Saturday, December 15, 2012

Quiet surfaces, fissured lives in Annie Zaidi's Love Stories #1 to 14

[A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Guardian]

So warm and attentive is the writing in Annie Zaidi’s new short-story collection that it comes as a little shock when you think about what some of her characters are really going through. This book’s tone is consistently hushed, reflective, shorn of hysteria – even in a description of two people arguing, with a lifetime of companionship on the line – but beneath its still surfaces lies much emotional turbulence.

You sense this when you learn that a middle-aged woman has been taking the 8.22 train to her office even though it means a difficult commute, because she has become deeply attached to the voice of the announcer for that train (she has never seen him, but constantly imagines and re-imagines what he must look like). Or reading about the chill felt by a man alone on a beach (“the very sand seemed to turn cold at his approach”) as he watches couples walking around, a cluster of shells looking to him like “abandoned homes, tombstones without memory”. Or when a young girl ponders the meaning of the term “love child” and likens her father, returned after a long absence, to a wedding guest who isn’t particularly close to either bride or groom. (“They feel no anxiety, no envy, no real curiosity. They just sit by themselves, smile abstractly, eat and are content to have been invited.”) The tumult even cuts through the mildly comical tone of a story titled “The One that Came Limping Back”, in which a woman, after breaking off her engagement, travels in a haze from town to town while her befuddled mother pores over an atlas.

These 14 stories are about people in various stages of longing – whether framed by an actual, present relationship, or a remembered or illusory one, or one that never quite tips over into a conventional romance – and they deliver kaleidoscopic views of love and its effects. Thus, “The One that Badly Wanted” has a girl being fixated on a boy she never summons the courage to talk to, and later attempting to remake a boyfriend in the image of a dead man; the story’s final sentence is a reminder that what sometimes gets called love can be a selfish, or at least a self-replenishing, emotion. A subtler feeling stirs in “The One from Radheshyam (B) Cooperative Housing Society” when a middle-aged painter is moved by the solicitousness of an old man who she initially feared was stalking her (later, falling into a hesitant, self-conscious friendship, “they spoke staccato, like engines in very old cars”). And one of my favourite stories – the compact, skilfully constructed “The One that Climbed out of a Bucket” – has a woman experiencing a rush of memories at a most unexpected time. As she watches a gecko trapped in a bucket during her bath, one thought segues into another: she goes from reflecting on the absurdity of a typical Hindi-film scene, to thinking about cleaning the spots where the lizard has been, to recalling her own illicit presence in an ex-boyfriend’s life and house.

Elsewhere, there is the underlying knowledge that love as an ideal can be more powerful and seductive than the real thing. A man whose wife was once a narcotics addict frets that since he never knew the things she had struggled against, perhaps he didn’t really know her. A woman wonders what might happen if her husband showed up one night and “his smile wasn’t real”, a married couple finds that their eyes “no longer dance around each other”, a conversation between former lovers seems at first calm and measured, but tension builds as we realise that the two people are not carrying the same weight of emotional baggage; that one of them is more damaged than the other.

Most of these narratives are in the subjective third person, with perspectives sometimes shifting within a story, and none of the characters are named. The recurrent use of “she” and “he” might have become precious, but it works because of the universality of the feelings involved. In any case, what really matters is what is going on in these people’s inner spaces, how they are dealing with distress or elation or hopefulness; conferring superficial identities on them seems almost unnecessary. (Or even counter-productive: in “The One that was Fulfilled”, the arguments between a husband and wife run together in a single long, stream-of-consciousness paragraph, with no quote-marks or breaks to separate who is saying what, so that the effect is unnervingly like that of a single personality in conflict with itself.)

The one anomaly, I thought, was the last story, “The One that Stepped off a Broken-down Bus”, which can be viewed as a sort of summarising coda for the book. Here, two sensitive young people meet on a bus, tease each other for a bit and then discuss the complexities of love: what being connected to another life really means, what it means at different ages, practicality versus spontaneity, and so on. The story is readable enough on its own terms, but for me its weight of expository talk went against the subtler mood established by the earlier stories. That mood hinges on things being revealed through delicate observations of human behaviour in specific situations, so that – for example – a husband perplexed by his wife’s aloofness might be described thus: “He was a steady sort. He could outlast his woman’s moods, he told himself. There was the question of zero sex. But he was a patient man. He would not look at another woman. Well, perhaps he would look. But he was careful not to be caught looking. Sex, anyway, was just sex. True, it wasn’t healthy to go without for too long. But what man cheated on his wife on health grounds? He was stern with himself.”

Apart from the psychological acuity of such passages and their sense of a character’s interiority, they also let us see how, given time and a worsening state of affairs, a well-meaning person might cross a line. Consistently clear-sighted about love and its attendant frailties and pitfalls, these stories suggest many possible futures awaiting these people – so that even one that closes with “I love you, I always did, I always will” (the nearest thing the book has to a cheesy romantic declaration, spoken, ironically, by a woman who dislikes cheese) doesn’t invite the reader to take a fairy-tale ending for granted; it carries a sense that the relationship constantly needs to be worked on, that more ruptures may lie ahead. The marvel of this book is that this clear-sightedness – which could so easily have become bleak or cynical – goes hand in hand with genuine tenderness and empathy.


  1. I have a problem with journalists writing fiction-and before you mention Hemingway, let me just say this. Way too many Indian journos are writing mediocre fiction, but because of their "standing" they are able to get their books published.

    This phenomenon is so severe that now writers (who were hardcore writers) are turning to journalism to pave the way for their future work to get easily published and accepted.

    I have read Annie's work--I am not saying its bad--but at the same time I am concerned that it will not be criticised by journalists (I mean creative criticism, not malicious criticism) because hey, its a friend's book after all.

    Eager to know what you think about this phenomenon, and how much you discount your criticism when reviewing the book of someone who's in your circle.

  2. To add the point--if the same stories were written by a newbie, he would have had a hard time getting them published--forget being received well.

  3. Great review! Seems to be an insightful book. From what you have quoted the langauge seems to be deceptively simple but evokes something deeper. I think good fiction writers are immensely talented - they are able to evoke so much even as each one is just one human.

  4. Manash: I've had way too many discussions on this and related subjects over the years, and it gets tiresome going over the same things, but a few quick rejoinders:

    1) Your basic concern is a valid one, and one must therefore hope that both publishers and reviewers continue to do their job with honesty. But as for "Way too many Indian journos are writing mediocre fiction, but because of their standing they are able to get their books published", here is news for you, from a very jaded lit-journo: mediocre/terrible books by both journos and non-journos are being published in the hundreds these days. That's just the way modern publishing is.

    2) This review was an honest one - just in case it needed to be said. Not sure what you mean by "discount your criticism".

    3) Surprised by this idea of "hardcore writers turning to journalism". Can you provide a few examples of the sort of thing you mean? Also, how exactly were these hardcore writers earning their livelihood earlier? Writing books, as far as I know, isn't a lucrative profession.

  5. I am concerned that it will not be criticised by journalists...because hey, its a friend's book after all

    Also Manash, I recommend you don't worry too much about this. I just saw a quite negative review of this book that appeared in a major publication yesterday, and I have seen many negative reviews of journalists' books over the years. Besides, if we're going to start imputing motives ("it's a friend's book after all"), we can quite easily apply them in the other direction; most journos have people who don't like them/are envious of them/have a bone to pick with them in the same profession. Again, one can't do much beyond hoping that most reviews - the positive and negative ones - manage to be honest representations of what the reviewer thinks.

  6. I always thought Annie's writing always has that 'inner peace' which is associated with some of the books from Jhumpa Lahiri e.g. 'Unaccustomed Earth'.

  7. It's been a while since I've read an Indian author whose stories had me hooked instantly and especially a woman writer. Annie Zaidi's Love Stories really are about love- not that wishy-washy fairytale emotion that most people would like to be love- but love in all its messy , violent, oddly comforting glory. If we're being honest there are no happily ever afters- just let's see what happens.

    And these stories are not just about love that's been found but also the quest for love. Although oddly enough, we never do stop looking do we?

    It feels like the author has spent her time on earth studying minutely all the various ways humans love each other and, in loving ,hurt each other and themselves. The stories are all somehow instantly identifiable. I think every reader is going to have an 'aha' moment as they read these stories or at the very least a 'oh boy -been there, done that' moment. Either way I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

    Another thing I really liked about the book is that the writer seems to have been able to capture both a male and female perspective in several stories. This seems to me an especially hard thing to do, but Zaidi carries it out beautifully.

    The stories have been brilliantly formed. However, a couple of them could have been better crafted I feel- more tightly written- especially the last one in the book.

    Zaidi is definitely an author to watch out for.