that led to meaning.
Samaresh’s Life Force is a story that surprises you with every turn but nothing prepares you for the end. A man who has evidently made peace with his dual existence of delusive visions and reality is suddenly knocked off from the fine balance as he starts chasing a fictitious circus around the state. The beauty of the story is in its linguistic finesse as Samaresh tries to explain how he perceives the sense of connection. He compares his ability to connect with plugging in of the fairy lights during Kali Puja, just like lighting up the entire house with a small click of a switch, and instantly the mundane is transformed into ethereal. Sohini used to be that connection but one day it no more clicked that led him on the goose chase for a circus that he envisioned amidst the heart of Kolkata’s busiest streets. This hunt led him to Sultan a blind horse abandoned by the circus and Sitanshu Pal who had kindly adopted the horse. Here Sitanshu narrates the story of Icchabat, a village where suicide was a like a disposition of character. People died without a cause, and suddenly Samaresh’s circuit of connection was completed, all the lights glitterd as Sultan spread his wings at night and carried him to Icchabat. The irony that the story haunts you with is Samaresh’s saying “Connection is indispensable for survival”.
Stalks of Lotus, The First Day of Monsoon and A Poor Conductor have two things in common: a tiger at the climax; loneliness and longing scattered everywhere else. In Stalks of Lotus, Paritosh a newly retired man had hard time adjusting to the new life with ample time which he had dedicated in preparation for death, whom he lovingly calls Kali da, like an old friend to hang out with in the weekend. Malini on the contrary was desperate to anchor his husband to reality by providing him with multiple opportunities of reengagement. Finally, to break the monotony, Malini plans a trip to a forest where during a safari they spot a tiger, the incidents that follow this moment is like a Hitchcock movie ending, you have to revisit it twice to digest the sucker-punch. Its not Paritosh but Malini who surrenders to Kalida tooth and claws. Tiger in this story acts a liberating force and embodies an animalistic impulse that is impossible to predict.
However, in the next story The First Day of Monsoon, Ruby adopts a tiger whom she rescues from an accident as one would pet a stray cat. Ruby’s neglected and forgotten existence remains unhindered even in the presence of the tiger, as it learns to behave according to Ruby whims by suppressing its predatory instincts and becoming satiated by rice and vegetables. An unique bond grows between them as Ruby finds a connection with the tiger. Her solitude and emptiness are now shared by the beast, whom takes to market and evening strolls hidden under her long shawl. One day Ruby decides to attend a friend’s reunion hoping that she could finally make a human connection. But thing seemed bleak even at the gathering as everyone made her feel invisible and silenced. Starting to believe she had really vanished from public eye she unleashes her pet tiger in a shopping mall. The meek creature who had so far barely growled suddenly sprang to its potential and made a glass shattering roar, unmasking both Ruby and himself. A roar ended Ruby’s existential crisis and vented out all the frustration bottled inside her.
The last story of the anthology is perhaps the most numbing of all as we encounter Paritosh being abandoned by his family, relatives, friends and finally himself. Paritosh collects reusable scraps from the street and brings it home which led to his separation from his wife. This humiliation prevented him from returning to India to attend his mother’s funeral thus making him an estranged relative to the rest of the family. Discarded by all, he still continues to collect these scraps and finally brought home a painting of a lighthouse. The painting was the only thing he could only connect to, he would stare at the man standing alone in the lighthouse amidst the tumultuous waves with hands in his pocket. He was astonished by his resilience and indifference, just like himself. However, he decided to meet his ailing father in India where he would spend hours in a hospital lobby as he feared familial gatherings and questioning. After his father’s demise he came back home and remembered his daughter asking him to take care of an imaginary tiger Satu, who she believed had followed them from the zoo. Paritosh would often smell the imaginary tiger whom his daughter hid under the bed, and asked him to do the same to avoid arguments with his mother. Finally, one night Paritosh warmed his dinner and rolled under the bed with his plate of chicken. With this story ending the blurry line dividing the animal and the human world, the fictive and the real is finally vanquished as they merge into one, like Satu and Paritosh.
By Dr Modhura Bandyopadhyay, Assistant Professor & HOD, Jamini Mazumder Memorial College. Freelance blogger and artist.