Two moments involving the clothes of the departed might serve to give a sense of the distinctive mood and method of Aseem Kaul’s first collection of stories, Études. In The Shirt, a story no longer than a few paragraphs, we see a woman who has recently been widowed. Every day she continues to wash one of her late husband’s shirts and then hangs it out to dry, watching—the image is both macabre and touching—“the empty shape of him billow in the back yard”.
And in The Smell of Smoke, a woman is abruptly left by her partner, and decides instantly to give away all his clothes. Explaining her actions, Kaul writes: “There was something very attractive in the idea that if he did come back (not that she allowed herself to think about this, not even for a moment) he would find his wardrobe empty.” Although the parentheses insist that the woman is not considering the possibility of the man’s return, we know, of course, from the very vehemence of her insistence that she is. The sentence is a description of both strength and weakness.
Almost uniquely among Indian short-story writers in English, Kaul is determinedly a writer of short shorts (just as Vikram Seth might be said to be unusual among Indian novelists because he is a writer of long longs). Kaul’s characters are rarely named, their backgrounds rarely sketched in, the places they live in rarely described. But for all the austerity of the writer’s method, his creations seem no less real than those of realist writers. What we see his characters do, primarily, is think. In his best stories, we feel as if mind has insidiously established contact with mind, in the same way as we might in a conversation with someone interesting.
Indeed, many of Kaul’s stories are built upon a model of conversation, either real or imagined. One of them, Where Shall We Go for Dinner?, is written entirely in dialogue, without a single word of narratorial explanation. It shows us a couple quarrelling over where to eat dinner, and then making up. It is hard to work from such a simplified palette, so the success of this story is no mean achievement.
In another story, Conversation, a man begins to track the voice of the woman who lives next door, because he can hear her on the telephone through the wall they share. He becomes more and more involved with her life, although they never actually speak. When he realizes she is sad, he takes “to playing soft music at night—works for solo piano” (this is clearly the kind of music Kaul loves best) to soothe her. But, churlishly, the woman complains about the disturbance, and makes him gloomy. One day he finally takes the plunge, and calls her. She picks up the phone. “He doesn’t say anything, just sits there, hearing her voice coming through the receiver on the one hand, through the wall on the other. Like a conversation.” Kaul’s arresting ending beautifully fulfils the spirit and strangeness of the story.
Kaul’s control over prose rhythm and metaphor is exemplary, and there is not a page here that does not reveal in some way the ferocious intelligence and metaphysical complexity of the writer’s mind. These winning stories are not only an assertion of a new kind of method, but also a tacit criticism of the tired gestures and banalities of much realist storytelling from the subcontinent. A fresh and strange sensibility has lit up the house of Indian fiction.
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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