Creative tales

Print edition : May 30, 2014
It is difficult to box Ashok Srinivasan’s stories into a particular genre, but whatever genre one settles on, there is no doubt that the stories are creative and emerge from an imagination that does not believe in a world that is black or white.

“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.” —Haruki Murakami in Kafka on the Shore.

B OOK of Common Signs by Ashok Srinivasan is a collection of 13 compact short stories that ostensibly capture the pains of growing up by piecing together images captured by the minds of individuals: men, women and children. The stories dwell on memories of loss and of yearning, of visiting new places and of having left old ones behind, of moving on but never being able to reach somewhere, of rebirths and also of stark deaths. The stories weave in and out of reality, touching sometimes on the mythical and the magical. They operate in a realm that borders the margins of reality and make-believe. The line between existence and imagination is a thin one in these short narratives. Sample this from “Whale Song”:

“Earlier, only certain rhapsodic movements of the whale’s song reached her. But now she has made the entire symphony her own. She sees in her mind’s eye that whole areas of her past are crumbling and slipping from her like parts of an icy mainland breaking away and drifting off as icebergs into the sea of forgetfulness. But nobody knows, nobody suspects. Her only son is dead, and the whale song that was a rare whisper in the eustachian tubes of her ear is loud and clear these days.”

Ashok Srinivasan’s characters are diverse and he makes it difficult for the reader to judge them morally. In one of the stories, a nine-year-old boy pushes his father off a terrace, causing his death. But the readers’ sympathies remain with the boy, supported by the slanted logic that the father, tired of his life, willed his son to push him.

In another story, “A Hangman’s Tale”, the character Tokas falls madly in love with a prostitute (the author refrains from using the term anywhere in the story but scatters enough clues for readers to get the drift) and remains by her side until her death due to cancer, after which he loses his senses and leaves the city in a fruitless search, he knows not of what or whom. Ashok Srinivasan’s characters behave compulsively, more on instinct than on what might be required of them in a practical world. And yet, their actions seem to justify their means.

Picture this: “Tokas returned to the city without any inkling that he had returned to the city. He was exhausted and driven wild by his years of fruitless search. He came very early in the morning, under cover of darkness. It was the foggiest winter in recorded history and Tokas wore himself out trudging the streets—as in all the other cities—looking for the likeness of Lekha in the ghostly figures huddled on the roadside in the murky lamplight. The invisible crows around the crumbling prison towers could be heard a long way off in the heavy dawn mist, which clung like tattered pennants to the granite ramparts. In that poor light one would have had to come up really close to just about make out the hairy, naked form of Tokas hanging from a noose of his own making from the scaffolding in the jail’s central courtyard.”

Sometimes, as in the above instance, the stories cultivate a dark undertone. People die under unusual circumstances but life for the remaining characters carries on.

Several of the stories are also narratives about people returning to their villages or connecting with new places which seem intimately familiar because of old associations or cultural affinities, one cannot say for sure. In “The Light, the Way”, Ishan and his father travel miles to visit the deathbed of Ishan’s grandfather, who has suddenly been catapulted to a god-like status in Kanjivai, an ancestral village in the Cauvery delta on the north-western sea coast, after it is rumoured that a leprosy patient was cured when he appeared outside the old man’s house. The drowsy village transforms into a booming pilgrimage town, with special trains diverted to it and millions of cripples, believers and incurables swarming to the house of the old man to be touched by his aura in the belief that they will be cured of whatever is afflicting them. The story bestows magical powers on the old, dying man that entire villages believe in. An excerpt from the story: “While a few surviving bamboo rhizomes in his backyard put out weak pencils of culms that would take more than a decade to attain their full former maturity, a gnarled dead tree before the veranda of his house began to glow at night with a secret light. By day it was home to termite and fungus. The emission of this heatless light drew swarms of fireflies that settled on the twisted branches of the leafless tree; and as the light emitted by the fireflies became synchronous, an awesome hush fell upon the sea of expectant faces, broken by the simultaneous pealing of all the temple bells in the area.”

As a reader, one is torn between the interplay of magic realism and practicality. This makes it difficult to box Ashok Srinivasan’s stories into a particular genre: Are they fiction? Are they myths? Whatever genre one settles on, there is no doubt they are creative and emerge from an imagination that does not believe in a world that is black or white but rather one that exists in colourful grey zones.

All the characters in Ashok Srinivasan’s fiction are, at least in part, some of the many people he himself is: “nothing but a construct of my obligations to other people”, according to him. He sees this life as “a shapeless thing of borrowed bits and stolen voices; only stories seem to have any form”.

Some of the stories from the collection have appeared in periodicals and anthologies. “Not to be Loose Shunted” was first printed in Stand, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom, and reproduced in the Sahitya Akademi’s Contemporary Indian Short Stories in English, New Delhi. “The Light, the Way” was first seen in Imprint and later appeared in Namaste. “Kashi” was printed in Katha : Prize Stories, while “Ex-votos for a Mask Maker” came in Helix and Luna, Australia.

Ashok Srinivasan dedicates his book to “the peoples of Palestine, Pakistan, the Tamils of Sri Lanka and Jews the world over—you who have borne more than your portion of hard reality, please share among yourselves this paltry enough illusion of an illusion”.

The 70-year-old debutant author was born in a village in Thanjavur in south India. He describes his first novel, Once Upon a Time, which is about to be published, as a savage fairytale for adults.