Thursday 2 July 2015

Book Review: The Orphanage for Words, by Shinie Antony

What’s common to Chetan Bhagat and me? We are both fans of Shinie Antony, the author of a number of novels and short story collections such as Kardamom Kisses, Barefoot and Pregnant, Why Don’t We Talk, Séance on a Sunday Afternoon, When Mira Went Forth And Multiplied etc. and who I believe has edited Chetan Bhagat’s recent literary endeavours. Antony’s most recent book, The Orphanage for Words, is a collection of short stories, all of which revolve around ‘loss’. something which Antony suffered when her father passed away not so long ago. The chapter titled ‘Fathers’ is a touching account of her father’s last few days and was previously published, with minor differences, in the Hindu. At the end of ‘Fathers’, Antony tells us that she is used to confiding everything in her Dad. She tells him everything! Naturally, the book is For Dad.

Even though the theme of The Orphanage for Words is totally different from Antony’s previous books, it is easy to recognise the Antony girl. 'I need common sense, she thinks desperately, as if ordering a drink. One Common Sense, please. On the rocks, with ice, lots and lots of ice.' Later towards the end of the story as she breaks up with her lover, the Antony girl bravely decides that ‘she is going to ace it, the business of being an ex.’ In another story and in another world, the jilted female lover concludes that ‘the next time, if there was a next time, there would be a safety net – of a formal engagement and parental blessings-when it came to men. Perishables like love and lust are best refrigerated in marriages. She would play the game society’s way. That way, when he fled they would chase after him and club him to death’. Antony does not use a moral meter as her protagonists, mainly women, have affairs, abortions, suffer cheating husbands, express desire, display lust, scream, cry and get on with life. She is mildly amused, Antony is, as she looks at her characters on the moving travellator, unashamedly put on public display for the whole world to see.

Cancer is a sure fire way of suffering a loss but Antony’s cancer victims are survivors. In Hair, when Afreen Khaala or Afri-ka loses all her hair as a result of the chemo, her sister, the narrator’s mother, strokes and kisses Afri-ka’s hairless head in order to comfort her even though she never liked the vegetable stir-fry which Afri-ka made. It is unclear who is more traumatised – Afri-ka or her sister. However, in Breasts, the cancer victim is braver, even utilitarian. Her breasts are ‘like small trusting things not made for this world. Like secrets told before their time. With veins like baby skies under the skin.’ Such breasts can salvage a situation.

What happens when a woman undertakes a 24 hour journey to meet with a former teacher, one she had an affair with, now suffering from Alzheimer’s? Is she entitled to assume that her former lover, one she almost had a baby with, remembers the kiss she had initiated many, many years ago? Is she right in thinking that as a nineteen year old ugly duckling she had possibly initiated the affair with her 46 year old teacher who was only being kind to her?

Oh! And in case you thought The Orphanage for Words is all about women in various stages of undress, that’s not true. There’s a girl who has an accident and dies (and goes on to narrate her own story) and a dog which falls out of a multi-storey and also dies (and is hugged by a boy who I assume loved it). An old man loses a lot of skin on his feet and ends up inconveniencing his daughter-in-law who is all set to go out that evening. Actually she does go out and the old man’s son takes him to the hospital. Because, in Sandeep’s own words, it’s his job, not his wife’s. Why should others spoil their day on account of Sandeep’s father?

In The Orphanage for Words, loss never seems to cause sharp piercing pain which kills. The Antony girls and other protagonists are too brave and strong to die on account their loss. The agony is more of the lingering kind, the one which gets worse as some of the memories fade, a few random ones get stronger and as one struggles to remember. Antony is so good with her prose that hours or even days after one puts down The Orphanage for Words, her words return to haunt her victims, the knife twisting in the wound as one considers yet another permutation or combination amongst so many vague possibilities.

Do read The Orphanage for Words for Antony is unique among Indian writers and The Orphanage for Words is easily her best. Till date.

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