Review: Principles of Prediction by Anushka Jasraj
“I am leaving because in my heart there is growing,” the narrator of Anushka Jasraj’s story The Circus writes in an incomplete note to her husband. Sita knows she is in love with a hijra lion tamer she has not yet met because she has inherited her circus performer great grandmother’s “vision” (and also her eyeball preserved in a glass jar). She is leaving her husband as well as her lover, her beautiful neighbour downstairs, to join the circus. But she is unable to find the word to “explain the emptiness inside me which is also a kind of nourishment.”
“Language is a rigged carnival game where the hoops are too small to fit around any of the prizes. Friendship. Desire. Love. Loneliness. None of these words can explain what I experience,” Sita says.
And so Jasraj explains these experiences through low-key, almost hallucinatory, sequences.
Principles of Prediction is a whimsical, outlandish and wildly original collection of 13 dreamlike stories containing just enough (perhaps too much) truth about the incomprehensible reality of our inner lives and desires.
Most of these stories are set in Mumbai and told through awkward protagonists — mostly women — in varying stages and kinds of relationships. A woman makes regular appointments with her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend who is a hairdresser unsure if she wants to get closer to her or him by proxy. Another sets her freeloading boyfriend on fire (kind of). There are relationships driven by fantasies existing solely inside the mind — “The difference between an imagined experience and a lived experience diminishes with the distance of time.”
Jasraj shows the fluidity of desire — multiple, often contradictory desires coalescing — in all its glorious ambivalence.
In Drawing Lessons, which won the 2017 Asia Regional Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Moira is distressed by her inability to have children and her distant husband. “I don’t ask where he was last night. Instead, I find myself being nicer to Karun at breakfast — placing a kiss on his neck, which he doesn’t acknowledge. In this way our marriage is two separate marriages. The one inside my head, filled with potential, and the one I confront in Karun’s presence.” These two disappointments though disappear during her drawing lessons where she struggles with feelings of a new sort of desire for Flora, her sixty-something art teacher.
The stories are all framed by a kind of baffling ambiguity: students of an Art of Occult class in Dharavi make up predictions for a man who wants to seduce his asexual girlfriend; the daughter of the founder of the Indian Psychoanalytical Society meets Freud in Vienna in 1931; a forecaster whose mother disappears (with the neighbour’s daughter’s gold jewellery) spends her days naming and predicting an upcoming storm:
“Of course, my knowledge of the future doesn’t come with power, money or the ability to prevent catastrophes. Instead, there’s a helplessness, like getting stung by a bee whose erratic movements you’ve been watching. The ability to predict the likelihood of a cyclone, a break-up, a collapse, doesn’t change your lack of control over the event. It is possible to know where and when the storm will arrive, but difficult to assess its intensity.”
The baffling ambiguity is kind of the point. Jasraj fills her stories with odd little details, but the depth — (and these stories are deceptively deep!) — comes in the form of missiles of wisdom. The underlying insight here is that uncertainty holds the universe together. And our interactions with this uncertainty bring up unexpected feelings. Thoughts, knowledge, information can only do so much.
In Feline, my favourite story in the collection, the narrator is a private detective on an assignment to investigate the ex boyfriend of her client who wants “to know who he is now.”
“I’m aware some people take pleasure in asking intrusive questions and learning everything there is to know about another person. But really, that’s just like detective work, and I find it tiresome. There’s no solution, no pay-off. A trail of clues leading nowhere. No matter how much evidence you collect, people still betray you, or they become strangers. Might as well not dig in the first place,” she thinks as she takes on the assignment. The story goes on to show how information creates intimacy.
Most of the stories are set in Mumbai where the author lives, but Jasraj moves with as much ease to Texas, Vienna, dystopia, the 1930s. Although this is her first book, she has been working on these stories for a decade.
Her oldest story in the collection, Radio Story, had first won her the Asia regional Commonwealth prize in 2012. Inspired by the Secret Congress Radio, an underground radio station operated from Bombay during the freedom movement, it’s about love, memory and their complications.
In an interview Jasraj talked about a trick she learnt from her screenwriting professor. She prints out the draft of her stories, deletes the document and then retypes the story. “It makes you pay attention to every sentence,” she said. This meticulousness is evident in the writing. Her sentences are sharp, revelatory, trimmed off excesses. The smallest characters are summed up succinctly, holding up archetypes: “Riya begins a lot of sentences with ‘My therapist told me’, as though her association with a doctor of the mind provides more heft to her opinions.” Short exchanges between characters reveal entire hypotheses on relationships: “Do you know hedgehogs are drawn to each other for warmth, and then they hurt each other unintentionally because of their prickly spines, and then they separate, and then they miss each other. The whole process repeats. I think the stupidity of the hedgehog is his optimism.”
Her last story, which is her latest, is chillingly prescient (she wrote it in 2019 and edited last year). In Luminous, it looks like the world is ending. A new kind of light pierces through most materials, making sleep difficult and dreams impossible. But, “Like a fever during flu season, people seemed comforted to know everyone had been experiencing the same thing.”
A linguist is hired to document life and vocabulary in these strange times for future generations. This is a microcosm of our times:
“…the new light worked as an alarm bell to amplify what we already felt. These weren’t new symptoms but the old ones with the volume dialled up. I felt like the numbness had been cranked up and all other experiences were memories, which I could visualise but remained emotionally disconnected from, like conceptual art or scenes in a video game.”
In Luminous, life plays out as normal: the linguist and her poet colleague talk about Emily Dickinson and the impossibility of love. Their intern who looks “a little bit different each day, as if he was not one person by an army of twins” could possibly be a con artist or a bird.
Now matter how strange the circumstances, Jasraj seems to be telling us, we will still feel the way we feel, and desire will take form.
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.