India's story through the voices of 13 of its 1.2 billion population. Astonishingly, it works
It’s a premise so simple it makes you go: Why didn’t anyone think of that before? The central idea of Mahesh Rao’s second book, coming within a year of his debut (the novel The Smoke Is Rising) is this: In a country of 1.2 billion people, each one has a story. Of these billion-odd stories, Rao picks 13 for this anthology, placing each in a different part of India.
In the hands of a lesser writer, it could seem as if he was trying on multiple hats, figuring out if the Mysore peta works for him better than the Kashmiri karakul. Not all the locales are organic to the story—the Kolkata story, The Philanderer, seems particularly unmoored—but, largely, the author’s confidence pays off astonishingly well.
In certain ways, this is a more successful book than his novel: The slice-of-life vignette plays to the very skills that made for shortcomings in the latter. In a manner reminiscent of On Chesil Beach—Ian McEwan’s 2007 novella that was reams apart from his full-length books—Rao’s short stories thrive in the moment; a tick of time when the inner landscape shifts and changes into something new and irrevocable. When employed in the novel, these shifts in the context of individual protagonists did a disservice to the larger narrative; the solo character-focused story is a more suitable vehicle for Rao’s ivory-edge acuity.
These 13 stories also evoked On Chesil Beach for another reason. Referring to the speculation that Florence, his female protagonist, may have been sexually abused as a child, McEwan had said: “In the final draft, it’s there as a shadowy fact for readers to make of it what they will. I didn’t want to be too deterministic about this. Many readers will miss it altogether, which is fine."
Rao adopts a similar unstatedness in these stories, usually around the recurring theme of violence. One of my favourites (if that can be the term) is Drums, which zigzags through the life of an old crock as she shelters in an army camp in the Naxal heartland. Her husband had left her for a younger, longer-eyelashed woman, Sani; to rub salt into her wounds, the other woman bore him a son, Deva. But is our narrator really so consumed by her need for revenge that she will misrepresent Deva to the authorities? Rao does not say, but he writes, “Today, the inspection is different.... They did not call out Deva’s name. He is nowhere to be seen. He is no longer here. No one in the camp will ever see him again.... When Sani gets the news, I have to be close enough to look into her eyes and hear her scream."
One Point Two Billion is remarkable for both the variation in its voices—Nams, the wealthy teenager in New Delhi (The Pool); Farooq, the nursery-school teacher in the Valley (The Word Thieves); the Bangla-speaking adolescent in Assam (the excellent Minu Goyari Day); the acting coach in Mumbai (Suzie Baby)—and its effortless ownership of the female story (especially The Trouble With Dining Out and The Pool). Again and again, Rao slips underneath the skin of the unheard, the marginalized and the mocked. Nams is the lonely, literature-reading daughter of a divorced businessman who has taken up with a jewellery-designing socialite; Farooq is the weakling sibling to brothers who have disappeared; the boy in Guwahati is trying to hold on to his mother in the wake of his father’s murder; the acting coach, a bitter, sidelined Bollywood villain, is confronting the possibility of his protégé’s success. It’s probably not coincidental that the weakest story (The Philanderer) is also the only one with an alpha-male narrator.
Sharply observed and infused sporadically with a dry humour, the stories explore the subcutaneous angularities that lie beneath the familiar faces India puts forward. They are unsettling, ambiguous, even subversive—and, while not perfect, they are impossible to ignore.
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