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Review: Diwali in Muzaffarnagar by Tanuj Solanki

A haunting collection of eight stories of young men and women, who grew up together in Muzaffarnagar

books Updated: May 26, 2018 09:34 IST
Avantika Mehta
Avantika Mehta
Hindustan Times
small town,Alice Munro,short fiction
A scene from Muzaffarnagar.(Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times)
232pp, Rs 299; HarperCollins

In fiction, as in life, it is easy to create heroes and villains. It’s harder to understand that people have a little bit of both within themselves. Tanuj Solanki’s new book of short stories, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, achieves this incredible feat.

The book contains eight stories of young men and women, who grew up together in Muzaffarnagar. They go on to make new lives for themselves outside the riot-ridden town. Each tale explores different personalities and different journeys. What binds them is the sense of loneliness that follows everyone who makes a home outside their hometown.

Solanki is a skilled writer; his prose is subtle, seductive and technically perfect. There’s more than a hint of Alice Munro in his style. As short story writers go, he’s certainly picked an excellent guide from whom to learn.

Solanki embeds a sense of undeniable reality in each story. With each account of his characters’ lives, he reveals a little more about contemporary small-town India. He deftly dispels myths and preconceptions that urban India may have about places that are in focus only when they’re in a newspaper headline.

Right from the first tale, The Sad Unknowability of Dilip Singh, the reader is treated to a rare sensitivity. The story is like a hook and it is hard not to take the bait and read the remaining works fervently to see if they match up. For the record: they do.

The second story in the collection, My Friend Danish, is a heartbreaking tale of innocence squashed by communal divides. It is full of accurate observations about human nature and the reader may wonder why she never thought of them. It is a tale ripe for making judgments, yet there are none. Solanki’s persona, speaking in the first person, offers only understanding along with the sadness that comes with the realization that childhood notions of bravery and friendship are just fables that individuals believe to comfort themselves.

B’s Solo Trip, a story about a small-town man’s first real holiday is one of this reviewer’s favourites. Everyone thinks they know a B – the frustrated Indian man with strange notions about women, especially white women. Solanki handles the subject with such tenderness that readers might find themselves being less harsh about those men in Goa who secretly take pictures of girls in bikinis.

Reasonable Limits is another stand-out. This monologue of a man stuck in a corporate job, a scathing picture of modern life, is not easy to read. I found it comforting; perhaps because in today’s YOLO (You Only Live Once) culture, we forget that life isn’t short. It is long, full of responsibilities, and escape is just a dream.

Half the stories have male leads, so the initial assumption is that this is a collection of men’s stories. Even if it had been so, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar presents men in a way not often seen in fiction: as vulnerable beings struggling with traditions they’re taught, which are directly opposed to a changing India. The men in the stories are cowards, perverts, inane, but worthy of sympathy.

The final few stories have female protagonists. I suspect Solanki divided the genders deliberately. The women’s stories depict a different side of Muzaffarnagar. Their experiences tell of the travails of womanhood, of dreams of escape, and of the reality of coming back home.

Good People, a story about a woman and her family’s struggle with childhood abuse, is exceptional. Told in sets that volley between Tanuja (the female protagonist) and her husband, Ankush, it’s a story about coming home to find her parents taking care of the grandfather who sexually assaulted her as an eight-year-old. Like the other stories, what stands out here is that Solanki moves his characters around to face their worst fears. He does this with skill and an intimate knowledge of their motivations. Nothing in this story feels unreal. Instead, it is something that probably happens to thousands of women every day, but remains cloaked in silence and the weight of tradition. This is one of the best short stories I’ve read in a long while.

Author Tanuj Solanki (Courtesy HarperCollins)

The book finishes with Compassionate Grounds, a tale of a young woman who escapes Muzaffarnagar and all but cuts ties with her family in favour of a posh life in Delhi. She must return after her father dies. The most extended piece in the book by far, it is a slow, fleshed-out tale of the inescapability of one’s flesh and blood. I may never forget the part where the protagonist realises her shit smells like her deceased dad’s. It makes the reader laugh while they cry.

Read more: Review: Neon Noon by Tanuj Solanki

The final story is a perfect ending point for the collection. It encapsulates the very essence of Solanki’s book. The desire to escape; the loneliness of adulthood; the empty feeling of making new homes in new cities; the inevitable need to return to one’s roots, and the equally irresistible urge to run away once we do.

Diwali in Muzaffarnagar is a haunting collection, yes. But it is more than that: it’s humane, kind, and real. Its prose is impeccable but not pompously so. All in all, it is a true pleasure to read .

Avantika Mehta is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

First Published: May 25, 2018 16:56 IST