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Anita Agnihotri’s Seventeen, a collection of short stories, many from India UnShining, delights with its insights into human nature.
Review by Aparna V. Singh
Seventeen, a collection of seventeen short stories by bureaucrat-writer Anita Agnihotri (translated from the original Bengali by Arunava Sinha) is an illustration for any aspiring short story writer on how fiction can begin in fact and yet not be limited by it.
Agnihotri draws inspiration for many of her stories from the have-nots of this country – the landless peasants, the migrant workers, the abandoned wives, the unemployed. Yet, she does not fall into the trap of ‘reporting’ – this is fiction that serves better to illuminate India UnShining than most ‘factual’ pieces could.
Each short story is beautifully crafted and Agnihotri draws you in with her well fleshed out characters. Their dreams, idiosyncrasies and disappointments are all too real; as are their failures – and there are many of these, some evident to the world and some within the inner world of the mind, for the short stories in Seventeen plumb human nature for its dark side.
The casual cruelty of human beings to one another, the human instinct for self-preservation regardless of the consequences to another and the heady intoxication of power for even the most ‘normal’ person are all shown up gently but firmly. At the same time, there is also unfulfilled love that has stayed deep over the years and the hardy nature of marital life that survives the hardest of knocks. This is perhaps why these short stories work so well – even if the setting is an unfamiliar tribal village in West Bengal or Odisha, the characters are universal and the stories poignant.
Nor is powerlessness only a question of land or affluence. In one story after another, while the themes of power, agency and control are explored, it is sometimes an outcast wife, sometimes a mother-in-law, sometimes a migrant worker, sometimes a man or woman from a middle-class family but in a strange land and at others, as in the case of the title story, young people striving for control over the direction of their own lives. In one story, ‘Remembering’, when a member of the dispossessed class acquires some power, he is no less caught up in it than anyone else. There are no defined places here for heroes and villains, which only serves to highlight the dark possibilities inherent in all people.
In only one story did I find these shifting borders problematic; in ‘The Peacock’, where the story is narrated from the perspective of a young man who has attacked a woman with acid, I found the sympathetic handling of the attacker disquieting. While it is true that human beings are complex creatures who cannot be neatly divided into good and bad, I did not like the fact that the attacker emerges as a far more ‘real’ person than his victim, who seems to develop an unreal relationship with him post the attack and is reduced to being a plot point.
Agnihotri’s narration in almost all the stories is so skillful that plot, characters and description all serve to take one another forward; rarely is any detail introduced superfluously. In a very few places, there is an overuse of metaphors, but happily, this is rare and the writing is mostly taut and engrossing.
Publishers: Zubaan Books
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