Bhulbhulaiya aur Anya Kahaniyan, Sara Rai's lyrical anthology, fortifies the many possibilities inherent in our surroundings
Many of the characters in Bhulbhulaiya aur Anya Kahaniyan grapple with a homebound existence, isolation, insomnia, anxiety—and even a deadly disease.
Among the many unimaginable things that transpired in 2020, one has been rather fortunate for me. A stranger’s tweet appearing on my timeline resulted in an exciting literary discovery—the short stories of Sara Rai. Her anthology Bhulbhulaiya aur Anya Kahaniyan (Labyrinth and Other Stories), published in 2015, was one of the dozen nominees for the LiBeraturpreis this year. Litprom, a German literary organisation, instituted the award for female authors from the Global South in 1987.
While Rai did not win the prize, her work is uncannily relevant during the pandemic. Many of her characters grapple with a homebound existence, isolation, insomnia, anxiety—and even a deadly disease. But these are not presented as extraordinary events that disrupt the thrum of life. Rather, these are woven into the fabric of existence, a constant presence that her characters have to reckon with.
In Dewaarein (Walls), a beautiful goat that bizarrely jerks its head to turn back and stare envelopes a household in dread. Biyaban Mein (Wilderness) features a woman ruminating over her life as she grapples with writer’s block. She seems jaded until she ventures into a broken-down bus frequented by drunkards and thieves. In Thar Maru (Thar Desert), Amrita seems inexplicably concerned with the longevity of the desert even as her life slips from her grip.
Most of Rai’s stories have few dialogues, but her crisp prose engagingly propels the narrative. Her descriptions of the characters’ mental states and their physical surroundings create an immersive world that the reader effortlessly gets ensconced in. In Ek Dusra Aasmaan (Other Skies), for instance, we are privy to the anxieties of Altaf, who is haunted by the religious violence in Gujarat, despite living in distant Allahabad:
“Kabhi aisa hota ki raah chalte mujhe koi burkaposh aurat dikh jaati. Fauran mera dimag bagair meri marzi ke, hisaab lagane lagta uske burqe mein kitni jaldi aag lagegi; aag upar se phailegi ya neeche se. Dadhiyon ko dekh ke khaas taur par mere dimag mein aag ka khayal aa jata (Sometimes, walking down a road, I’d spot a woman in a burqa. At once my mind, all on its own, would begin to calculate how quickly her burqa would catch fire, whether the fire would spread from above or below. I’d think about fire especially when I looked at people with beards).”
One of the most electric stories in the collection is Bhulbhulaiya. When a journalist asks "How are you?" by way of introduction, the protagonist Kulsum Bano replies, “Main bohot buri hoon; bad se badtareen, baddimag, badtameez, nihayat badakhlaq, ek beintaha takleefdeh budhiya…(I am terrible; worse than the worst, brainless, mannerless, immoral, an annoying hag...)"
Kulsum is annoyed that the journalist will “box her voice in a recorder and take it away”, but she eventually concedes to her dogged requests for an interview. After her flippant, flummoxing but invariably interesting responses, we get an intimate view of the world she is cocooned in. She has outlived the myriad members of her aristocratic family and stays with attendants in her crumbling mansion. Kulsum revels in the unconventional life she has led—her father indulged his daughters and dismissed all suitors as not worthy of her. The past seamlessly flows into her present, reality into reveries.
Like Kulsum, many of her characters are alone—and even lonely or closed off from the world. Rai’s exploration of alienation is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s anthology Dancing Girls. Her tales, however, are not dreary or mired in despair—even a seemingly morose story ends up confounding expectations. They burrow into everyday emotions and experiences to foreground their unusual or indiscernible facets. Sometimes, she achieves this by imbuing the mundane (the falling of a tamarind tree after heavy rain, for instance) with mystery, while treating the extraordinary (a reunion after decades of separation) as a commonplace occurrence.
Hers are not the plot-driven tales of O Henry or Saki, the ones that surprise with an upheaval at the end or a sudden reversal of expectations. Her stories offer a different kind of resolution, which are no less satisfying—the untwining of knots in one’s personality, the amorphous yearnings we can finally pinpoint to, an inexplicable gesture that calms an entrenched anxiety. They are lyrical, in the vein of Chekhov, Mansfield, Joyce and others who forsake elaborate plots and satisfying climaxes to explore a character’s thoughts and experiences.
A rhythm rich with the cadences of life imbues Rai’s writing. Her language is simple, the kind that rolls off people’s tongues in daily conversations. She easily switches between widely diverging registers—from the lavish Urdu of an abrasive, ageing aristocrat to the mutterings of a homeless Musahar woman.
In her stories, Sanskrit and Hindi words are comfortably positioned with Urdu and Persian ones—a euphonic departure from the Sanskritised ‘literary’ prose that Hindi authors commonly use. English words like ‘disturb’, ‘confuse’ and ‘life’ sit unobtrusively with their Hindustani counterparts.
Perhaps, this meld draws from her eclectic family background. Her father, Sripat Rai, was the editor of the literary magazine Kahani and the son of one of the greatest Hindi writers, Premchand. Her mother, Zahra Rai, belonged to a Shia Muslim family from Benares and also wrote short stories.
Sara Rai has published three short story collections and a novel, but there is scant information about her or her works online. I could find only a couple of her stories in English, which she has translated herself. While there do not seem to be any translations in other Indian languages, Rai’s writings have been published in German and Italian. In 2019, she won Germany’s Coburg Rückert Prize.
Now, perhaps, is a good time to take her writings to a larger audience. As more of us learn to live with ourselves and deal with unexpected, bizarre happenings, Rai’s stories fortify the possibilities inherent in our inner universes and relationships—not just with people, but with our surroundings. They can be a handy companion to tread the contours of this strange new world.
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