A deep sense of loss runs right through This is salvaged, the journalist and author Vauhini Vara’s collection of short stories. Whether it is the loss resulting from the passing of a loved one, the loss of relationships, the loss of youth, or even of balance and sanity, in each of the stories, the characters try to come to terms with their individual crisis, which often borders on the existential. And while some will perhaps find a way out of the gaping ruin, others may continue to flounder.
This is Salvaged
Fourth Estate India
In the story “The Irates”, for example, Swati, a teenage girl who has lost a much-loved older brother to cancer, struggles to grapple with the irreversible fact of his death. She and her friend, who was also attached to her brother, try to distract themselves by signing up as telemarketers, and the friend is soon “promoted” to the work of providing phone sex. The story explores the way loss can put relationships under strain, and Vara seems to suggest that there is nothing ennobling about loss, that it is a festering sore—like the rotting egg roll that Swati had left in her backpack and forgotten about.
Indeed, death, decay, and disintegration permeate this slim volume. “Eighteen Girls” offers vignettes of the relationship between two sisters, culminating in one of them dying of cancer, and the other, bizarrely, eating her ashes. In “The Hormone Hypothesis”, two women tell each other about the loss of loved ones—a child and a sister—though the story eventually makes a point about women and ageing. In the title story, an artist spends three years building a massive biblical ark, his most ambitious installation project yet, only to set fire to it and film it as it burns down.
“Sybil” is yet another story whose central event is one of decline and death: life in a block of flats full of immigrants follows its downbeat course while an elderly resident, who had named herself Ava Gardner in her youth, perhaps to assume another persona, another destiny, lies dying of dementia and old age. And in “I, Buffalo”, easily the best story of the collection, a young woman who is on the brink of a psychological breakdown after losing her job and her partner owing to her own drug-fuelled indiscretion sinks into a haze of alcohol and seeks absolution in the company of her little niece.
“While Vara’s first novel, The Immortal King Rao, touched upon the immigrant experience, in these stories she eschews the theme, which is refreshing, to say the least.”
The stories are set in the US, and like Vara, many of the protagonists are Americans of Indian descent. While her first novel, The Immortal King Rao, touched upon the immigrant experience, in these stories she eschews the theme, which is refreshing, to say the least. However, the dirge of decay that runs through This is Salvaged begins to weigh it down after a while. And then there are times when Vara makes it a point to be abstruse, ending up in affect rather than authenticity.
That said, This is Salvaged is an intriguing book that forces one to think rather than simply offer the joy of reading.
Shuma Raha is a journalist and author.