Conversations. The synopsis said a book with poems and short stories which reflect your own inner conversations. The problem with evaluating (or critiquing?) such a book is that most people have not read much of introspective stuff so if they have a taste for it they would find it good anyway. It is difficult to compare the book with an objective standard unless you have done enough introspection yourself. And as a corollary, if at all you are the kind that reads classic poetry and classic short stories (aka the minority) you run the risk of writing harsher reviews and having higher expectations. Since I have done all this and quite obviously over-intellectualized and over-philosophized every small detail of my life, I must admit at the start that if I rate the book 3, you can read it as 3.5..
Having said that, I must admit I started the book with very low expectations. After having been disappointed by too many Indian poets and writers, I couldn’t afford to start with a filled cup again. Luckily though, the book was good. It didn’t sweep me off my feet, it is not in my top 5, but it is good.
It is a collection of short stories, and not the red herring types. More introspective and down-to-earth- just as the cover promises. Writer Rajeev Nanda weaves tales that touch very important issues that each of us faces (more about them later) and the fabric does come out pretty well. Not too bright and fabulous but home-spun, comfortable and yet, wise.
(Note- It also has some poetry, but that's not too great. I will not comment further on the poetry and this review will focus only on the short stories..)
Rajeev starts with a minor Tagore-style story about dreams, then he moves on to a good discussion with/about God. A tale of a peaceful soldier and a predictable taxi ride later, there is the chance meeting between two travelers (Ya, it reminds me of “The Eyes have it” and “The woman on platform 8” !), and then we are invited to listen to four eulogies for a man. If you pause at this point and observe, he has actually started with child-like dreams and the maturity level grows into touching adult issues like chance meetings that are part-attraction part-affection and part just that-- chance! Then we step into bolder territory- extramarital (and internet) relationships! After seeing two-three such, we walk into a group of friends who take the courage to face the truth about themselves and the book culminates with a peek into a euphemistic (and partly recursive) conversation about God and religion. But for 2 stories about God, the rest are mainly relationship-centric. Of course, there is a lot of liquor flowing through the book, as are physical intimacies and sex. Is it just me or is the world getting more openly carnal lately?!
The plots are not entirely novel, but then the story here is not in the plot, it is in the sub-text. There are some stories with a minor twist in the end, but I hope they were not intended to be twists, because I could see most of them coming all along. Again, it is not a big deal because plot is not the focus.
What about the characters? Some stand out (Like Melanie in Intersection- I just loved her!) Some were intended to stand out, but they fade away (Like Kundha in The Taxi Ride - this Roald Dahl style story somehow did not achieve the full surprise int he twist!). There are too many similarities between the characters in consecutive stories- men who try to push their limits, women who are both smart and good-looking, married men who are attracted to other women, mid-life crises, cynicism (the sheer number of times the word ‘cynical’ was repeated in the book was daunting!) -- with so many similarities, many of the characters fade to form one vague outline and few (almost none) stand out. But again, maybe they were intended to be inconspicuous so that one could identify them with themselves..
What I liked about the book are the many questions and many alternate viewpoints it offers. Some questions are fresh in the way Rajeev asks them, like “does commitment make sense in today’s world” (The Rabbit Hole) and “Would God care if mankind destroyed itself” (Tête-à-tête), some old yet haunting- like “Do we lose something by worrying more about the destination than the journey?” (The Truth Club) and “What is the most important thing in life?” (Splinters) and the mother of all questions- “Does God really exist?” (Conversation). If you read the stories and paused in between to think about the viewpoints, the book would truly reconnect you to your inner conversations. (As the cover promises, again!). Of course, personally some of these questions have occurred to me before, but then that was part of the book’s promise, right? :)
The bad part was that very few portions were striking and made lasting impressions. And yes, Rajeev needs to work on creating unique characters.
Anyhow, my favorite stories were Tete-a-tete, The Rabbit Hole and Conversation. Overall, it is a good book if you want to think and introspect. Not great, but yes, commendable. Must try if you have not read this kind of stuff before.