By Nishi Pulugurtha
Described as a ‘potpourri of tales of bravery, angst, emotions, love, betrayal and mental illness’, Rimli Bhattacharya’s The Crosshairs of Life is a slim volume of stories that speak out loud in a style that is simple and direct. The description on the blurb draws attention to many of the themes of the stories in the collection. Many of the pieces in the volume had been published in various online publications in earlier versions and have been revised for this publication. Speaking in a voice that is direct, Bhattacharya wonderfully weaves words and thoughts into stories that resonate. An engineer by training and a manager by profession, Bhattacharya chose to leave it all to write.
“Running Solo Marathon” is a story that will resonate in times that we are in. It is a story that speaks of loneliness after a bad marriage and divorce. It brings issue of sexuality into its purview and speaks of it in a very succinct manner. The story, written in the first person, speaks of a lonely soul, looking for love, for companionship. It also speaks of mental illness, of therapy sessions, “My therapist listened to all my narrations, I screamed, I howled, I banged my head …” Speaking of these very pertinent issues, the story addresses themes that need to be spoken of. “Now, I’ve become an unapologetic storyteller who runs the marathon single, solo, alone – with no one to greet at the finishing line. Because on the other side of not quitting is flourishing, but you don’t have to resign to get there. All you need is faith.” There is sadness, a sense of gnawing at the heart in the story.
The stories in the volume speak of human relationships. “That Best Friend” refers to childhood friendships, to memories and stories associated with old photographs, of special moments spent with dear friends. School figures as an important part of the story – “By the time we reached standard eight, we had a new girl in our class and my worst fears came true. Both their tunings matched and my friend preferred the new girl over me.” The story weaves nostalgia and childhood memories, it speaks of an essay written while at school on friendship, of fights and jealousies, of losing touch and moving on in life, of reconnecting after years when things and situations are so very different. Meeting the very same friend after twenty years hoping to find a sense of reconnection seems to be not that interesting after all. They do meet, catch up, but the sense of connection seems to be lacking as the two friends go back to their respective lives. Things change, people change and life goes on.
School, teachers, and Mills and Boon romances figure in another story, “The Teacher I Loved: Sir Joseph Smith” in a once again familiar scenario. Those school girl crushes, those moments of growing up, of coming to terms with sexuality, with feelings that seem difficult to explain, of despair figure in the story. “I was not paying attention at all; physics lessons were very boring but I still loved his classes. He was 5 foot 11 inches with glasses on—oh how much I loved those glasses of his. I guess he had myopia.” There are unpretentious, regular things that one would associate with school days – poor results, not paying attention in class, the reprimands and the like.
What is interesting about the stories is the way Bhattacharya weaves in the common, unassuming things and situations that happen quite normally to most. Reading the stories in a COVID-19 world, I could not help but find resonances in those stories with so many issues that are of importance now. Issues of mental health, of loneliness, of learning to deal with and fight with the inner demons, of nostalgia, of trying to find some sense of meaning in life – these and many more such situations and issues form part of the stories in the volume.
“Rani” speaks beautifully of lost dreams. A story about two sisters, each so different from one another, one of them forced to pursue a field of studies contrary to her desires: “Aruna and Paresh had very high hopes on both their daughters. They aspired for them to be doctors so that they could position themselves as proud parents of two brilliant daughters in the society.” The story beautifully sketches the way in which aspirations are thwarted, of a seemingly nice, comfortable happy life that goes completely awry, of tragedy that takes the life of a young girl, of the unhappiness and problems that lay beneath a seemingly happy demeanour. The story brings to the fore the themes of love, obsession, of broken dreams, of turning around, of trying to pick up pieces, of trying to make meaning of it all in a world that is difficult.
The stories are at times predictable. At times they seem mundane. However, what makes them eminently readable is the simplicity of style in which they are told. There is also the persistent feeling that they seem so very routine, about people we might have known around us. And yet it is the very reason why they appeal to the reader. There are many stories that are open-ended, as like life, there cannot be a sense of a clear ending. Things go on, life goes on. There is a sense of despondency in many of the stories, of deafening defeat that shatters – “I was again drifting back to my sleep. I knew I was going to lose the battle.” – and a faint flicker of hope that glimmers and fades. Modestly priced and well mounted, The Crosshairs of Life makes for a breezy reading.
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University and Rabindra Bharati University. Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film. She is a creative writer and writes on travel, Alzheimer’s Disease, film, short stories and poetry. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House and Setu. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019).
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