Tuesday, 29 May 2012

LABURNUM FOR MY HEAD BY TEMSULA AO

3/5. This is Temsula Ao's second short story collection; I still haven't read the first ('These Hills Called Home'). Ao lives and teaches in Shilong, in the North-East of India, a part of the country that faces problems of endemic neglect by the centre and ongoing conflicts between the Army and Maoist rebels. It is also, from what I've gleaned from pictures and accounts by friends from those parts, a beautiful land of green hills and fertile valleys.

Ao's stories take us into the heart of this conflict-torn land, telling us the stories of characters such as the old woman who saves her husband, the village headman, from both the rebels and the army by her quick thinking. Then there's a woman who used to be in a relationship with a charismatic young man who leaves her to join the rebels, only to wind up assassinated by his own comrades, leaving her an uneasy legacy in the form of painful memories, uncertain associations and a mysterious floppy disk.

Not all the stories draw on insurgency and counter-insurgency for their context. There's a powerful story which weaves the lives of a woman, her daughter and granddaughter into a brilliant harmony expounding the traumas, sorrows and joys of women's lives. My favourite story tells us of a formidable hunter who is frequently stirred with misgivings about hunting, leading to a climactic encounter with a possibly supernatural wild boar.

Ao loves and values stories and people; these stories touch upon the dilemmas, sacrifices, defeats and victories of ordinary people, but gives them an epic, universal resonance

Then why the 3-star rating? Simply because the stories fall short in the areas of language and plot. Ao spends too much time telling rather than showing; the story of a young boy who emerges as something of a trickster figure could have had great zest and vitality if penned by someone like Bohumil Hrabal; here, it falls a little flat because of the deadpan, declamatory narrative. Another story, 'The Letter' seems like an uneasy hybrid between dry reportage and fiction; the ending, a fairly obvious twist, loses the impact that a willingness to probe deeper below the surface and to plunge further into the world of the story could have given it. Too many characters are left hollow, if not altogether unnamed and all too often we are told of the emotional upheavals they face rather than simply shown the signs of this upheaval. There are messy mixed metaphors: 'from the moment he joined their ranks he had to walk a tight-rope in the multi-headed ideological minefield within'.

And yet, there are passages of great vividness, like this depiction of the wordless rapport of a hunting party: 'Imchanok was fully awake; he sensed the weariness in his companions and let them doze for a few precious moments before nudging the nearest one awake with a gentle kick to his side. As the chain of similar kicks went around, everyone sat up and tried to adjust his vision in the eerie darkness that seemed to have swallowed up the lush green jungle. They waited, each lost in his own thoughts. Then came the time in the dying night when you think that the day is breaking but cannot see anything except darkness even though the daybreak is so clear in your mind. This sensation came first to Imchanok and he silently shifted his body-weight from left to right. The one next to him caught his movement and did the same; then the next and the next until every single man held his position as if freshly energized by this slightest of movements.'

Then there's this powerful passage describing childbirth: 'The growl she emits is like nothing these women, who have participated in many deliveries, have ever heard, and as the last hiss leaves her throat, one of them shouts,'I see the head, one more push,baby, just once more'. Martha hears her and with an ultimate effort gives another push and the baby slithers out of her exhausted body. The baby's wet and slimy contours as it surges through the passage produces such a sensuous effect on Martha that she will always remember it as more sublime than the transient ecstasies of sex'.

But there isn't enough that reaches this pitch; too much is bogged down in the baggage of late-Victorian phrasing with all its distancing and formality that too many Indian writers in English struggle to shake off. Ao tells stories that deserve to live in the hearts of all her readers; but she needs a better editor, needs something that will hone her pen into a scalpel.

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