IF: A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES by Neeru Nanda. Rupa and Co., 2006. 201 pages. Rs. 195.
It is always exciting when a new South Asian writer appears on the scene. When that scene is uniquely South Asian—in Neeru Nanda’s case, Mumbai—one can look forward to a fresh voice devoid of the exotic catchwords (mangoes, arranged marriage, monsoon) that seem to populate popular South Asian fiction. Quite simply, Neeru Nanda delivers. She seems to have written her debut collection of short stories sans the fanfare that lesser South Asian writers who have published books in the United States have garnered. Without great fanfare, too, are these 11 stories, but that does not mean they lack surprise, illumination, or understanding. In fact, they are quiet, and powerful stories, in which the quotidian life is not so much highlighted, but revealed to us in all its ordinary splendor.
The title itself, If, suitably implies that all circumstances could just as well have been otherwise. “If” gives the sense of holding one’s breath and hints at the possibility of different outcomes.
The story “The Peak” is a heartbreaking and disturbing look at how the monetary preoccupations of the Western world may not only be meaningless to others around the world, but cause unintended grief. When Ramsingh sells his ancestral land, he is handed a check by an American woman who warns him, repeatedly and hopelessly, to take it to the bank immediately. Ramsingh’s downfall is that he has absolutely no concept of the amount of money he has suddenly been presented.
In “His Father’s Funeral” Veer accompanies his friend Shankar along the funeral procession which carries his dead father. Parentage, dignity, and the protocol of widows and widowers becomes the preoccupation of the two boys, resulting in a less-than-auspicious ending to a life they were attempting to honor.
Interestingly, the last story in the book, “Sanskriti,” is the first chapter of a novel that Nanda is currently working on. The story bears a tiny inscription at the end: “A work in progress.” This is good news. The India that Nanda conjures is not self-conscious, it is not made for Western consumption, and is devoid of Indian stereotypes found in popular desi fiction published in the United States. Instead, the writer shows us life as it is, both urban and rural, the humanity inherent in everyday occurrences, and the mundane factors that lives hinge upon every day. She does this with simplicity of language whose overall effect is nothing short of beautiful. In her foreword she asserts: “IF is the soul of a story, without which, both real life and fiction would be robotic.” I quite agree
Michelle Reale lives and writes near Philadelphia, and is devoted to the study of South Asian literature.