Anshu Johri’s book of short stories, Scraped, begins with a preface that defines her unusual choice of title. Her earliest memories she says, were of scraping each picture of her baby album to find out what lay underneath. As an adult, she was fascinated with excavation, and the delicate tools archaeologists employed to peel off layers under which ancient civilizations were buried. This fascination with hidden layers, and the revelation of forgotten truths that need to be patiently exposed to the light of day without judgement or preconceived bias, is what motivated her collection of stories.
The collection begins with a woman, Shiuli, feverishly scraping the scum at the bottom of her outdoor pool. She performs this repulsive chore mechanically, her mind wandering to the fate of a friend who has recently been placed on a ventilator. As she vigorously peels off dead leaves and sludge from the walls, her thoughts seem to shed their inhibitions in tandem, and she finds herself wishing her friend would die. The reader discovers that the two were amicable friends before strong differences of opinion on human rights and terrorism, and on the degree of humanity a terrorist was entitled to, became intense arguments. Eventually, their philosophical disagreements turned increasingly personal, and their friendship decayed like the black moldy leaves Shiuli is sweeping up from the bottom of her pool. The story ends with a gentle twist and with all the exposed layers of Shiuli’s emotions, which are exhumed and presented to the reader to view.
In another story, presented as chapters, Nayna, a mother whose child has been diagnosed with Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy, sees her marriage fall apart as her husband blames her genetics, and abandons her and her disabled son. We see desperation peeled down to its rawest, most excruciating level, as Nayna dives into herself to find the strength to carry on.
The strength of Johri’s collection lies in the varied lives she presents and the moral dilemmas she highlights in the lives of her characters.
In one of the stories, the protagonist declares– sometimes you unfold memories and the memories in turn unfold you. Johri’s collection doesn’t believe in delicate underpinnings: she unfolds her characters ‘emotions almost immediately, laying them out like billboards on the reader’s journey through her often dense prose.
Another story, called Hollowed, stands out for its focus on social dilemmas: it highlights the tragedy of rat-hole mining in Meghalaya. Before I read this story, I had no clue that it was possible to mine coal in the inhuman manner described. Johri does a good job of portraying the desperation which drives people to the mines, and the thoughtless environmental focus of those who are privileged enough to become tourists and be taken on clandestine, officially forbidden visits to the area.
A few of the stories are a reworking of familiar themes—the abused woman who stays in a marriage out of shame. The neglected wife who finds carnal and emotional satisfaction in an affair that began over a cup of coffee. Johri manages to create enough suspense and frustration in her narratives to compel the reader on— why for God’s sake does it take sixteen years for the abused woman to leave? Is the neglected wife going to finally sleep with her stranger acquaintance or will she continue her teasing and her inane banter with him? Will the woman tormented by a rat in her kitchen cabinet finally decide to kill him, or will her empathy with the rat’s predicament overcome her natural revulsion?
Johri’s language is rich in metaphor and in description but tilts towards the baroque. Long-winded sentences, improbable, cliched conversations, and motivations revealed too easily, infiltrate the stories like unwieldy toddlers. It detracts from her characters who are often witty and full of engaging observations.
The reader is hooked and distracted, all at the same time.
At the end of one of the stories, a character is told she needs to stop doubting herself and take her future boldly in her own hands.
“I’m almost there,” she replies, words that could well describe the collection of short stories in Scraped. All those hidden layers of meaning need, is a good scraping.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.