Review: The Village Maestro & 100 Other Stories by Varghese Mathai
The 101 micro-stories in this volume draw from a world of wisdom and offer peace and healing even as they urge the reader to become a catalyst for change
What began decades ago as Professor Varghese Mathai’s innocuous “class openers” to draw his students into the day’s lecture are now bite-sized tales in The Village Maestro & 100 Other Stories. The “story” behind these magical tales dates back to when Mathai bagged his first teaching assignment at an American university and the department’s head casually dropped the phrase “class devotions”. Mathai had no idea what “class devotions” were but “nervous vanity” prevented him from asking.
When he realised that “class devotions” were a thought or a reflection to set the tone for the day, and noticed the students’ reluctance to volunteer, he took it upon himself to narrate an anecdote each day. He raided stories from across the world, picking those with a deep psychological and spiritual connect, which his multicultural class could relate to.
Soon enough his unscripted anecdotes, drawn from history, literature, philosophy, science and personal experience, took the shape of a parable or a micro-story. His students became addicted to them, with those who had missed class later visiting him to hear the story. In his head, Mathai called them his “class openers”. The years flew by and he changed jobs but still stuck with presenting his signature stories at the start of class.
“Between my first story… and the latest… a whole generation has passed. Alumni have called me at times to refresh a story for their own use. Many have asked for the stories in the form of a volume. That’s when I thought that perhaps I should do a ‘century’ of them as a trial run,” he writes in his introductory note.
The 101 micro-stories included in this volume may be quick reads but they are powerful tales with a lasting impact. Though this is not a conventional short story compilation, it draws from a world of wisdom and will work like a balm for all age groups. They compel the readers to ponder over their personal affairs and the world at large; they offer peace and healing, and they urge them to question their surroundings and become a catalyst for change. “The readers may even experience their own little epiphany in the process,” Mathai’s colleague points out in the foreword.
The most incredible tale in this anthology is of one Mr Jacob, a retired school principal, who cycled 10 miles at 5 am to meet Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India. He announced to the prime minister’s security that he was an “ambassador”. With Nehru’s permission he was allowed inside. When the prime minister offered him a seat, Mr Jacob declined the honour, saying he had a “tight day” ahead!
LeMaster’s Dedication is an uplifting story for aspiring writers. LeMaster resolves to improve his writing skills when an insensitive professor ridicules him before the entire class. Mathai reminds the readers of EE Cummins, whose novel, The Enormous Room, was dedicated to the 15 publishers who rejected it. He also reminds the readers of how the San Francisco Examiner told Nobel Laureate Rudyard Kipling that he didn’t know how to use the English language. “Time has a way of showing builders that the stone that they had rejected was perhaps the cornerstone,” observes Mathai, who earlier authored The Malabar Mandate: A Life of Volbrecht Nagel, and is a professor of doctoral writing at Judson University, Illinois. His next book, Mahakavi KV Simon: The Milton of the East, is due for release later this year.
A Citizen At Sea is an interesting story of Haitian refugees approaching the Florida coast in a crowded boat with no safety features. The storms were strong and had it not been for the US Coast Guard, the refugees would not have survived. It’s another matter that the Haitians faced arrest, having entered the US territorial waters without permit. Among them was a pregnant woman who went into labour on the vessel. As luck would have it, the child was declared a US citizen – A Citizen At Sea – that very minute, ensuring a safe passage for the mother too.
The Village Maestro is the story of a 65-year-old retired music teacher. He went around playing his harmonium and singing old hymns. He owned a small house and when the maestro was away on a long trip, his neighbour readjusted the boundary of his house yet again, going a good three feet deep into the maestro’s boundary. In the maestro’s reaction, lies a lesson for humanity.
The most unnerving story is The Cannibal Call – about a German computer engineer who ran an advertisement calling for applications from good looking men willing to be slaughtered and eaten. Several Germans responded, but backed off at the last minute. All except for one. The two men then work out a plan for the slaughter.
The Idea of the Image is in the same league. Here, a Scottish surgeon, Dr Robert Smith, agrees to amputate the legs of two healthy young men who felt that “legs were unnecessary and wanted their bodies to be rid of them”.
The most melancholic story is The Value of Clean Hands. Ignaz Semmelweis, a 19th century Hungarian professor of medicine, is troubled by the high mortality among women during childbirth. He has a strong hunch that this was due to a lack of cleanliness. He was ridiculed and eventually ended up in a mental asylum.
My favourite story is The Spider’s Chide, in which Mathai points out that a spider can exert 172 times its body weight on an object. “In human terms that would be like one person turning himself into a small army of 172.” Of course, the message of this story is not limited to spiders. A beetle can escape from under a piece of cardboard one hundred times its weight, using its head and legs as levers. Nature is marvellous and we cannot but be ashamed at not pushing ourselves enough.
Likewise, The Trickle’s Push is about a drop of water becoming a river. Mathai is at his philosophical best here: “A single human is on a journey like the lone trickle at the river’s start.”
The author’s innate spirituality shines through these vignettes that are bound to pierce the reader’s soul. A collection that is both a joyous romp and a thought-provoking read, it is a winner with readers almost feeling like they are part of Mathai’s class – proof enough of his beautiful story telling skills.
Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.