Books of 2016: One Point Two Billion

What an utterly, bitterly fabulous collection of short stories this volume is. I use the word “fabulous” very deliberately. It comes from a Latin root word, which effectively translated to “celebrated in fable”. The word “fable” also has a Latin root — “fabula” — and after watching Mad Max: Fury Road, I was *this* close to concocting an alter ego named Imperator Fabulosa, the storyteller who witnesses them all, sidekick to Furiosa. But returning to the business of being “fabulous”, the word isn’t simply a synonym for “extraordinary”. It’s one that implies that there’s a triumph of the imagination and storytelling in the object that is being described with the word. Which is why fabulous is an apt word for Mahesh Rao’s One Poing Two Billion.

Good short stories always remind me of well-cut diamonds, which have just the precise number of facets to make light glint from the very heart of the precious stone. It falls upon the writer to cut these facets into their story and short stories demand both ruthlessness and precision. No indulgences with this form, not an extra puff of information. Every detail that you read in a good short story is there for a reason.

One Point Two Billion is sensitively observed and skilfully written.Rao has a gift for fashioning voices that make you feel like you’re inhabiting a character’s mind for a few moments. Even more impressively, he can smoothly become a dazzling array of narrators and subjects: a petulant teenager, a lonely old man, a bookish little boy, a matriarch, a wrestler, and so on. Each of the 13 stories in One Point Two Billion are set in a different part of India and it’s quite refreshing to encounter stories set in Assam, Kashmir and parts of the country that aren’t as familiar terrain as the usual literary hunting grounds of Mumbai and New Delhi. There are moments of mischief and a fair sprinkling of wit, but by and large, this is a volume filled with despair, violence and heartbreak. Given its title refers to the population of India, it’s only fitting that the book reflect what feels like the mood of the nation.

It’s hard to pick favourites, but I think the one that I’ve held closest to my heart is “Minu Goyari Day”, which I absolutely loved. Set in Guwahati and seen through the eyes of a young boy who has more in common with his mother than we (or he) realise(s), the story initially seems to be like a diary of day to day happenings in the boy’s life, but you soon realise that he’s witnessing his mother splintering into a nervous breakdown. It’s an absolutely beautiful little story that expertly weaves together politics, grief, heartbreak, rage and the power of the imagination.

Another favourite of mine was “The Word Thieves”, set in Kashmir. I loved the image at the end and the rage that the story’s hero, a kindergarten teacher, feels for those who are perverting language while tussling for political power.

“This was all he had: the clean fragrance of a new book, the specks and swirls of the calligraphy, the comforting plonk of a word that landed in the right place. But now there were thieves at work, trying to deprive him of his only pleasure, alphabet pilferers, vocabulary bandits, plunderers of the lexicon, alive to all the perils inherent in onomatopoeia, the dark intents of alliteration, the jeopardy in rhyme. He saw his favourite phrases rolling up their mattresses, shutting their suitcases, handing back keys and queuing for trains and buses that would transport them to places far beyond the Valley.”

The story plays expertly upon the stereotypes and anxieties that linger in and about Kashmir.

“The Agony of Leaves” is terribly sad little story, about an old man and loneliness. He is — or thinks he is — in love with his daughter in-law and obviously, this can’t end well. Rao doesn’t hide the creepiness of this scenario, but neither does he lose sight of the nuanced sadness of this family life.

Are all of the stories in One Point Two Billion perfect? Of course not. But not one is disappointing. Sometimes, you may find your attention wandering, but it probably won’t be for more than a paragraph or two. More often than not, Rao leaves you with questions that are intriguing because he hasn’t spelt it out, but he’s left enough hints for you to have a sense of what the answer is. He’s just going to leave it to you to figure it out.

A few of the stories are a little predictable perhaps (like the one told by an ageing actor who was once a two-bit villain in Bollywood. The moment he says he knows his acolyte won’t get a much-coveted role, you know the acolyte is going to get it). Occasionally, some characters feel laboured. The clinical Bengali lawyer, for example, seems a little too poshly brittle to be credible, although Rao more than makes up for this by capturing in his story a glimpse of Calcutta’s bipolar spirit — inert yet crackling; in a senseless stupor yet hungry; dreamy and furious; carnal but polite.

On a side note, it’s so good to see a well-designed cover from Harper Collins India. This one is by Jonathan Pelham.

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