Sometime early last month, Mumbai experienced a few days of gloomy, cloudy, rather funny weather.Though this type of weather was quite uncharacteristic for Mumbai, it was typically London weather. And suddenly I was remembering and missing my days in London. On a whim, I put a status update on my Facebook wall about missing London, which elicited some responses. One of the responses I got was this:
You really miss England, don’t you? Go back, Sudha. Steep yourself in the legends and the history, touch the old walls and let them flow up your finger-tips into your heart, let the lakes and the streams and the little sudden springs soak into your soul, let the 40 shades of green fill your eyes and mind, let the cathedrals and the quaint corners whisper forgotten secrets and fervent prayers to you. Then come back home again.
As I read these beautiful lines, I did “travel” back to England, experience all that it said I should and came back “home” rejuvenated. And excited. Excited, because these lines had been written and posted by Suma Narayan, whose first book I had agreed to review. If these lines were a preview of what Suma’s writing would be like, I knew that the book would be a good read.
I first met Suma Narayan, who teaches English at Mumbai’s Mithibai College, when we had co-judged a competition last year. We had hit it off from that time and had kept in touch through Facebook, phone calls and emails. I was thrilled when Suma called me up last month to tell me about the imminent publication of her first book, and surprised when she asked if I would review it, please? Of course, I would I said. We agreed for the book to be couriered to me before the release, so that I could post the review before the official book release function. Unfortunately, the book didn’t reach me in time to review it, which is why this post is a combination of the book release function and a review of Suma’s book.
The book in question is Ladies Compartment, 8.47 Local (Power Publishers, 2011, 112 pages, Rupees 180/-), and it was released on Saturday, December 10th, at Granth Book Store at Juhu, Mumbai. Attended by Suma’s former and current students, as well as colleagues, friends and family, the function was an intimate and informal affair. The book was released by Mr. Balwant Sheth, Trustee and Vice-President of the Shree Vile Parle Kelavani Mandal, and Ms. Parvathy Omanakuttan, Miss India World 2008 and first runner-up Miss World 2008.
The book release function, which was hosted by two of Suma’s students, was quite a lively affair. After an introduction to the book, both the chief guests spoke about it before they formally released it. This was followed by a reading from the first short story by Suma. But the highlight of the function was getting the audience to share their stories of travelling in Mumbai local trains. This turned into a friendly banter in the difference in attitudes between men and women towards fellow passengers, and even the differences between the First and Second Class compartments. This was one part that every person in the audience could identify with as we had all travelled in a Mumbai local train at least once. The programme ended with the people lining up to get their copies of the book signed by the author and have some tea and biscuits.
Somewhere towards the end of the programme, and to my utter mortification, Suma suddenly introduced me to the audience as her reviewer and I found every eye in the room on me. I think I stammered out a brief review of the book, shared my own experiences of commuting in local trains, told everyone to read the review of Ladies Compartment, 8.47 Local on my blog, but was so flustered that I neglected to give them the blog address !
Ladies’ Compartment, 8.47 Local is a collection of 12 short stories about the women who commute daily on Mumbai’s local trains. Linking these stories together is the narrator, who is also a local train commuter. These women in the 12 stories have different backgrounds, different life stories, needs, desires and problems. So while you have Mala’s story of love and betrayal, there is also Usha’s chilling story of dealing with child sexual abuse as an adult. Then you also have Tamara’s story of attempts to live again after a nightmarish marriage, Anuragita’s terrible story of loss of her child, and Deepa’s serendipitous story of finding one. My favourite is the story of Gita and her son Krishna.
These stories are not unusual as most of us would have either experienced such incidents ourselves or know someone who has lived these stories. So, then what makes these stories special, you ask? It is Suma Narayan’s words, her prose that brings to life each character, each story. Her descriptions of places and people are so vivid that it doesn’t take much effort to be transported into the world of the characters. Sample these lines:
The train panted to a stop and all the women gathered at the entrances to the three second class compartments became one seething, straining organism. Defying all laws of physics, and in metamorphically as little space as there exists, on a pinhead, every woman who wished to board the already over-crowded train, did. (pg. 9)
Anybody who has travelled in a Mumbai local train will have no trouble identifying with these lines. Travelling by a Mumbai local train in this mad, mad city is a great leveller, and this is something that all Mumbaikars will definitely attest to.
However, I have a few concerns with the book, with the main one being the title of the book—I found it too ordinary, even pedantic. When I told Suma this, she asked me, “So what do you think, I should have called the book?”. I said, I don’t know; you are the author. My other concern is the setting of the book, which because of the title makes it very Mumbai-specific. Because of this, I fear may be not be picked by people from other places, which will be a real shame as the stories are universal. Another concern is the production of the book, which is quite shoddy—pages are not aligned properly, the spine has spilled onto the cover, an unappealing cover, etc. This may not be an issue for many people, but I am one of those for who takes great pleasure in the production quality of a book.
This is Suma Narayan’s first book, and like most first-time authors there is quite a bit of her in the narrator, who is an English College teacher like herself. The places the Suma has travelled to (Australia and England) feature in the books. It is quite likely that incidents and people that Suma must have known or met or heard about have found their way into the this slim collection of short stories. And therein lies its appeal, its validity. Read the book for the stories, but read it also for some vivid prose.