Review: A Night in the Hills by Manav Kaul
I first came across Manav Kaul’s work as a student when the college theatre society staged his play, Park, during a festival on campus. The story of three strangers fighting each other for space in a park, the play turns on discussions that eventually touch on what it means to belong. These themes of loneliness, heartache, isolation, and the human need for companionship recur in the eight stories that are part of A Night in the Hills, translated from the Hindi original Prem Kabootar by Pooja Priyamvada. From a group of friends navigating questions of love, family, religion and friendship in A Bunch of Old Letters to an artist figuring out that all art is, in some way, mimesis in The Copy Artist, Kaul’s protagonists belong to a pre-Instagram, pre-WhatsApp world where owning an Atlas Goldline or proper football shoes was a marker of prosperity and writing a letter was the first step to a declaration of love.
In Chuhal, a play that Kaul wrote and directed and in which he also acted, he explored these same themes of the idea of love, the hope for unconditional companionship, the battle of the egos characteristic of every relationship, and the inability of language to express the gap between our hopes and visions of the future and our reality. All this is expressed through the games that the protagonists play with each other. This chuhal, where the boundaries between reality and fantasy, between the imagined and the realised seem to blur is where Kaul’s stories and his characters exist. In stories like Itti and Uday, The Swallow, Words and their Pictures and Tragedy, particularly, these negotiations with the self and the other, and the conversations individuals have with ourselves are at the centre of the narrative.
The highlights of this collection include the titular story and the monologue Shakkar ke Paanch Daane, which features here as Five Grains of Sugar. They showcase Kaul’s wit, his ability to find the extraordinary in the mundane, and to make use of familiar images and tropes in markedly new ways. The feeling of displacement, the very act of writing or creating, the separation or the coming together of art and the artist, the play with imagination and reality, and questions of authorship and the inherently flawed and conditioned human perceptions are all beautifully drawn out in the two different narratives. While one involves a solo traveller being guided by an old man in the dark through the woods to his guest house in the next village, the other follows young Raju’s life as he introduces the reader to the people and experiences that form an important part of it.
Read more: Manav Kaul: The devil and the details
While Priyamvada’s translation retains the poetic texture of Kaul’s storytelling, the ease with which the Hindi original makes the reader/spectator a part of the story remains wanting in the English text.
The stories in A Night in the Hills don’t all have a linear narrative structure. The going back and forth in time and the occasional dwelling on fleeting moments of revelation in seemingly ordinary moments makes it easy for readers to relate to the deeply flawed characters inhabiting Kaul’s universe. A Night in the Hills is an interesting new addition to South Asian short fiction.
Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist.