Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Book Review: A Tika for Jung Bahadur – Selected Short Stories by Jug Suraiya

There’s a world accessible only to a very small number of Indians, a privileged few whose parents have the money, foresight and ambition to send their children to public schools. No, I am not talking of your convent-across-the-road where lower middle-class and middle class children learn to speak in Pidgin English, but of top of the mill public schools that offer an education unchanged since the days of the Raj. This world is brought to us by Jug Suraiya, leading Indian journalist and cartoonist (Dubyaman) whom Khushwant Singh once referred to as India’s Art Buchwald, in the form of his short stories, a compilation of which has been published by the Times Group.

There are twelve stories in all and each of them is either set in a public school or involves characters who behave like products from a public school. The net effect of this atmosphere is to transport the reader to a world located within India, but is not really Indian. For example, one of the stories, The Word, is set in a small unknown Indian town and its main protagonist is a night watchman. There are unusual events taking place in this town and readers are kept in a state of anticipation till the end. However, Suraiya’s manner of narration (The Mayor said, ‘Good Man,’) makes you feel that either the town is located in the West or the story has been narrated by a Westerner.

The best story in the entire collection is undoubtedly the Badger. I remember reading this many, many (ten or even fifteen) years ago and enjoying it as much as I enjoyed re-reading it now. The story of a teacher at a public school in the mountains, the Badger is narrated by a master craftsman who has spent a considerable amount of time in a public school and does not know of a world outside it. There is drama, there is suspense and there is a happy ending which is realistic without succumbing to the pitfalls of melodrama.

A Premature Ghost is a ghost story with a difference, though the crux of the plot is given away on the back cover (they shouldn’t have done that). I’ll leave it to you to read it and find out for yourself.

The lead story, A Tika for Jung Bahadur, is representative of most of the other stories in this collection. It is well-written in a literary style that is flowery and poetic though at times the narration appears to be contrived. However, the ending is rather tame despite the considerable amount of initial suspense. In a few of the stories, the plots creak and don’t hold water. On balance, this collection is a worthwhile read if only for the Badger and the general ‘public school’ atmosphere.

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