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VIDEO Stories by MEERA NAIR. Pantheon Books. April 2002. $21.95.
A writer with a flair for storytelling, Meera Nair creates passionate, distinc- tive characters in her debut book—Video: Stories. At 191 pages and 10 stories, Video is a quick read. Her elegant prose, straightforward and crisp style makes the reading quicker. With mordant intelligence and a lucid blend of wit, humor, and pathos, Nair succeeds in entertaining the reader with stories that subtly talk of the impact of American culture on the Indian subcontinent.
The title story Video is about an Indian man who watches a Western pornographic video and is inspired to ask his wife to expand their sexual repertoire. The story is written primarily from the man’s point of view as he is torn between his own desire and honest affection for his wife. Her claiming of the outside bathroom, his meek efforts to ensure that she carry on the household duties effectively from there, and the consequent situations are entertaining, but written with empathy and emotions.
A Warm Welcome to the President Insh’Allah!, which I consider the best story in the book, is set in a small town in Bangladesh as its residents prepare for President Clinton’s visit. The impact of America even in a remote town in a Third World country can be seen here. There is a strong belief among the town dwellers that the president’s visit can only make their lives better. Reflected in the story is the warmth many South Asians feel towards the ex-President.
“It is as if we know this great man intimately now,” one of us said expressing the feeling that was growing in us—especially since we saw him on TV every night and in the newspapers every morning. Our children cut his pictures out of the paper and pasted them beside our framed photos of the Kaaba in Mecca.
Sixteen Days in December is a touching story set against the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the resultant riots and curfews across the country. The narrator’s father died just before she arrives in Hyderabad and her thoughts about life and family play against the national situation. A poignant section reads:
They could have been anything—bundles of laundry or pillows. The camera began tracking one young woman. One hand holding the end of her sari to her nose, she walked down the rows, stopping often to lift the corner of a sheet and peer at the uncovered face. She was searching methodically, doggedly for that one missing dead body that belong to her.
My Grandfather Dreams of Fences tells of a man who is watching his land being stolen inch by inch. Nair leaves us with sympathy for all the players: the aging landlord whose world is changing around him, the young boy embarrassed by his grandfather’s old-fashioned attitudes, the workers who have lived there for decades but are dependent on benevolent charity for such basics as access to well water.
The Curry Leaf Tree is about a man with an incredible gift of smell. He can lean over a dish and tell how much elachi it contains or that it needs just a pinch of haldi. His wife, in contrast, has no interest in cooking and is disinclined to play the obliging wife. In Nair’s hands, both her irritation and his obsession are a delight.
Nair’s treatment of child molestation within an extended family in Summer is delicately written, but does not hold any unusual insights.
Vishnukumar’s Valentine’s Day portrays the emergence of Valentine’s Day as an increasingly popular urban ritual in India. The subsequent “problems” Vishnukumar faces when surrounded by teenagers pestering him to buy a flower for his wife are well done.
The Sculptor of Sands tells of a young man who makes glorious sand sculptures that captivate the women of the town, until the jealous men ban his talent. A Certain Sense of Place and The Lodger in Room 726 are quite ordinary.
The surroundings, whether they are in Mangalore, Arizona or in Bombay, are not exotic. They form a matter-of-fact background, while the human emotions and behaviors are beautifully detailed in the foreground.
To sum up in Pankaj Mishra’s words, “These subtly imagined stories convey some of the hopes, excitement, vulgarity, and sadness of a fast-changing world. With their empathetic understanding of individual dilemmas, they are part of a new kind of literary reckoning with contemporary India.”