By Parvin Sultana
As a reader I have usually preferred the elaborate setting of a novel. A larger plot with many characters and the writer slowly building up the narrative would keep me glued to a book for a couple of days. But a prolonged lockdown and the anxiety that accompanied it made me and many others very restless. It impacted almost all aspects of our lives and hobbies were no exception. I started looking for quick escapades to relieve myself of the anxiety. And one way was to pick up short fiction and short stories.
Like any other bibliophile, I ended up with a rather big collection of books accumulated over the years. Thumbing through them, I realized I have quite a number of short stories collection that I never got around to read and this seemed an opportune moment to pick them up again. I started with Sahitya Akademi Yuva Awardee Bipasha Bora’s Thaoliplingok Manuhe Pahori Pelaise then moved on to Kuzhali Manickavel’s short fiction collection Things We Found During the Autopsy and then I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck.
The latest short story collection that I read is Dibrugarh based writer Gairika Baruah Ahmed’s Kagazor Nao (Paper Boat). A collection of 32 short stories in Assamese, the title of the book hints on the temporary nature of life and the world, our dreams and aspirations. And the midst of a pandemic is perhaps the best time to make one realize that. The stories have been published in different newspapers and special editions over the years. What struck me about the stories is their resonance with larger social issues, even if written in a very personal intimate voice.
The stories cover myriad issues and the vast scope is quite impressive. Some stories demand special mention. The story Bibah (Marriage) is the tale of the ordeal of an educated working woman caught in an oppressive marriage. It contrasts the character of the mother who is more of a conformist and the daughter who grew up readying herself for an independent life. The daughter finally makes the choice of walking out of the marriage and appeals to her mother to stand by her. Two generations stood at crossroads in the story. The story Pitritvo (Fatherhood) takes up the limitations of reducing parenthood to biology. In a bold stand, the author takes up sterility in men in a society obsessed with women’s fertility and beautifully narrates a story where relations are bound by love instead of being defined by biological determinism.
In another story Kamalar Makor Babe Ekhon Kapur (A Piece of Cloth for Kamal’s Mother) the author takes a peek into the life of a child ragpicker. Pushed to the margins, his only aspiration is to find a piece of cloth for his mother so that she can go out to work. The story ends on a desperate picture of the child tearing a political poster to work as a saree. The strong undertone is that political intervention have not even tried to wedge the gap between the rich and the poor.
Along with these, other stories touch upon issues like communal harmony in Assam, the plight and stigma that transgender community faces, the predicament of a prostitute, issues of mental health, loneliness of the elderly population etc. The editing could have been a little better as few printing mistakes were noticed. But overall the book gives an eclectic taste into the various aspects of life in Assam – from the problems of the elite section to the marginalized community, from a rural setting to an urban one, from a degrading environment to the loneliness brought on by rapid urbanisation.
Gairika Baruah emerges as a keen storyteller and must be credited for successfully tapping on the various vantage points seen in her stories. The simple language of the stories makes it easy for the reader to connect with the characters. The stories also touch issues which may resonate with many of our own experiences. But similarly the stories also bring to the forefront certain issues that need to be talked about with a more open mind. The non-judgemental tone of the author is refreshing and will definitely leave the reader with food for thought.
(Kagazor Nao by Gairika Baruah Ahmed, 2019, Bokul Prakashan, pp 207, Rs 140)