Love Stories #1 to 14 | Annie Zaidi
Maybe it’s the poseur of the everyman in the protagonists who remain unnamed; maybe it’s the repetitive “hes” and “shes” whose tales never quite rise above their specificities to the potential of the universal, but Annie Zaidi’s short love stories are tedious matchsticks that just won’t light.
Love Story #4, The One That Badly Wanted, ends with the words, ‘“When you are in love”, she says, “you are never lonely.” The story could possibly rise, but the shoddy cliche of those words slam it to the floor with brute force. The first story to appear in the book, Love Story #10, The One That Was Announced, begins with a promise: a lonely woman who takes a local train begins, oddly enough, to fall in love with the announcer. The flight of fancy, however, quickly descends into the delusion of the painfully lonely, evoking more sympathy than rapture.
All of them are not stories between a man and a woman. The collection invokes the loves of many characters; the living’s longing for the virtuous dead, a single woman with her gecko, a former-junkie wife with a secret life on the edge, the casting couch that isn’t, the peripatetic dumpee-at-the-altar, the jealous husband of the ever-faithful spouse—each outlined with that kind-of-too-much care that makes distinctions deliberate. It makes for a potentially interesting and varied cast, but even as the stories vary, it is the same person turned out into different circumstances, so as to become indistinguishable from the other. How would I behave, think, react in this other situation, the same protagonist seems to be thinking, as she fills out another pair of well-worn shoes.
The stories lack a smoothness of transition, from ebb to flood. The emotional content within them is so intense as to end up being overwrought. Where a few moments of great emotion, skilfully released, would convey love’s sharpness or intensity, these convey a never-ending flood. Each sentiment is heavy and sonorous. “His ribs seem to have collapsed, piercing his heart at a dozen different points” she writes in Love Story #5, The One That Went Up In Smoke, and this heightened state continues as he stares at her, can’t bear to look at her, and eventually looks upon her with acceptance again. Pounding senses routinely punctuate the book.
The friend who won’t stop talking about the guy she loved? This is that one. You’ve heard it once, you will keep hearing it from various angles, every “he said”, “she said”, every question the heroine asks herself outlined, analysed and regurgitated, till the bitter end. All agreement is that of polite nods, captive in conversation. The language itself is error-ridden: “There was too much food. She had overcooked because she had been tossed off her neat approximation of how much to cook for two people”. Where correct, language is stiff and awkward.
The plots hold the promise of quirk, tragedy, whimsy and longing. The ingredients are there. This may have been a book that was born prematurely. There are flashes of well-woven words of the poet that Zaidi is. “I have been in houses... where the afternoon sits tidily like a hundred-gram pat of Amul butter...”, she says in Love Story #12, The One That Tumbled Out Of The Balcony. In Love Story #11, The One With Insurance, she writes: “He said it was important for a house to be just right, so that it could pull you back into its embrace each time you stepped out. Because, if it didn’t, you began to feel homeless.” When Zaidi forgets to stay in the character she has created, she is at her best. Her observations of people, of reactions, of the city beyond, most of these irrespective to the story she outlines, are significant. Like a picture someone stopped short of colouring in, these tantalize; but beyond their promise, the stories fail.