In this column, Saikat Majumdar discusses books from India that haven’t received due attention.
It is always risky to break the unity of an artistic work. Aristotle lay down the perils of this disruption in his theory of tragedy — that the work must not only feel seamless in its theme and plot, but should also avoid being scattered across time and place. The pointed appeal of a tragedy derives from its unity, as opposed to the ambitious expanse of the epic. Later playwrights, with William Shakespeare among them, have notoriously broken this austere rule and have created great art.
The modern short story tends to adhere to the unities. Shaped by European modernity, the short story brought the minor dramas and trivialities of everyday life under a magnifying glass, distinguishing itself from its premodern ancestors, the fable and the oral tale, with their irregular sweeps through time and place. Caught between colonial modernity and a vernacular impulse, nonwestern practitioners of the short story, whether writing in a local or a European language, sometimes dishevel this unified form. Lopa Ghosh’s short stories, magical in their evocation of dappled realities, reveal, under the slippery shine of a cosmopolitan style, the tattered epic of life in post-globalization India.
Psychedelia flash across the rear-glass of Ghosh’s fictional vehicle: the flab and finesse of wealth, corporate gymnastics, bruising poverty, family, sex, ambition, desertion, world politics, provincial ambition, computers, and black magic. Many of these come together in one of her most stunning stories, “The Richest Man in the World,” where the titular tech-billionaire, Brad Walker, comes to visit a poor Calcutta neighborhood with much fanfare. Will he meet Tuni, the slum girl who steals into internet cafes and who some think is a prodigy? Will he come to Tuni’s home where her mother, Ratna, already wrung dry by life, still hopes to ensnare men with her appeal? When she hears the world has changed in the last 10 years and that Walker had much to do with it, Ratna reminds her little daughter that nothing has changed for her: “But I didn’t feel it. Then it must be another world. There are many worlds, Tuni. Whenever you hear the world has changed, be sure to ask which one. Or you will sound like a fool.”
One of the most striking things about Ghosh’s stories is that she is able to retain central emotional investment in her protagonists even as life moves ahead in all kinds of jagged directions. It creates an impression of slight disorganization which the reader quickly comes to realize is the dissonance of jazz music — a chaos with its yearning heart in the right place. Most of her off-kilter, oddly intense, brilliant-but-marginal central characters — whether it be the prodigy Tuni, the determined provincial corporate climber Arpita, the seeker of fancy men and footwear in “The Red Shoe”, the decadent journalist Imon in the title story — are right in the midst of the current of events and at the same time at an odd angle to them. This also shapes the sharp but playful feminism that is the soul of these stories. Almost all these protagonists are female, whose connection to the worlds of their dwelling is intense and absent at the same time, a relation of molten love and jagged war.
The corporate world sets the stage for many of Ghosh’s stories, flashing its buoyant portfolios and oyster-and-champagne bling while baring its fierce tribal skullduggery and toxic paradoxes in a poverty-stricken world. The world of media, riven similarly between global capitalism and the doomed desire to change it, is another ceaseless presence. The way it ensconces the final story, “The Revolt of the Fish Eaters,” recalls the gaseous, inflated style of an early carnivalesque chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses, “Aeolus.” Ghosh’s protagonist, the journalist Imon, is something of a song herself, moving between drowsy sexual fantasies of and the intense political campaign of the fiery opposition leader, clearly modeled on the militant real-life politician who eventually became West Bengal’s first female chief minister. Between the sunbaked grit of activism and the drugged haze of decadence, Ghosh carves tiny epics that get stretched forever in impossible directions without the tranquil unities of the modern short story.
Saikat Majumdar is the author of three novels: The Scent of God (2019), The Firebird (2015), published in the US as Play House (2017), and Silverfish (2007). He has also published a book of literary criticism — Prose of the World (2013), a work of nonfiction — College (2018), and a co-edited collection of essays — The Critic as Amateur (2019). His new novel, The Middle Finger, will be published in January 2022.