short stories

A spoonful of Mango Chutney - A review

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Of late, there has been a surge of anthologies by Indian authors. And if I'm honest, it scares me. Simply because I am yet to read one that has made me go “oomph! - That was exceptional stuff!” Another thing that I find slightly worrisome is writing reviews for anthologies. I mean, how does one actually review an eclectic collection of short stories - all by different authors, and edited by a completely different person? That worry multiplies many folds when you actually “know” some of those authors and worse yet, you are actually good friends with them too. I could of course do the easy job and just not review it at all. But then again, where is the fun in that! I first heard about Mango Chutney when I chanced upon a meeting photograph on Facebook. (You've got to love social media for this - makes information flow so much easier). A couple of familiar names were included in that meeting and needless to say, my curiosity was piqued. So along with the rest of the blogging world, I too eagerly awaited this “Anthology of tasteful short fiction”, as the publishers put it.

The book is flavourful -  I’ll give it that. It is probably one of the better anthologies that I’ve read. The stories are broad and diverse, both in terms of locales as well as the plots. While some tug lightly at your heart-strings, some others successfully manage to keep your interest till the end of the story. But as with every mixed bag, there are a few stories that slightly missed the mark for me. No, they weren’t bad - but when placed side-by-side with some of the others, they ranked slightly lower.

Out of the twenty-seven tales in the anthology, there are a few that definitely caught my eye, and I would probably recommend as a definite read. The most impressive ones of the lot for me were :

The Perfectly Poached Egg by Ramya Maddali  - It is a simple story, which is different yet something that a lot of us who have ever tried to cook an egg would have encountered. This also provides a perfect example of where the narration and the attention to detail can improve an otherwise uncomplicated plot.

The 37th Milestone by Abhishek Asthana - It is often difficult to pull off a short story which keeps you intrigued till the end. The 37th Milestone successfully does that, at least for me. Though the narration could have been slightly more detailed, it was an interesting read.

The Birthday Boy by Harsha Pattnaik - It was one of the few stories that I had to re-read. It wasn’t because I couldn’t understand it  - rather, I was compelled to read it again just to make sure I didn’t miss any part of it. The editor has mentioned in the acknowledgement section that Harsha Pattnaik is a 14-year old prodigy. And after reading The Birthday Boy, I would agree.

Sawai by Arjun Bhatia  - The story started of a tad too slow for my liking, but after the first page, it had my attention. A simple, yet moving tale of the protagonist Nand Lal from the village of Tilonia and the camaraderie he shares with his English teacher.

A few others that I’d like to mention along with the above four are Tainted Red by Aathira Jim, The Girl Who Owned Castles by Giribala Joshi, The Proof of Birth by Urvashi Sarkar, On the Other Side by Sakshi Nanda, Someone with Character by Alka Gurha and Prem ki Chashni by Sudhanshu Shekhar Pathak (translated by Harsh Snehanshu).

Before I got my hands on the book, there were two stories that I was extremely curious about - Vaman by Rohit Gore and Angels and Demons by Purba Ray. With Vaman, Rohit has managed to give a sci-fi twist to a story that a lot of us probably know a bit of. Was it successful? Personally, I think the concept was innovative and quite neatly done, though I’d have loved a bit more of a tighter narration. Purba Ray is someone I’ve known for a bit through the blogging world, and hence the reason for my interest. She is a well-known Twitter celeb and her wit and humour are simply exceptional. However I’ve never seen her write fiction (or it could be that I missed it) - all of these added to my curiosity. Purba’s story is one of the few in the anthology that has more than a handful of characters. What I loved was the fact that she managed to build up the characters well and the story was intriguing. The only bit that missed the mark for me was the narration and some of the dialogues. Having said that, it was definitely worth a read.

In my world, any review for a book would not be complete without some feedback about the book itself.

Positives:

  • Budding Authors: It has given a good platform for a lot of budding talent - some of whom I would probably have never known if it hadn’t been for this book.
  • The title: It is catchy and being someone who loves food, it will always remain my head.
  • The cover: One of the things that I’ve noticed with Indian anthologies is that the book cover is often way too complex with illegible fonts and garish colours. The cover for Mango Chutney is tastefully done.

As the adage "Two sides of a coin" goes, there are a few things that bothered me about the book too. They are :

  • Errors: The First edition (I’m assuming what I have is the first edition) is peppered with errors -  missing words, incorrect punctuation and spacing issues. Hopefully the subsequent versions should sort this part out.
  • Font-size: This could just be a concern of mine but the font-size really bothers me. Even if the font-size has been increased by 1pt, I think it would have made for much easier reading
  • Language: I’m not sure if this is something for the authors or the editing team (or both). Some of the stories have way too many long sentences and far too many metaphorical references (almost every other sentence at times). While I understand that these add a certain level of ”literary complexity” to an otherwise simple plot, it may put off a few readers.
My Verdict: The book is a one-time read. It does deliver a few tastefully tangy stories that both keep you intrigued and touch your heart - as promised. The opinions expressed in this review are  mine. I have not been commissioned to do one.

 

The Dilemma

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James hung up the phone and let out a sigh. It seemed like his sister, Joanne was having one of her anxiety attacks again. This time it was something involving her teenage son, Adam, who was about to celebrate his 13th birthday in a couple of days.  Joanne, had always been overly protective of people she cared about. Even when they were children, she was fiercely protective of Karen, their youngest sibling, and would never ever let her out of her sight. Most of the time, he’d indulged her because of her past medical history. She’d been diagnosed with hypertension and anxiety at a very young age, and as a result she often took a lot of things more seriously than she should probably have.

Deep down, James knew where Joanne’s current problem stemmed from. This birthday would be Adam’s last one at home, before he moved away to join the rest of his friends at Senior school in Manxville. He knew that both Joanne and her husband Phil’s decision to send Adam away for senior school, was a difficult one. But it was the only practical solution that they could think of. Over the past few months, Joanne had kept asking James “Why must they grow up so quickly? I’m not ready to let go of him yet.” Today, she’d asked the rhetorical question again. "I wonder, if he feels the same away about moving away from home. Ah, who am I kidding? I bet he’s looking forward to it!” she’d mused.

James sighed. He and his wife, Kathy, had already gone through this phase, having sent two of their teenage kids away at 14. Yes, it had been difficult, but they knew it was for the best. Their reasons had risen from the same ones that were plaguing Joanne and Phil currently. Mount Seglaw, where their family lived, only had one senior school. And their students were well known for getting into trouble with the law. From drugs to guns to sexual assault to thieving and even murder. So Father Paul had suggested the church-run school in Manxville, about 50 miles away, for anyone from their congregation who wished for their kids to have a better foundation in life. And the recent news of the stabbing of a teacher from Mt. Seglaw High, by one of the 14-year old students, had only added to Jo and Phil’s decision to send Adam to Manxville. After all, the teacher had been stabbed for merely asking the kid why he hadn’t submitted his assignment.

Though he’d dismissed his sister's concerns as another one of her attacks, James found his thoughts wandering to the series of phone calls he’d been receiving from Joanne for the past few weeks. Up until the age 12, Adam had been a good, well-mannered, bubbly and church-going kid. But soon, his friend circle expanded, and the changes in his behaviour were apparent. He was constantly angry, yelling, screaming, throwing tantrums and became increasingly foul-mouthed. He had also started hanging out with some of his new found friends, who were much older and went to Mt. Seglaw High.

Finally in an attempt to get him to stay at home rather than wander the streets with his friends, they had succumbed to pressure from the parents of his other friends, and had gotten him a new gaming console with a copy of the latest action game that Adam had wanted, as an early birthday present. Though Phil and Joanne knew that getting him a video game console was not the best solution, they were happy that Adam was at least spending more time at home, rather than hanging out with those no-good kids. Of course, once he moved to his new school in a few months, he wouldn’t have access to the console. Which meant everybody was a winner. And Adam’s behaviour had started to change too. He yelled and shouted much less and was also more manageable. He had also started attending church every Sunday, a fact that both Jo and Phil were extremely happy about.

But Joanne had started to notice that there were other changes in Adam’s behaviour. Though he had become a lot more subdued, he was very distracted and she often caught him staring at the TV screen lost in thought. He always seemed to be scribbling away, whilst constantly murmuring to himself. To make matters worse, a couple of days ago she had found an A4 size sheet with the hand- drawing of a building which suspiciously looked like the Heritage centre in the centre of Mt. Seglaw. One of the oldest buildings in the region and rumoured to be the holding place for a variety of precious stones and jewels, the Heritage centre was the only building in Mt. Seglaw, that had round-the -clock protection by the Police department. Recently, there had also been a news doing the rounds that a team of suspicious characters were offering good money to kids who could provide information about the Heritage centre. So when Jo came across this drawing of what she believed was a plan of the Heritage centre, she panicked. There were a series of arrows, crosses and circles and other strange markings which seemed to lead to a room which was marked with a giant X. And the handwriting on the piece of paper was Adam’s.

In a bid to get him to speak, and hopefully spill the beans about the drawing, Joanne had tried asking Adam if there was something bothering him. But the answer had always been a negative head shake. She wondered if he was secretly taking drugs, like she knew some of the other kids of his age were, and if that was clouding his judgement. She hoped not. No matter, how much she persisted, Adam would not tell her what was going on. And that’s when she decided to speak to her brother James.

The first thought that popped into James’s head when Joanne told him about her suspicion was that she was fabricating the story to try and keep Adam with her in Mt. Seglaw. But after hearing the story and her concerns repeated constantly, James had his own concerns. One part of him just wanted to dismiss it entirely. But another part of him, wanted to believe his sister. After all, he had seen some of Adam’s “new friends”, and he knew they weren’t the best influence on him. He decided that he would speak to Adam in a couple of days when he came over to play with his cousins. In order to dismiss his concerns, he needed to speak with Adam and try and get to the bottom of this.

A few days later,

James peeked into the living room. Adam was sitting on the couch, staring at the TV screen as if in a trance. The Xbox controller was on his lap, and he seemed to be talking to himself as Jo had mentioned. His sister Jo, who was standing behind him in the kitchen, gently nudged him. Taking a deep breath, he walked purposefully towards Adam, who barely glanced up and  continued to murmur incomprehensibly.

James observed him carefully. Beads of sweat were starting to form on Adam's forehead, and he was shaking both his legs vigorously. Laying a hand on his shoulder, James raised his voice and said“Adam, we need to talk.” Adam ignored him and muttered something under his breath. James raised his voice slightly and said “Adam!” Almost instantly Adam snapped out his trancelike state. He looked at James and said “Ah, Uncle James! I didn’t see you. How are you?” James looked at him again. His eyes, which previously looked glassy, were now back to the shade of blue they had always been. “How are you, Adam? Is there something bothering you? Your mother has been sick with worry. She says you haven’t been eating well. Or sleeping. And that you keep talking to yourself. Is everything okay?”, asked James, enunciating every word slowly. Adam looked at his uncle, who was staring at him as if expecting an answer. “Well, yes…..everything is fine. I’ve just been ….well…..having some issues” said Adam, turning his face away from James.

James pulled out the folded sheet of paper that Jo had found in Adam’s jeans pocket. “Is it anything to do with this?” he asked. Adam glanced at it and nodded his head. James felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. He knew Jo was spying on them from the kitchen, and he was sure she had heard Adam’s confirmation too. But he knew he had to be strong. Especially since Phil was away on business. He laid the sheet of paper on Adam’s lap and asked Do you want to tell me why you have a drawing of what looks like the Heritage Centre in your pocket? Where did you get this from?” he asked.

Adam looked at his uncle questioningly. “What is uncle talking about?” he wondered. James looked at Adam’s confused face and said Adam, your mother and I know about this plan. The police have been on the lookout for people who have been passing information to those outsiders who have been trying to break-in to the Heritage Center”. Adam’s eyes widened.

And then suddenly he burst out laughing. “That drawing is from the game that I’ve been playing. I’ve just been trying to figure out how to unlock the room to get the magic potion." divider

 

[This post is written for the Project 365 program at We Post Daily aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. The prompt for today was “Pause whatever you’re doing, and ask the person nearest you what they’re thinking about (call someone if you have to). Write a post based on it. " I have decided to write a fictitious story about a mother's concern for her teenage son. And of course, I've twisted it a bit. To stick to the prompt, I have said the story largely from James's point of view ]

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One night in the Bronx

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Sweating profusely, Samir took refuge by the side of dumpster in the dimly lit alley way. The running footsteps of his assailants echoed ominously through the rather silent night. “Should have listened to James when he told me not to stay in the Bronx” he mused as he tried to catch his breath back. He heard the footsteps slow down. It sounded like they were just up at the entrance to the alley. Still panting, he tried to hold his breath so that they wouldn’t hear him gasp. He heard one of them mumble something and then there was a crash. From the sound, it must have been one of the many aluminium trash cans that lined the alley all the way to the dumpster.  

“They must be tipping over the trash to make sure I’m not hiding there” he thought as he pushed himself closer to the brick wall away from the light. Not too far away, he could hear more trash cans being thrown about. They were closing in, like predators for the kill. Except that there was nothing stealth-like about the manner in which they were trying to find him. He knew he’d be a sitting duck if he continued to stay there longer. He had to do something. He slowly crouched up. He was going to have to make a run for his freedom. Suddenly the long shadow of a man fell across his feet. From the looks of it, he had a baseball bat in his hand. Slowly the shadow of the man with the bat turned and walked away. Samir breathed a sigh of relief. It looked like he was going to be fine. He looked at his watch. According to the luminous dial on his watch, he’d escaped from the thugs in under 30 minutes. But he was going to wait for a few minutes, just in case.

 

He listened carefully. Apart from the noise of a few vehicles passing by on the main road, it was still largely silent. He slowly rose up and dusted himself. He was going to have a nasty bruise on his temple, where one of the assailant’s fist had collided with his head. Gently massaging the area, he walked out of the alley. At the entrance, he peered both to his left and right. Apart from a few cars and a couple of drunk revellers, there was no one else that he could notice. Going with his instinct, he decided to turn right. Steadily he walked away from the alley and into the main street. Suddenly he heard the shuffling sound of footsteps behind him. He turned back to look and then froze. He was staring right down the barrel of a gun. A bald behemoth of a man, in whose hands the gun almost looked like a toy, was grinning. Samir noticed a few empty gaps from missing teeth.

 

Having never been in such a situation before, Samir stood there unsure how to react. A few seconds later the bald man spoke. “Turn around slowly. Put your hand behind your head and keep walking. And no funny business, unless you want a bullet or two put in your sorry head!”. Samir did as he was asked and started to walk down the road, past the alley that he had taken refuge in a little while ago. Fear started to encompass him and he could feel his heart beating rapidly. He’d read about situations like these in books. He’d watched numerous news reports of other people being held at gun point and had tried to imagine what he would have done. But his brain had just gone blank. He could feel the point of the gun nudging against his back every time he slowed down. So he kept walking, only being guided directionally by the gun-toting stranger. He had no clue where he was or where he was headed to. Along with fear, a feeling of helplessness had started to set in too. All he knew was that he had to walk if he didn’t want his brains splattered on the sidewalk.

 

Samir checked the time on his watch as he walked. It was 2:13 am. “Not the best time to be walking about in the Bronx” he mused as he wondered back how he’d gotten into this situation. Having recently broken up with his girlfriend, he had moved into a dingy studio apartment in the Bronx a few weeks ago. A lot of his friends, especially James, had expressed their concern at moving into a place that was often referred to as “The Hell hole” in their circles. But then, he had no job, no career, no girl friend and whatever he’d saved up was no longer enough to stay in downtown Manhattan in the flat he’d shared with Sarah, his ex girlfriend. So he moved out here. Though he usually chose to be aloof when he encountered any kind of problem, especially one’s that he was not part of, today something different had happened.

 

Having had a couple of beers too many, Samir had decided that he wanted to take a walk through some of the rougher Bronx neighbourhoods. At 5”10’ and weighing less than 8 stones, Samir was a scrawny man and very out-of-place in the Bronx. Yet when he’d seen a couple of thugs almost beat the life out of a Hispanic man, he had decided to intervene. Fortunately for the Hispanic man and unfortunately for him, the single punch that Samir had thrown at his attackers was right on target and broke one of the attacker’s nose. Although it took him a few seconds to realise the enormity of his action, once he’d realised it, Samir had started to run, eventually finding what he thought had been a very secure hiding place behind the dumpster.

 

He was snapped back into his present predicament by a sharp nudge against his back. They had come to a large T intersection. From across the road, he could see a large black Hummer parked  on the pavement. And leaning against the vehicle was an enormously tall man easily weighing over 22 stones and built like a statue. And he was holding up a white bandage against his nose and glaring at him. “Go on! Cross the fu**ing road!” yelled the man who was holding the gun against him. Samir stood frozen to the ground. He was now starting to shiver and sweat at the same time.

 

Behind him was a gun-toting goon who was looking for a reason to use the weapon. Across the street, in front of him, was the apparent leader of this gang whose nose Samir had just broken in his sudden desire to be a hero to some unknown Hispanic chap. And not only did this man have a gun in his hand, he also had two other goons, probably his body guards, who looked like they could crush Samir with their bare hands. Samir felt helpless again. Death was almost a certainty. Though not a staunch believer in the miraculous powers of the  “Person above”, he silently crossed his fingers and put his best foot forward.

 

Suddenly there was a loud screeching of tires followed by the sound of multiple gun shots. Samir clutched the left side of his stomach and fell to the pavement. As he curled up in a foetal position, unable to concentrate on anything but the piercing pain, he heard the familiar sound of the Police siren. Though he could not be sure, he almost felt like he was within touching distance of the sound. As the sound of more gunshots filled the night air and the smell of gunpowder whiffed up his nostrils, Samir slowly opened his eyes. His hands were bloody but the pain had subsided considerably. There was a Police car blocking his view of the street across. He turned around to his side.

 

Lying beside him, still clutching his gun, his mouth wide open in shock and  a rapidly reddening circular patch on his forehead, was the goon who minutes ago had walked Samir up to the junction at gun point. In desperation, Samir tried to pry out the ruffian's gun from his dead hands. Unable to do so, he slowly sat up and kneeled over behind the vehicle. Through the shattered windows of the car, he could make out the rapidly changing blue and red lights of the siren as well as the hustle of activity on the other side. Gradually he stood up, a bit more confident, now that he could hear no further shots.

 

As he walked across the street, which was littered with glass pieces and blood, he could not see any sign of the goons or their “bandaged-nose” leader anywhere. He did see a contingent of police officers mulling around the now bullet-ridden Hummer. Suddenly one of them turned around and rushed towards him. As the officer came over to him, Samir could see that his uniform was stained with blood. The man stopped right in front of him and extended his hands outwards in a shake-hand. Though he was confused, Samir extended his hand too and clasped the officer’s strong hands.

 

“Congratulations! You’ve just helped us nail one of New York’s most wanted. Well done!” he said grinning happily. Bewildered at the sudden turn of events, Samir just stood there. The officer pointed over to the huddle of policemen still mulling around the vehicle and said “Oh, before I forget. Officer Ramirez sends his gratitude for saving him from Antonio and his thugs. If it wasn’t for your timely punch, Ramirez would have been in the morgue now. The NYPD is in your debt.”

 

And with this, the policeman walked away. As Samir looked over at the thinning crowd across the road, he noticed someone wave at him. He squinted in an attempt to find out the person. It was the Hispanic man who had gotten him into this mess in the first place.


 

[This post is written for the Project 365 program at We Post Daily aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. The prompt for today was "Helpless - that dull, sick feeling of not being the one at the reins. When did you last feel like that –-and what did you do about it?". I've merely used this prompt as the situation for a short story, which I hope you enjoyed]

http://blog.blogadda.com/2014/01/11/spicy-saturday-picks-january-11-2014-great-weekend-reads