Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Book Review: A Happy Place And Other Stories by Vineetha Mokkil

I just finished reading an excellent collection of short stories by Vineetha Mokkil which goes by the title “A Happy Place And Other Stories”. The strength of a story, any story, whether it be a long novel or a short story, depends largely on the writer’s imagination. A good writer takes the reader to places hitherto unknown, on the wings of beautiful prose. Mokkil does more than that. Mokkil takes her readers to a tall cliff, straps on a pair of wings and forces the reader to take off.


For example, in “A Quiet Day”, we see Ameena, a suicide bomber leaves her house on a snowy day. We are told that her husband and daughter were killed by the army and Ameena is thirsting for revenge. And then? And then nothing. We do not know if Ameena is ultimately successful in carrying out her mission. All of that is left to the reader’s imagination. Similarly, in “In Case of Fire”, we see Gyan rushing home to his daughter Mia’s birthday party, stopping at a mall to buy return gifts for the kids at the party. The party has already begun and Gyan is really running late. His wife Helen has called many times and she is angry. To make matters worse, Gyan gets locked in inside the mall. What happens after that? Mokkil leaves it to the reader to imagine the consequences. In this quest, Mokkil supplies the reader with sufficient information about Gyan and his family. We know that Gyan’s wife Helen is a rich heiress who led a peaceful and happy life at Ann Arbor, USA, before moving to Delhi with her daughter Mia once Gyan decided to take up a teaching job at Delhi University.

Mokkil is very good not just with cliff top exits, but also in mid-journey breaks. She narrates a situation, places you in the midst of some very smooth activity and then, as is her wont, leaves you. Thus in “Baby Baby” we see Vijay, a man in his fifties, expecting a baby with his second wife. Surprisingly, it all goes off well. We can sense Vijay’s worry and tension in wanting to get it all right, since he is estranged from his son from his first marriage. However, Mokkil is soothing from the beginning and we feel strangely comforted by the writer.

In “The Tenant” a widowed mother is lonely after her daughter Priya leaves her on account of her job with Lufthansa. To keep herself occupied, she takes on a tenant who has the same name as her daughter, but with an extra “a” which is meant to bring good luck. Does she get along with her tenant Priyaa? Mokkil has no intention of ever telling us.

A Happy Place And Other Stories” isn’t a collection of entirely feel-good stories. Sadness and tragedy are woven into many of the tales. In “Nirvana” Yashodhara’s pain as Siddhartha abandons her and baby Rahul is beautifully captured. In “A Happy Place”, the story after which this collection has been named, we are introduced to Asha, a maid working in the house of an American couple. Mokkil introduces some tension in the beginning as the wife gets mugged. Yes we know that Delhi is dangerous, but for Asha danger lurks inside the house as well. When the wife is away on a cruise, the husband who works for the US consulate tries to paw her in the middle of the night. Asha’s happy place ceases to be so and Asha is forced to run away.

The Girl Next Door” makes one wonder how quickly one rushes into judgements. In this story, we see some posh people lobby to have a fellow tenant, the girl next door, who possibly works as a commercial sex worker, thrown out of their building. Later on when the narrator Sonia is abducted, the so-called prostitute tips off police and saves Sonia.

For me, the best story of the lot was “Other Lives”. The wife of a well-known Industrialist is arrested for shop-lifting. Since the lady in question is a well-known kleptomaniac, we know that such an incident has occurred before. The detainee has an interesting conversation with female cop as she waits to be released. The cop is respectful since she knows that the lady will be released and released she is. She goes home by foot, back to the same boring life. Does she have a choice to do something for herself? To find out the answer and to read more such stories, please do read this wonderful collection.