Anuradha Kumar is a writer who has already produced a variety of works. Born in India and currently, residing in New Jersey, she contributes to the Indian publications Scroll.in and the Economic and Political Weekly. She is the author of Coming Back to the City: Mumbai Stories and under the pseudonym of Adity Kay, she is the author of best-selling novels of historical fiction. Her newest book, A Sense of Time and Other Short Stories by Weavers Press, presents a wide canvas of Indian life as well as the author’s ease with multiple genres of the short story.
The opening story ‘The Entomologist at the Trial’ is at first glance a courtroom drama. Narrated from the perspective of a nephew recounting the details of an interesting case in the professional life of his lawyer uncle, the story touches on issues of sexual harassment and speaks to our “Me Too” moment. However, as it unfolds, the short story reveals itself to be a trenchant social satire on the moribund justice system lubricated by money and power. The fact that justice is served in this story seems to be a serendipitous anomaly in the general routine of corruption. Kumar’s concern with sexual harassment against women spans across classes.
While in ‘The Entomologist at the Trial’, the victim is a middle-class woman who is a social worker, in ‘All the Way to the Twelfth Floor’, Gauri, a servant, faces domestic violence at home and the predatory advances of her employer, Hasmukh Singh.
Kumar focuses on the everyday oppressions of women in ‘Missing’, another story in which the protagonist is a rural peasant whose husband has gone to serve in the army. When he returns on leave, the trauma of his experiences at war creates an invisible chasm in the marriage. The story ends with her husband’s desertion from the army and a continuation of the precarity of the wife’s life in the village.
The precarity of intimate relationships is a continuing thread in this collection and Kumar explores the implications of marital disharmony in rural subaltern as well as urban elite contexts. In ‘Rekha Crosses a Line’, a wife facing a crisis of identity falls victim to the charms of a godman while being aware of his manipulations.
Marital disharmony leads Malati in ‘Dorothy Cries in the Bus’ to leave her husband, Ashok, and board a bus for another town. It is on the bus she develops a sudden friendship with a Canadian female tourist, Dorothy, who is also experiencing her own romantic travails.
While the oppressions and solidarities between women form a connecting thread between stories, some stories are more directly a critique of the current state of Indian nationalism, the erosion of the founding promises and ideals of Gandhi and other leaders.
In ‘The Man Who Played Gandhi’, the power of Gandhi is symbolically diminished to that of fading actor invited to play Gandhi in village functions, who is mistaken not for the original Gandhi but the actor who resembles Ben Kingsley. The invitations to play Gandhi gradually diminish till the protagonist who has spent a lifetime perfecting the details of Gandhi’s mannerisms is forced to succumb to a magician creating the illusion of Gandhi disappearing on stage. The disappearance of Gandhi is a metaphoric invocation of the disappearance of Gandhian ideals in contemporary India, characterized by the regime of neoliberal globalization and the dilution of his secular vision.
Another story that offers a harrowing comment on the failure of the Indian nation-state is ‘Big Fish’, which also invokes the fragility of life for Indians living in coastal areas increasingly subject to violent cyclones as a result of climate change. In this story, we encounter, a young girl Munni who is an internal refugee as a result of a devastating cyclone. The family rescues a stranger from another cyclone, but the guest remains traumatized and unable to speak of his past. In the end, he is taken away by the police since he has no papers to prove his legitimacy. The story dramatizes the hardening of definitions of citizenship, which leaves refugees of wars and natural disasters, displaced and unaccommodated.
While developing some of these serious themes, Kumar never loses sight of the story as a form that entertains even while it presents complex portraits of society. The title story ‘A Sense of Time’ is an interesting rendition of the genre of the glost story, where the drama is played out on a train in a deserted railway station. Like other stories, it is a telling comment on feudal hierarchies and intrigue over the family fortune, while transporting readers into a supernatural experience on a train moving through a desolate countryside.
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.