Fish with Wasabi Sauce
What is the gift of a good story? Is it splendid resolution that leaves the reader content and grinning like a Cheshire cat? Could it perhaps be a twist at the end that reveals a completely new truth? Is it something else altogether? One of the characters in Lopa Ghosh's short story `Death by Pineapples' - that pops up at number seven in this quirky but superlative collection of nine stories - asks a storyteller, `There is a gift waiting for me at the end?' and the storyteller replies, `Yes, like in all good stories.'
While there, the story inside the story is a fable of sorts with a takeaway lesson, the stories in Revolt of The Fish Eaters are no less generous with their gifts. Neither with the usual twist in the tale endings nor with pitch perfect resolution, these are edgy stories with small epiphanies that coalesce into brilliant word pictures, shot through with subversion.
Thus in `Death by Pineapples' we find Pinto, the multi-talented brand manager of a company being thrown out of his job while the city of the plains where he works transforms overnight into a hill town. It's as if an earthquake has screwed up the topography and indeed Murakami's After The Earthquake is a book which the author refers to in another story - `Corporate Affairs'. Notice the quiet subversion in the description of the tectonic shift:
The Parliament House stood at 7500 feet, its round structure resting precariously on a ledge, while in all political incorrectness, the opposition leader's house was perched on the highest sun-drenched cliff.
and then she writes,
To make things worse, the Prime Minister's House was now in the neighbourhood of a dark shantytown, except that little about the town was dirty any longer. The open nullah had dried up and there were instead coffee trees visited by bears.
You smile and read on till the last where Pinto plans his ingenious revenge.
The themes keep returning in her stories - a carousel of capitalism imperilled, slippery gender, otherness, death, love, death-love and politics. In `The Red Shoe', this reviewer's personal favourite, a high-flying corporate executive craves after the Manolo Blahnik heels of her colleague only to see her dreams of finding love in a foreign land fall apart while the market and the fashion industry conspire to refuse her a similar pair. Then she too plots her own sweet subversion.
This element of subversion - a streak of anarchy, a scorching sarcasm, a playful tearing apart of ideals - is the dash of wasabi, flavouring each of the nine fishes in the Revolt of the Fish Eaters. Where is this tendency to subvert coming from? Is it just a revolt against the existing order of market-driven economics - a fishbone prick in the deflating balloon of late capitalism or is it more of a postmodern subversion of ideals and meta-theories with a search for meaning at the margins? While this book is open to many readings, the stories here are enjoyable in their own right.
Some of these, told in first person or the third, are equally benefitted by the authorial voice which is often grim and foreboding, with a sense of imminent doom, a possibility of everything falling apart but still and quietly working up to its brisk epiphanies.
This voice is brought to bear with all its uncanny charm in `Siberia', a surreal story of absent love played out over the internet and lusty sexual love between a neftyanik (an oil man) and a footless whore in the frozen Siberian wastes. Here the grim tone is put to perfect use:
She would go where the pits were, darkened and ghastly with rings of fire and the biggest wonder of all, what was inside those dark pits, thick slippery oil, the bearer of heat and fire, all buried up under endless snow. Someone could strike a match to it, setting all of Siberia aflame. Could one set fire to ice?
From Siberian permafrost, express elevators and corporate off-sites in Noosa, the book dives headlong into the grime and filth of a Calcutta slum in the story of the `Richest Man in the World'. The accompanying switch from the surreal mode, which we find in some stories, to the crowded and dirty world of a slum is executed with such aplomb that one can almost smell the smoke from coal ovens in the winding alleyways. In this story Tuni, an intelligent little girl, prepares to meet the world's richest man who is a benefactor of the computer centre where she is a student, while her mother Ratna plans to impress him with witchcraft. Here too a plot of anarchy waits in the wings, this time to be unleashed by nature. And then we are back to the surreal. After the rich man had left:
Now he was gone. Tuni bent her head, heavy with the lingering weight of his hand. On the floor, where his departing feet had left a trail, slowly, incredibly, his footprints were turning blue. They glowed fluorescent in the falling light.
In almost all the stories in this volume Ghosh tends her flock of pigeons with care only to set a cat among them at last. Yet her pigeons are not necessarily birds of the same feather. There is already a palpable tension, inherent contradictions troubling their flock. Some birds are black, some are white, some nest on ice but dream of fire, others like oysters are never sure of their gender.
The slipperiness of gender appears on our plates and literally so, in the `Love Story of the Oysters' another memorable tale of this book of many memorable tales. Here the oyster's indefinite gender is used to draw our attention to the libidinous drama unfolding around a gender sensitisation session at a company offsite in the Sunshine coast of Australia. Here as in some of the other stories, well-held beliefs and political positions are strung up with piano wire, awaiting imminent execution:
Only Sevanti and I knew that we would also be learning a lesson. But it gave us great comfort to think that the lesson was gender-specific. The oyster had not yet come into my life at that stage and taught me irrevocably that gender is slippery and says without fail, I am nothing without my other.
Which brings us to `Revolt of The Fish Eaters' the story that lends its name to this collection: Bengal is on the verge of political change led by the wrathful and idiosyncratic Opposition leader Bratati Majhi - a thinly veiled Mamata Banerjee - of the Sanjibani party but the journalist Imon who is covering her election campaign thinks the firebrand leader is losing her mind. Meanwhile the spiritual guru Amrapali, who teaches Serotonia - an inspirational technique - is camping in Calcutta. Written like a journal, this story has everything from the Huxleian vision of chemical bliss signified by Serotonia (a play on serotonin) to intimations of a return to the self through references to Aaron's Rod as well as eternal themes of the contiguity of death and love, played out in the background of political upheaval. The narrative takes a difficult route but has its own charms and hits the high note with the surreal imagery of the fish in the end.
This book wears its intellectual inheritance on the sleeve. The author sometimes nods sometimes sniggers at her literary and philosophical influences while negotiating the hairpin bends of her narrative. At times the authorial interventions and the dominance of the intellect chokes up the story and this can and does affect the reading experience but the moments of absolute beauty more than compensates for what little is lost in the difficult reading. For if you are looking for a gift in these stories, every story in this volume comes with a gift.
The surrealists used to say that the `marvellous is always beautiful, everything marvellous is beautiful. Nothing but the marvellous is beautiful.' Revolt of the Fish Eaters is indeed a collection of short stories where the moments of wonderment are never in short supply.
Revolt of the Fish Eaters by Lopa Ghosh, HarperCollins India, 2012, pp 261, Rs 299/-