Sunday, 6 May 2018

Book Review: Happy Birthday and Other Stories by Meghna Pant

I’ve been planning to read well-known writer Meghna Pant for a while, but its only now that I succeeded. The wait was worth it. Pant is a good writer. A very good one. In The Gola Master, when Vora got into a flimsy, rickety lift that would take him to the twentieth floor of a building under construction, I could feel his fear, even as his son’s future father-in-law teased him. As Vora stood frozen at the far end of the lift, clutching a metal bar with both his hands, I too clutched an imaginary metal bar. Later on when Vora dumped the Gola Master and forced the driver to speed away, I left sad. However, when I tried to summon some anger towards Vora, I failed.

Sometimes there is a twist in Pant’s tale. In Hoopsters, I kept wondering if and when Payal would come around to showing kindness towards Mary and her basketball playing friends. It was a matter of time, I was sure, but when Payal finally found it in her heart to give Mary the money needed for the Agnis to travel to Delhi for their big match, she did it in a way that was unexpected. Was Mary a thief or did she take the money knowing that it was kept there for her? Had Payal been right about Mary all along?

Happy endings aren’t Pant’s forte. When I reached Dented and Painted Women, the penultimate story in the collection I wondered if Meenu would manage to snare Pramod before the story ended or if she would be taught a lesson, but I should have known better.

However, Pant’s standout achievement (or signature move, call it what you will) is in walking the tightrope, effortlessly. There is sorrow and happiness, optimism and despondency, pain and hope, all in the same story. In The Gecko On The Wall, the widower and his daughter, who is visiting him from the US, are miles apart in their assessment of each other. Each thinks the other has all material needs fulfilled. The reader feels an unease as the widower uses up his entire bank balance, whilst awaiting his pension. The US returned daughter is around to take care of her father, if he were to ask, the reader knows. The reader can also sense the danger lurking underneath. And when it all implodes, reader gets a knot in the tummy, though it wasn’t unexpected and there is hope that the widower will enjoy his time with his granddaughter.

In Happy Birthday, the story which has lent its name to the entire collection, Nadia is ill at ease at Dolly’s party. Baman Tata’s advances have not made her feel any better. That it’s her birthday adds to her unhappiness. Suddenly, as Nadia and the reader both sink into despondency, Pant shakes up Nadia. She was being too cautious, as if she was surrounded by shards of glass. So far, her life with Danesh was a misstep, not a car crash. Pant makes Nadia confront her demons and she has a brief victory. Then as she walks away, for a brief moment she contemplates a new life with Boman, before she returns to the hollow in her pillow. That night, as Danesh makes his appearance and she considers crossing the wide gap, it is Danesh who reaches her side.

In Shaitans, the last story in the collection, the goalposts kept changing as each character uncovered a shaitan and Pant kept her reader guessing. Though Pant didn’t end on a clean or even clear note, I wished there were more stories to read.

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