Review: A Case of Indian Marvels edited by David Davidar - Hindustan Times

Review: A Case of Indian Marvels edited by David Davidar

ByPercy Bharucha
Feb 23, 2024 04:29 PM IST

The emerging writers featured in this collection inject small-town Indian middle class settings with a dose of progressive ideology

The first thing that comes to mind when one leafs through this anthology is the boldness of the enterprise. David Davidar strays away from the stalwarts of Indian fiction to give voice to emerging writers. What it also does is provide an unanticipated breadth to the collection of fiction the reader is about to enjoy. Forty stories united by nothing more than the age of their writers, spanning themes ranging from the political to the personal and the commonplace to the surreal. Mythological retellings, mental health, taboo relationships, tribal rights, women’s rights – nothing seems off the table for these young writers. Unburdened by needless detail most stories feel light, leaving readers with characters they can’t forget.

The people in these stories look like your average folks but “in the lives of nameless ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ we see the quick march of modernity.” (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
The people in these stories look like your average folks but “in the lives of nameless ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ we see the quick march of modernity.” (Shutterstock)

408pp, ₹999; Aleph
408pp, ₹999; Aleph

What most of these stories embody is an approach to recapturing the small-town, rural Indian setting, injecting it with a healthy dose of progressive ideologies and characters who choose to break free from tradition. In numerous unnamed villages, in the lives of nameless “uncles” and “aunties” we see the quick march of modernity. Through same-sex relationships, divorce, feminism, the abandonment of rules, and the breaking of caste barriers, we see attempts made by contemporary writers to subvert the hold of historical stereotypes and to refashion the nostalgia and romance of the countryside and claim it as their own. To create a utopian form of the simple life that the modern, urban Indian so yearns to escape to from their overly complicated city lives. This impulse appears in The Accounts Officer’s Wife by Lakshmikanth K Ayyagari, where a young bride takes revenge for her husband’s infidelity by becoming her own person much to the entertainment of the whole village and scandalising her in-laws. In radha, krishna, Neel Patel does a contemporary form of the ancient epic. A young mother in America, seeks to rekindle an old flame as a form of divine love, while her American husband and children wait for her. In Spider-Girl, Pritika Rao uses humour to great effect to narrate a coming of age story as a mother tries to trace the cause of her daughter’s mysterious bruise. In Twenty-first Tiffin, Raam Mori’s protagonist suspects her mother of harbouring feelings for one of her clients. A young bride shares a train berth with an unknown man in Journey by Shanthi K Appanna. Their conversation expands on the nature of relationships with husbands, partners and families. By the time her station arrives, neither is who they were before. A single meditation on truth has changed them forever.

READ MORE: Interview, David Davidar, publisher Aleph, editor, A Case of Indian Marvels - “These stories will stand the test of time.”

It is a joy to read characters that see their parents and family as just a little less uptight, and just a tad bit more human. This collection embodies stories that are a collective push back against the image of middle-class Indians as being straitlaced, robotic, and predictable. The women in this collection are fearless, seize agency and are quick to put the world and society back in its place.

The collection also ventures into surreal territory with extremely haunting and/ or hilarious results. In The Devouring Sea, Amal expands on the love of a man for a boat and the sea. The pursuit of acquiring said boat dooms his protagonist to a life of darkness and despair. In The Current Climate, Aravind Jayan tells the story of a small-town bank manager and his tryst with removing an idol in his office. A sequence of funny coincidences leads him to wonder if it is truly worth incurring the wrath of local gods or more importantly, of the locals themselves. In Eggs Keep Falling from the Fourth Floor, Bhavika Govil shows us the effect of loneliness on mental health and the traumatic nature of modern marriages. A widow forgets her father’s dentures while her son uses an extraordinary trick to postpone his exam in The Teeth on the Bus Go Round and Round by Dinesh Devarajan. Nicholas Rixon captures the desperation of a man to win a competition and outdo his neighbours in a rather dark albeit hilarious story titled, The Annual Pig Parade of Kharagpore. We encounter a grandmother tired of cleaning the shit of others set amidst a meditation on how the younger generation seems to be losing their empathy and ability to forgive in My Grandmother Talks About Shit by Srividiya Tadepalli. Of the surreal encounters of love, Tushar Jain presents a most hilarious conundrum in The Octopus: A Fable where a young boy turns into an octopus each time he is aroused.

In the millennial vein, we come across characters adrift, once they become untethered from their jobs, their families or their default settings. The collection does a wonderful job of giving voice to existential angst, voids that are often filled through the aimless loitering and the haunting of public spaces. In Public Record by Karan Madhok, the reader shadows a medical nurse who, following a traumatic incident at work, quits to follow strangers through the Delhi Metro system. In The Smear Papers by Shawn Fernandes, we find an Indian flavour of the O Henry twist when two colleagues contemplate the morality of the work they do.

David Davidar (Aleph Book Company)
David Davidar (Aleph Book Company)

What perhaps sets this collection apart is that despite its contemporary voices, there is a sharp focus on the criticisms of our past and a cathartic liberation from them even if it is only in fiction. Davidar includes a selection of stories that deal with political issues that most of us have carefully brushed under the carpet. The Alligator of Aligarh by AM Gautam is a biting take on caste, friendships and the pragmatism of the truly desperate. The Adivasi Will Not Dance by Hansda Sowvenda Shekhar features a haunting image of persecution and the death of culture and art as it perishes with those who are systematically oppressed. Narrated by a singer, perhaps the last of his profession, it is a moving tale of the endurance of violence. The Great Indian Tee and Snakes by Kritika Pandey mines another vein of hatred as the slow poison of communal violence trickles into the cup of young love. In The Lorry Raja, Madhuri Vijay gives us children bonded into labour that refuse to accept their status quo and find ingenious ways to escape poverty.

In these stories, we find a streak of rebellion, a refusal to accept what is for what could be, to escape no matter what the cost. One can only hope this rebellion is a sign of optimism on the part of the youth that change can prevail.

Barring a few weak links, this collection is a tour de force.

Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha.

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