Review: My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories by Sumana Roy
There is potential in Sumana Roy’s My Mother’s Lover and Other Stories.
Consider this one story: A young English professor, ashamed of his “provinciality” and unsatisfied with his mastery over the language and its literature, desperately wants to acquire that urbane coolness he feels comes naturally to native English speakers. Class, he feels, is the new caste — “Yes, the subaltern can speak, but only on Facebook,” his posts earn approving likes of people he aspires to emulate in real life. Even this thrill, like all his other feelings, turn into self-loathing. In the end, we discover, he’s pretty loathsome anyway.
Summarily, this all sounds good. And it would be, certainly could be. The problem with it, as with all 14 short stories in this collection, is that at best they read like early first drafts, but more often like rough sketches+notes.
Story after story, I read on determined to find something that resonated, mostly because these are framed as “stories about people who suffer from curious ailments” and I have been waiting to read more about the inner lives of modern Indians, those dark spaces of our minds as metaphor. But whatever was meant to be unsettling was only deeply disappointing.
In a story that starts off well, Mrs Chakrabarti moves into the house of her only sister, who had died of cancer, and starts throwing out every bit of plastic from the house and her life. She suffers every time — which is often — she discovers plastic is everywhere and seems inescapable. We suffer being subjected to pages of descriptions of the presence of plastic in boring everyday objects. All of this, it turns out in the end, is to justify a “clever” punch line, which is the word “plastic”. In another story, which ends with suicide, the punch line is cringe worthy humour: locals want to name a spot Martyr Point, “That sounds like matar paneer…” somebody says. Old lovers have the dullest affair in the world in Europe. The only story — Literature and Other Ailments — that somewhat worked for me is about a bookish girl on a picnic with her extended family where the strangest things happen, all the while she has this unsettling feeling that “someone will die today.” That trepidation — will someone die today? — stayed with me until the end, and for that, I was grateful.
Elsewhere, the infuriating problem is that Roy gives us glimpses of these great possibilities but never quite follows through. In a story set in a classroom where students talk about their sexuality, their parents’ divorces, we’re made to read by the insufferable teacher protagonist, Jack Gilbert’s poem Failing and Flying. Another protagonist in another story goes over her mother’s sadness — “my marriage was a dull paraphrase of theirs. I quit it immediately,” she tells us. This is a great line, but it doesn’t quite go anywhere. And everywhere in the book, characters, most of whom are obsessed with literature, are unable to share with us their love for books and instead endlessly drop names like talking textbooks. The metaphors are weak and forced: “And just as the bud wouldn’t become a flower until all its petals had bloomed, the bus wouldn’t start until it had filled up completely. He waited, like a cook waiting for the gravy to come to a boil.”
Read more: Review: Out of Syllabus by Sumana Roy
Previously, Roy has published a memoir, a book of poetry and a novel. Her writing has appeared in prominent literary magazines. She wrote a lovely essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books earlier this year, about reading literature as a college student in small-town Bengal where “the reading life in a place like ours was marked by a poverty of reading material” — and so most students inadvertently practised New Criticism, the 20th century literary theory which emphasizes that only close reading of the text matters. She teaches at Ashoka University.
All of these achievements are somewhat apparent in the writing — but they’re just either sparse or inconsistent. Critics are often criticised for reviewing books they don’t like. The idea being that if you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all — and certainly not waste precious space, which can be better occupied by writing about good books, recommended reading. My Mother’s Lover is important to review, not only because of the stature of its author — but also because it demonstrates that rare thing: good writing has to be greater than the sum of all its parts.
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.