By Nabanita Sengupta
“Storytelling is like an ear for music. You have it, or you don’t. That instinct for what to say and what to hold back and how to create suspense and develop three-dimensional characters and use language—I think you’re born with it.” – Isabelle Allende
That is exactly how I felt after reading Tabish Nawaz’s anthology of short stories Opening Clouds, Fermented Rains. The story teller here knows the art of telling stories in a way that will compel his readers to read them. He reveals, yet withholds, making the reader his fellow traveller in the journey of the narrative. The slim volume containing fourteen stories was published by Hawakal Publishers in August 2020. Of these, nine are short stories and four of them can be termed as micro-fiction. Each of the stories is not only well crafted but also thoughtfully selected, never giving the readers a dull moment. The enigmatic title catches the attention of the reader as does the book cover. Once the reader delves into the stories, the title justifies itself. The stories in this collection often peep into the partially known, cloudy, translucent part of the mind. The story teller has mastered the postmodern voice of narration, interiorising the action within the mind of the protagonist. The author delves deep into the psyche of his character, at times ignoring the actual activities of the world around. In a blending of magic realism with stream of consciousness, the author finds his own unique voice that either charms the reader like a soothing lullaby or jolts into a new realization. But whatever be the mode of narration, memory remains an important presence – memories of ‘carpet bombing’, memory of an old man whose soul has left and whose body has become too heavy, memory of a refugee or of a sailor, a memory triggered by a four anna and so on.
Past looms in the stories but it does not make the reader wallow in nostalgia, instead it becomes a way of negotiating with life or of embracing death. “Most Useless” is a very short but powerful prose where the futility of the action of searching for the most useless object, which turns out to be memorabilia from the past, is juxtaposed against the worth of the person himself in a most self-deprecating manner. Stories like “Carpet Bombing”, “Four Annas” and “An incident in the Chemistry Lab” are tales that derive their source in the past, reliving memories that in many ways also constitute them.
One of the interesting features of the stories in this anthology is that the author has kept them beyond the confinement of time or space. There is no mention of any location in most of the tales which make them universal. The “Refugee” who always travels, who ‘never rests’ and ‘is travelling even in her sleep’ can be a refugee right out of a partition story or a more contemporary one belonging to one of the riot infested areas of the country or any part of the world. The sailor in “A Sailor’s Journey” too can be anyone from Sindbad to Sir Peter Blake in search of “what is buried and grows inside him – his island”, the Everyman Sailor out on a journey to discover the self.
A Coleridgean sense prevails in “A Sailor’s Journey”. Like the Sailor in “The Rime of an Ancient Mariner”, here too the sailor earns the wrath of the sea by his action: “He squeezes water from the cloth and returns to the sea. Some drops he puts on his lips. But the sea dislikes the soiling of its sacrament. She punishes the sailor by drawing water out of his heart.” The wrath is pacified when “he sees, or perhaps imagines seeing, his family and friends. All as silhouettes. He imagines the feature of their faces. He sees a wait in their eyes.” A similar feeling is echoed in “Solitude” when the self-imprisoned protagonist is brought back to society and life by the grief of a woman waiting for him, “the cascade begins to flow out of her eyes…the weight of water, becoming too much for the earth to bear, opens the grave. He begins preparing return.” Like The Metamorphosis by Kafka the ‘Worm’ becomes an internal part of the narrator in the eponymous story. The worm is that of the mechanical civilization we live in or perhaps of the drudgeries of our everyday – it is left open to the readers’ imagination.
A lot in fact is left to the readers’ imagination or subjectivity in the stories. One of the most interesting stories in the anthology is the last one, “A Prologue to Lynching” in which the author very cleverly brings in a stegosaurus, a herbivorous dinosaur belonging to the late Jurassic period and assigns it with all the connotations that dominates today’s political debates. Though the animal existed ages before humans even arrived on the surface of the earth, what it faces in the story is extremely topical.
Tabish Nawaz’s stories are all set in the backdrop of the everyday. The feelings that his characters go through are something that most of us can relate to. The narrator’s voice is one of empathy. There is no exoticism even in his magic realism, but a philosophy gleaned from a deep understanding of the lives around him. The stories seem to hang on a very thin thread between the tangible and the intangible, the real and the imaginary. That is also where the charm of the stories lies.
A translator and creative writer by choice and teacher by profession, Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is presently employed as assistant professor of English at Sarsuna College, affiliated to the University of Calcutta. She is also associated with two literary societies – Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library and Kolkata Translators’ Forum. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction have been variously published at places like SETU, Borderless Journal, Muse India, Coldnoon, Café Dissensus, NewsMinute.in, News18.com, Kitaab.org and Different Truths. She also has a number of critical writings to her name and has presented papers at various national and international seminars and webinars. Her latest publication is A Bengali Lady in England: Annotated Translation with a critical Introduction to Krishnabhabini Das’ Englandey Bangamahila.
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Special commemorative issue: 100 years of Satyajit Ray – the indefinable genius”, edited by Roshni Sengupta, Jagiellonian University Krakow, Poland.