Monday, 7 May 2012

Book Review: Only Men Please, edited by Meenakshi Varma

Unisun's latest offering, a book full of short stories written by men, 35 of them, where the lead characters are almost entirely men. Only Men Please: Of men, by men, but for both men and women I guess. A number of stories such as the excellent Our Friendly Neighbourhood Murder by Sallil Desai or Good Night bye Shreekumar Varma, both of which have a male protagonist, do not smack of male-machoism or emanate the smell one usually associates with bachelor flats or male dormitories. A few such as Mathew Vincent Menacherry’s Buddies and Siddhath Srikanth’s Secondary Education do. In Dominic Franks’s The First Night, the newly married Mrs. Balsavvar plays as prominent and as decadent a role as her husband AK. Would this collection have been even better if the authors included women, but with the lead characters all being men? I think so. The greater diversity in approach, vision and imagination would have most probably resulted in a more interesting and exciting collection offering greater insight on men.

Almost all the stories are good, with topics ranging from war and martyrdom, to ditching a village damsel, to the loss of a beloved mango tree. I can’t point to a single story as my favourite, but I found Francis Mathew Alapattt’s Aadharam, Shreekumar Varma’s Good Night and Sallil Desai’s Our Friendly Neighbourhood Murder, to be among the best. In Aadharam, a young talented child gifts a painting to her uncle on New Year’s Day. It’s a simple gift from the heart, but it turns out that the painting is valuable and the elders get involved. A brilliant story, though whether it belongs to a collection of ‘male’ stories is a moot point. Good Night is brilliantly written, as Varma’s fans have come to expect by now. A watchman can ‘control the night with sound, a piercing whistle twisting like a knife.’ When the watchman wants to, he can change from ‘bearded, long-haired slob with two changes of a khaki uniform into educated clean-shaven youth with an abiding interest in Douglas Adams, Rushdie and ……’ He only needs to ‘do away with fear and hope, tracks of the past.Our Friendly Neighbourhood Murder’s plot reminded me a bit of Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower, but the underlying emotions are very different.

R G Kaimal’s The Enlistment and Vijayender Cherupally’s Invincible are also almost as good as the three stories I have mentioned above. Just four pages long, The Enlistment is set in the future, where war has trampled on and destroyed everything and young Yusuf is desperately trying to survive. One understands Yusuf’s actions up to a point. But then, one always underestimates how man’s instinct for self-preservation can drive him to do more evil than what’s really needed to survive. Invincible is also just four pages long and as we read, we know how the tale, which is set in ancient India, will end. Despite the inevitable and predictable conclusion, it enthrals and captivates.

A number of stories in this collection have tried to end with a Jeffrey Archeresque twist at the end. Most of them have succeeded, though I would say Abhijit Karnik’s The Undertaker’s Wake is the best of the lot in this genre. Roy Thomas’s The Vulture is the most Archeresque and is well written, though the ending is a bit predictable. A few, such as Jagdish Raja’s The One for the Job and Suman Kumar’s Mad People end well with a surprising twist, which on reflection appears to be a tad simplistic. These are good reads nevertheless. Wasim Yunus Khot’s The Reverse Swing is not only too simplistic, but is very unrealistic.

Some of the stories tended to depict human emotions through a slim wedge of life rather than end with a twist or a turn. Do poor people worry about injured animals or are they so obsessed with their own survival that they couldn’t care less? C G Pai’s Slingshot has a poor mother and a young child upset about a wounded kitten. The wielder of the slingshot that caused the wound is also forced into distress even after the pain from his mother’s tight slap has subsided. An inter-state marriage forms the backdrop to Dinesh Devarajan’s Thottho, as an upset young man from one culture finds solace literally in the lap of another culture. Jose Lourenҫo’s The Fan has raw human angst. It’s very Dostoevsky-esque and very good. Salil Chaturvedi’s There must be Roses is one of those stories which was meant to be deep and meaningful and almost gets there.

G S Vasukumar’s The Bond, reminded me of an R.K.Narayan story as it depicts emotion and sentiment. The mango tree in the courtyard is irreplaceable and can anything be done if it is uprooted? Hippu Salk Kristle Nathan’s Beyond The Rainbow echoes similar sentiments, the mango tree being replaced by a train. A bus or rather, a bus route, replaces the train in Prem Rao’s Route 32. In Nanda Ramesh’s Ghosts of Guilt, a son is wrenched with guilt over the way he has treated his mother and it’s too late to make amends.

A man’s love and yearning for a woman is usually uncomplicated. But it isn’t so in Sandeep Shete’s Hard Seashells. Aakash loses Trishna and is an uneasy single. When Trishna decides to return to her ex—husband, wouldn’t Aakash jump up and accept her? I’ll leave it to you to read this story and find out. Men can also be nasty to vulnerable women. In Mathew Vincent Menacherry’s Buddies, a beautiful story (presumably) set in the sixties where a village housemaid gets pregnant after a liaison with a young man from a higher station. Then a street smart electrician gets involved and the exploitation is taken to a different level.

Harshad Deshpande’s Blood in Honour has a couple about to commit suicide spend their last few days at a hill station, in a hotel. Well written, it reminded me of the classic Tamil movie, Punnagai Mannan which has Kamal Hasan and Rekha attempt suicide in the opening scene. Nikesh Murali’s The Note, the last story in Only Men Please is also about a man setting off to kill himself. Though both stories are good and well-written, was there any need to have two stories which are so similar to each other in the same collection?

Communist agitations form the backdrop to Manoj Mishra’s Comrade, but the character at the centre of it is a (female) prostitute who receives money for attending communist rallies whilst facing harassment from communist goons at the same time. The (male) narrator is a former capitalist and this poignant story could have been in a collection of women only stories without any objections being raised. Ram Govardhan’s Sign Language has a nasty protagonist and his writing style and settings reminded me of one of Tagore’s stories. The comeuppance at the end is not totally unexpected though.

A couple of authors are non-Indians, such as Billy Antonio from the Philippines and Frederick Kang’ethe Iraki from Kenya. Abhijit Karnik is a Ph.D student at Bristol. The rest – all 32 of them – are Indians living in India. If this collection was meant to represent men from all over the world, it ought to have had more foreign authors. Both the foreign/foreigner stories, Billy Antonio’s The Kite and Frederick Kang’ethe Iraki’s Ngeta Special, depict a slice of life in a Filipino village and in Nairobi. Ngeta Special is definitely a man’s story, but The Kite isn’t. Poignant, narrated by a boy, The Kite with its theme of domestic violence, doesn’t really fit into Only Men Please. Abhijit Karnik’s The Undertaker’s Wake is a ghost story with pucca British or American or maybe even Canadian settings. We are never told where the location is, but it is evidently foreign, as are all the characters. Brilliantly narrated, with a perfectly twisted ending, one could be fooled into thinking this story has been written by a Firang.

A couple of stories such as Jagat J Saikia’s Dingbang Wingbang and Ranjit Mohan’s Arima have foreign settings. Dingbang Wingbang is set partly in China and partly in the jungles of the north-east bordering Bangladesh. A good story, but you don’t get to touch or smell or even see China in this story. Arima was a total surprise, the story of Spanish conquistadors in the Amazonian rainforests searching for El Dorado ‘partly based on true historical fact’ and on a description given in Boris Sergeev’s Physiology for Everyone.

Humour is in short supply and Dhiraj Kumar Deka’s The Return of the Talkative Man and Bharat Shekar’s Off the Mark are two stories which fill up the big vacuum. Both stories are equally good.

Other than The Undertaker’s Wake by Abhijit Karnik, two other stories have a ghoulish theme. Joseph Tharakan’s Death’s Door is one of those. A good story with an interesting ending, Death’s Door has death paying a visit on April Fool’s day. Chaturvedi Divi’s Letting Go is set amidst the Kargil war and a proud and nervous mother waits for her son to return though he has moved on to the netherworld.

A small handful of stories have the feel of a men’s hostel (smelly rooms with men sitting around drinking or smoking), something I expected a lot more of in Only Men Please. Joseph Tharakan’s Death’s Door is one of those stories. As mentioned above, it is also a ghost story. Eshwar Sundaesan’s Co-opted is another, but it comes with a sensible warning, one which most Indians are aware of. If you are witness to an accident or a crime, don’t hang around like an idiot to help the police. Siddhath Srikanth’s Secondary Education is literally set in a boarding school and macho-ism can’t get any better though it is a co-ed school.

Only Men Please does not offer any unique insight into men. To be honest, the editor’s foreword does not promise such an insight, unlike say, Zaidi and Ravindra’s Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl, which promises to unravel a good Indian girl for the reader. On the whole, Only Men Please with 35 stories crammed into 233 pages, is a good read and value for money (Rs. 275 only).


Anonymous said...

@Winnowed: Just came across your blog. It was great to see that you picked the connection with Jeffrey Archer. The story was in a way a tribute to my favorite story from his 'A Quiver Full of Arrows' [Old Love]

Abhijit Karnik said...

...Google Accounts plays truant and makes the prior comment's author 'Anon' Just wanted to say, it was me :)
Thanks for the great review. Glad you liked the story (and others too) and that you picked up on the connection to Jeffrey Archer. The story was in a way a tribute to one of my favorite stories from his 'A Quiver Full Of Arrows' [Old Love]

Nikesh said...

Thanks for the review