HT reviewer Saikat Majumdar picks his favourite read of 2023 - Hindustan Times

HT reviewer Saikat Majumdar picks his favourite read of 2023

BySaikat Majumdar
Dec 22, 2023 06:55 PM IST

Anukrti Upadhyay's collection of short stories, The Blue Women, explores the lives of idiosyncratic women and the challenges they face. It is a remarkable and powerful portrayal of femininity and labor in modern society.

Short story collections still seem to occupy an awkward place in the marketplace of arts and ideas. Caught between the narrative instinct of the novel and the momentariness of the lyric poem, the publishing world often lacks a relevant language with which to present them to the world. Short stories also embody a richer paradox: they carry the instinct of the pre-modern tale or fable to tell a story that travels across a vast span of time and space on one hand, but they are also defined by that modern obsession for the minutiae best articulated by Anton Chekhov: “Put your cigarette on that ash-tray and I’ll write a story about it.”

A remarkable collection on women in labour, in every sense of the term. (HarperCollins)
A remarkable collection on women in labour, in every sense of the term. (HarperCollins)

But the very things that make this genre a commercial oddity are also what deepen their wild beauty as art strangely restrained in the intricacy of fine form. Anukrti Upadhay does the odd length beautifully: I was captivated by the twin novellas on life in rural Rajasthan she published in 2019 – Daura and Bhaunri, not least because of her unforgettable ability to capture rustic and vernacular lives and emotions in English. My favourite book of 2023 is her collection of short stories, The Blue Women, far more urban in spirit, context and form, and yet swinging wildly between the polarizing demands on the hybrid genre of the modern short story. Here, small things like the succulent meat in a shawarma wrap become the bluest regret on the verge of a fatal accident, and a woman’s life of quotidian claustrophobia with a self-absorbed husband is ripped open by a bloody and disruptive event.

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Saikat Majumdar (Courtesy the subject)
Saikat Majumdar (Courtesy the subject)

The title comes from the blue women who appear as apparitions wrapped in stilled violence before a doomed Cassandra of a female cabbie, presaging terrifying deaths of those she sees, but the blue women is the larger name for almost all the protagonists in the collection. At the heart of most of them are powerfully idiosyncratic women – the teenage Sona with a psychedelic crush on her stepfather, the calm Janaki who melts into her garden to be courted by the monarch of bats, the unlikely, hesitant but deep friendship between two women in an office that is doomed to crumble under the mean gaze of society, a daughter broken by her father’s death who invites the force of the erotic to fight mortality. This is a remarkable collection on women in labour, in every sense of the term, but most of all the professional labour of steely, masculine workplaces that blurs the lines between dreams and balance-sheets, research and passion, never romanticizing the feminine and yet marking women as pervasive, nurturing, and self-destructive forces of nature.

READ MORE: HT reviewers pick their best reads of 2023

Saikat Majumdar is the author of four novels: Silverfish, The Firebird, The Scent of God, and The Middle Finger. @_saikatmajumdar

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