There are two worlds in Vineetha Mokkil’s debut collection of stories, A Happy Place. One is the familiar, upper crust universe of people-like-us. The other underworld – of the invisible servants, working class girls, prostitutes – lurks close by. The two collide -- often catastrophically -- creating the pivot around which her characters develop.
Parties are Mokkil’s weapon-of-choice with frenzied celebrations acting as the backdrop for several conflicts – a father trying frantically to get back to an unhappy home in time for his daughter’s birthday party, a confident editor going off the rails after his insecurity is picked at in a party, a young student discovering the true nature of her best friend’s husband at their wedding reception.
But this is no ordinary volume presenting an un-nuanced ‘modern’ India. Unhappiness seeps through Mokkil’s prose, as characters endure self-inflicted misfortunes, with no convenient epiphany at hand to offer resolution. Several stories stop short of even a hint at conclusion -- a series of snapshots without the tired rigour of an ending. The reader is left wanting more but, is in no measure, unsatisfied.
In one of the strongest stories in the collection, a young impoverished girl is invited to sing for the President. Without slipping into platitudes, Mokkil effortlessly gets into her skin, showing us her overworked mother, her humble home and her dreams. The plot may be hackneyed, the execution not.
This subaltern world comes back repeatedly. In A Happy Place, a domestic help escapes a brutal past but steps into an uncertain future after sexual advances by her male employer.
There are the blockbuster stories which will grip you – a young housewife preparing to execute her role as a suicide bomber: “If she were a believer, she would have comforted herself with the thought that blood on her hands would be cleansed by Allah. But she had no such illusions. She had lost her faith the day the bullet pierced through Bilal’s heart. Her faith wasn’t strong to continue believing in a god who stood by, watching innocents die,” Mokkil writes in A Quiet Day.
But the stories that stay with the reader are the ones discovered when you read the volume a second time. Sid and Nikhil’s parties in The Girl Next Door camouflage a floundering marriage with their streetwalking neighbour – thrown out of the apartment due to her profession – saving the narrator’s life after an abduction bid. The slow blossoming of nuptial and parental bliss in Baby Baby in a 50-something father even as slow, grating understanding develops between once-spouses.
The pitfall of great stories, however, lurks in their weaker sisters. Mokkil’s gift of uncertain resolutions is stretched at times, most noticeable in Red, where too much is happening and the end seems too rushed.
She also doesn’t delve as deep into sociology like fellow Pakistani artist Daniyal Mueenuddin, but imbues her characters – a number of journalists and queers there – with generosity of spirit, making her study of the individuals just as interesting.
That aside, my personal favourite is her last story, a look at Siddhartha’s relinquishing of worldly possessions from Yashodhara’s eyes. “She was the sinner, he was the saint. She was ignorant, he had risen beyond desire’s demands. Her life, a litany of petty concerns: Her body’s clamorous wants, her heart’s song. The future of the human race hung on his princely shoulders. What reprieve for a burdened saint?” Mokkil’s irony is deliciously dripping.
“Writing short stories is very hard work,” said George Saunders, one of the recent masters of the art. If that be so, Mokkil hides her toil well with a supremely-readable collection. We look forward to more.