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Crowded street, mixed signals

Waiting for Renée is a metaphor every writer recognises. The traffic of chance crowds us till the streets are cleared without notice to make room for one line of truth. These stories await that moment, writes Kalpish Ratna.

books Updated: Dec 06, 2008 20:22 IST
Kalpish Ratna

Waiting for Renée
Paramita Ghosh
Writers Workshop l Rs 150
l pp 70

Each story in this collection poses the question, ‘What if?’ Paramita Ghosh’s premise is stated in the introductory Waiting for Renée. The narrator dreams up Renée, peeling potatoes, and waiting for Pierre.

But there are too many rules that get in the way of this simple thought. Renée is not Ren-nee but Ren-nei. Pierre cannot enter the kitchen with the momentous news that Napoleon has captured the King and the Queen in the Palace, because Napoleon never did that. Facts are very important, says the narrator’s lover, and facts must be got right. She dodges this neatly: ‘There was only one thing to be done. I slipped under the covers and got the facts right. I sang a French chanson, uncorked the bottle, played silly, fed him ripe red apples, twirled in blue and green, stepped on jungle paths and laid out European nights with cinematic chic.’

That is clear enough — rebellion is simmering. Will the book bring it to a boil?

The story ‘Code Red’ is strongly reminiscent of early O. Henry. M wears red all day, and hints at amours the night will bring. The upbeat narrative, however, loses verve and turns sentimental as she changes from (Mysterious, European) M to staid Miss M, finally folding up as somebody’s fond Auntie M with an energetic bat in the belfry.

‘The Run’ is a story of a failed marriage kept alive perhaps by the husband’s nausea towards his wife: ‘… there are times when you want to appraise your woman and spread her naked in the marketplace. If you want to whip her, I will not stop you. I will think you have paid her a poem.’ The nervous elegance of the prose is in step with the bleakness of the tale. However, the story remains a pointless statement of savagery.

Ghosh is at her best in swift pirouettes like ‘The Last’, again a vignette of domestic strife turned with opportunistic cunning into a tryst by the son who witnesses the violence. Fantasies like ‘Window to Macondo’ are too Angela Carter to permit the writer’s own voice to emerge.

Paramita Ghosh’s strength is in her rejection of the obvious. This permits free-ranging whimsy, often pretty, as in ‘The Ghost Story’, and sometimes numbingly adolescent as in ‘Laces’.

Whimsy needs idea for ballast and is absent in these stories. Snail tracks of titillation — a lifted dress, nipples tipped with salt, silver running down the legs like sewage — have no erotic gleam without logic or epiphany. Happenstance — famously the coming together of an umbrella and a sewing machine on the dissecting table — must capture the moment of realisation to be convincingly surreal. Else, it fails to provoke thought, and remains an indulgence.

Waiting for Renée is a metaphor every writer recognises. The traffic of chance crowds us till the streets are cleared without notice to make room for one line of truth. These stories await that moment.

Kalpish Ratna is the pseudonymn of doctors Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed.