21 UNDER 40 | EDITED BY ANITA ROY
In a way, it’s a pity this is an anthology published by Zubaan. Its niche identity as a feminist publishing house is likely to discourage browsers—especially male browsers—from picking it up. The loss would be the reader’s, for, contained in the splendidly kitschy covers of 21 Under 40, are some of the most startling young writers in South Asia today.
A few of the names might be familiar from different contexts: the media, of course (Revati Laul, Anne Zaidi), but also academia (Paromita Chakravarti, Epsita Haldar), theatre (Ruchika Chanana), cinema (Shahnaz Habib, Adithi Rao) and activism (Meena Kandasamy). For the most part, these are their first published short stories, a combination that pushes the envelope of the form.
Does a graphic narration qualify as a short story? Are emails and chatspeak the new language of literature or just a gimmick? Is the Maugham dictum of “a beginning, a middle and an end” truly dead? Or, even, is a common gender a good enough reason for an anthology?
21 Under 40 (21 stories by authors under the age of 40) is a provocative collection, because individual readers will react differently to the stories, but not one lets go without disturbing the equilibrium. Its pages are populated by people we know— in the time-honoured “women’s fiction” tradition—from the loony gran of Drool to the insurgency-damaged child of The Third Cloud and the recalcitrant stars of a reality TV show in Instant Honeymoon. Their situations could be ours, their resolutions a part of our wish list. But the more powerful captors of our imagination lie elsewhere: in the surreal beauty of Adithi Rao’s Mango Tree in the Desert, where a girl receives an unforgettable gift on her wedding day, or in Ruchika Chanana’s Hue and Cry, where beige is the preferred colour of life.
Despite the pitch-perfect humour in Something Special About Sayyida, the innovative Mughal detective story, Murk of Art, and the super-ironical Award-Winning Writer, the overall tone of the anthology veers towards the angry, even the violent. To savour the anthology completely, though, tackle the smorgasbord like you would a degustation menu: come back for more. There’s reason to.
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