Book Review: The Love Song of Maya K is a beautifully chaotic ode to womanhood
The first thing I notice when I pick up Shuma Raha’s The Love Song of Maya K, is the title’s allusion to a TS Eliot poem that is forgotten and remembered with equal regularity. Is this an obvious foreshadowing of what is to come, or simply the author’s attempt to invoke her muse? Well, we shall not cease from exploration.
The Love Song of Maya K is a collection of 13 short stories with curious titles and everyday characters that live in either Delhi or Kolkata — cities of the author’s residence now and before. What goes on in the mind of a salesgirl at a perfume store in a mall in Kolkata, why does a high-flying advertising professional in her late forties fantasise about liaisons with her cabbie, or what prompts a woman from an affluent family to jump borders of class and religion to marry a man who lives with his mother and sister in a dingy house and survives on a meagre salary? Raha also deals with pedophilia, mob lynching, and domestic violence, but never gets preachy.
The book scores on quite a few counts, but what immediately strikes you is its ability to get into your mind, to shove a hand into the mouth of the mundane and turn it inside out. This is a book about individuals living double lives — in the mind and in actual, corporeal world as they see it. People dreaming an entire parallel universe inside their heads, people with multiple names, people denying their inner selves, people with fractured identities and fragmented memories. As much as these stories are about characters flitting in and out of headspace, this is also a book about the narrative not skipping what goes inside a human mind.
Time and again the book comes back to remind one of the inspiration it takes from Eliot. The title of the first story, Smell the Coffee Beans, Please, reminds one of another line in Prufrock: I have measured out my life in coffee spoons. And apart from the titular story, the case is the same for all others including the one titled April is a Cruel Month. However, the reader will gradually realise that this is Raha’s own territory, and not a sprinkling of pre-World War themes that make a background for modern Indian life in two cities.
Some stories in the collection tug at the heart with extraordinary tenderness. The closing story, Daddy is Home, takes the reader through a day in the life of 6-year-old Charu, who awaits the arrival of his father, an overbearing, annoyingly single-minded man, from Andhra Pradesh, one rainy day in Delhi. Charu is highly perceptive, intelligent, and a gentle child, and the narrative lends him agency by substituting its omniscience with the child’s observations at several instances in the story, as he expresses his pristine love and attachment for his mother and dreads her absence. The Trip is a story about a couple realising the faultiness in their perfectly-arranged matrimony as they return from a vacation.
The collection also has a special place for realities of modern lives that we scoff at when they don’t have to do with us: marriages of convenience and marriages of frivolity; upper-class snobbery; upper middle class parents making it a point to speak to their kids exclusively in English; incorrigible, domesticated women refusing to recognise the damage being done to them in homes… the list goes on and on.
The Love Song of Maya K is also one long ode to womanhood. Every story explores some facet of the 21st century Indian woman. From highly ambitious, young women anxious about stepping up the career ladder, socially-conscious women anxious about stepping up the status ladder, women alone and unmarried, women married and alone, to women peeping out of the walls of the harem to seek out partners from forbidden territory, single women in their twenties exploring and transcending sexual orientation, and single women in their forties keeping up with raging sex drives, this is one breathless montage of women vying for multiplicity and identity.
That Raha’s collection deals with dichotomies, lends it a harmonious, poetic quality. It is immensely readable, and abounds with characters you could easily find around yourselves in the street or in the metro or in your shared cab. It’s only when the author attempts a drab realism that the characterisation tends to look effete, even if it happens seldom in the book. This one is for lovers of short story, poetry, and Eliot. So, let us go then, you and I?
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