[A snippet from my weekly books column]
Rakhshanda Jalil’s slender short-story collection Release is described on the jacket as exploring “the lives of Indian Muslims, not the marginalized or ghettoized Muslims of popular stereotype but ordinary, mainstream ones”. I felt this was a case of a publisher trying too hard to brand a book: in most of these stories, the religious identity of the characters is beside the point. For bubble-wrapped readers who have an extremely narrow view of what Muslims are like, I suppose it may come as a surprise to learn that a jovial, hard-drinking raconteur who runs a hill-station hotel could be named Yousuf. Or that a Zainub Begum could be a successful scriptwriter, happy to share salacious gossip about movie-stars. But Jalil’s book deserves a more sensitive and intelligent readership than that anyway.
These are stories about character-revealing choices as well as unexpected encounters and disclosures – some of which don’t have an immediate effect but could prove life-changing in the long run. A man is taken aback to discover that a shy girl he had known decades earlier has become garrulous and assertive; a plain-looking, middle-aged lady finds herself being stalked by a young boy; an affluent man comes to a mountain getaway each year to indulge himself in a most unusual fashion. All these pieces are elegantly written but the one I liked best – a minor classic, I thought – was “The Failure”, in which a vacationing couple in the 1970s stumble on an impeccably maintained but desolate resort run by a sahibzada. This is a fine pen portrait of a regal but uneasy man (his chinless face takes on the appearance of “a sea buffeted by severe storms” whenever he is asked an awkward question) who might be ahead of his time – or who might, like some of Jalil’s other protagonists, simply have failed to seize a vital moment.