Book Review: Storywallah

Assortment of love Stories

Title of book: Storywallah By Neelesh Misra’s Mandali
Publisher: Penguin Books
Price: ₹ 250
Format: paperback, pp. 214
Year 2018

Assistant Professor, Department of English
Shaheed Bhagat Singh Evening College (University of Delhi).

Love has been defined variously across time and space, with different degrees of success in capturing the essence of it. But simply put, love blossoms. Gently, unassumingly, just like that, at the unlikeliest of places, with the unlikeliest of people, in the strangest circumstances and in most spontaneous and natural ways. An elderly couple grappling with the loneliness caused due to the death of their respective spouses, living with grown-up children, decide to cut across boundaries of religion and social stereotypes to find love and companionship at their advanced age, sans its typically youthful haste or rashness of actions. A middle-aged man living in a cocoon of a passionate love that was nurtured over letters with a pen pal but inexplicably snapped short at a young age, finally opens up to his wife to find complete acceptance and embraces love. A young woman comes to terms with her dead mother’s extra-marital relationship and unexpectedly finds solace and resolution in life. Passionate lovers turned warring spouses rediscover the magic of love, aided by a dash of parental guidance and a bit of distance which facilitates realization. Many such well-chosen, heart-warming stories exploring the myriad facets of love are on offer in the collection Storywallah.

Storywallah is a bouquet of twenty stories written by nine writers from Neelesh Misra’s famed Mandali founded by Misra in 2011, comprising of handpicked and closely-mentored upcoming writers. It is this Mandali which churned out the vast repertoire of lyricist, radio storyteller, journalist and writer Neelesh Misra’s extremely popular shows like Yaadon ka Idiot BoxThe Neelesh Misra ShowQisson ka KonaTime Machine and Kahaani Express to name a few. The nine writers whose works find a place in Storywallah are Anulata Raj Nair (four stories), Kanchan Pant, Jamshed Qamar Siddiqui and Manjit Thakur (three stories each), Umesh Pant and Chhavi Nigam (two stories each), and Shabnam gupta, Ankita Chauhan and Snehvir Gosain with one story each. It must be mentioned that all these writers belong to different age groups, backgrounds and professions.
The stories in the collection probe several themes including love and belonging, companionship and longing, memory and nostalgia, parenthood, community, and death. In the opening story “Wildflower” by Kanchan Pant, Nemat is shocked by her discovery of her dead mother's extra marital affair, and to put it simply, finds it hard to breathe. She finds her mother's request to “Please try and understand my relationship with Anirudh” completely baffling and she ends up climbing several “mountains of rage and disgust, of hatred and helplessness”. As she meets and observes Anirudh, the ice begins to melt and for the first time, she reads her mother's letter “not as her daughter, but as a woman”, and unravels the deeper connection of mind that had sustained her mother. While there is no action per se in the story, the gentle emotional movements bind the several threads of this poignant story.
In Umesh Pant's “Nails”, Simmi calls off her engagement from what looked like a picture-perfect relationship with Sumit for a seemingly frivolous reason: he chides her to prim her nails. The writer cleverly employs the eminently feminine stereotype of long nails to a surprising effect: Sumit’s strong reaction to her long nails gets Simmi thinking hard about the “correlation between long nails and goodness”, about whether the steering of her relationship was in her own hands, and where was the independent, chirpy and sprightly young Simmi of yesteryears. Jamshed Qamar Siddiqui’s protagonist, a divorced, single mother in “A Divorced Girl”, defies the stereotype of “Divorced women (don’t) say no” to come out of a suffocating alliance to reaffirm her independence and her right to live her own life on her own terms; she realises, “In one second, it felt as if all of society had compressed Gaurav’s image.... Like society, Gaurav too felt that he was doing me a favour by marrying me, and that in my gratitude I would do whatever he asked of me”. She chooses the path towards a different wholeness which does not need the crutches of societal approval or of binding herself beyond recognition.
Manjit Thakur’s “Satrangi” the reader finds the beautiful bride Satrangi’s dreams of a romantic wedding night shattered to pieces, the contrast between her and her husband Chandramohan is skilfully brought out: “There was no comparison. Chandramohan had small eyes, hers were big and kohl-lined. His nose was bulbous, hers was sharp… Chandramohan was uneducated and Satrangi had topped the whole district…She wrote poetry and stories, and everyone had known that she would make something of her life”. The poignancy of the story is enhanced with the discovery of an intense but mellow love blossoming with the ghost of the mansion, young Robert Clive. Satrangi’s growing affection towards Robert is naturally marked by a growing alienation with the world around her. The story depicts contrasting notions of life and death with respect to love.
Of her four stories included in this collection, it is “Amaya” where Anulata Raj Nair’s craft finds a complete expression. Amaya, a young widow of a martyred soldier, decides to live with her in-laws for the rest of her life. Her life is punctuated by loving memories of her husband’s love for her and the brief but happy time they had spent together: “When she was in his arms she felt no pain could touch her. Life was so carefree when he was with her”. She discovers that she is pregnant with a part of Prashant growing within her, and she weaves new dreams for the new life, “She sang sweet lullabies as she prepared for the beautiful days ahead”. But her desire to continue living her life the way he liked her to be is brutally dashed by her conservative in-laws: when she decides to wear a bright orange saree that Prashant had liked, she is reminded of her widowhood, “It was Prashant’s favourite, right? Well he is not sitting here now to appreciate you in it”. When her daughter is subjected to similar shackles of tradition, Amaya’s weakness gives way to a newfound strength and she decides to take her daughter away, “If I keep killing my dreams and wishes, who will keep (my daughter)’s alive? Prashant would never have wanted me to be sad”. The narrative flows beautifully through the different stages of Amaya’s life and moves the reader into a recognition of a young woman’s desires.
While all the stories are imbued with a gamut of human emotions and experiences making for a refreshing read, a few stories are marred by a weak narrative and feeble characterization. “Yellow Roses” by Jamshed Qamar Siddiqui is a crisp story of two passionate lovers who get married to discover gulfs between them, they had gone from being “strangers to friends, and from friends to lovers, and from lovers to husband and wife”, who had inexplicably stopped being lovers thereon. The story traces the rediscovery rather jumpily and the return of the yellow flowers marks the restoration of balance. This is also one of the stories where the flow is marred by weak translation. The repetition of “and from” in the above quoted lines is just one example. “The Seal” by Anulata Raj Nair talks about sparring lovers hit by societal conventions, “The Overcoat” by Chhavi Nigam gives fresh hope to a young woman with undecided feelings when she discovers her Bua and her English Teacher’s hidden love, “Ayesha” by Shabnam Gupta talks about a parent’s search for his abducted young daughter, while a muffler in “The Muffler” by Umesh Pant opens up new possibilities of love for an adventurous young woman stranded on a treacherous mountain slope. In “Umrao Jaan” by Manjit Thakur, the protagonist miraculously finds the courage to own up his love for a prostitute, and in “Our People” by Kanchan Pant, two inter-faith friends rediscover affection and trust in the backdrop of communal riots. “Evening Tea” by Chhavi Nigam finds an ageing woman and her distant daughter-in-law reaching a better understanding of each other through the ritual of the evening tea. One is left yearning for more layers and nuance in these stories which carry great potential nonetheless.
These twenty stories have been translated skilfully from Hindi to English for the first time by Khila Bisht. It is surprising that in an age where translations are becoming the order of the day, building bridges across languages and cultures, this volume carries no information about the translator anywhere beyond the name mentioned on the first page. It is impossible to not feel the poignancy of these stories which one may have heard in Neelesh Misra’s enchanting tones on several media platforms. Storywallah deserves to be read once to get a fascinating glimpse of a fast-disappearing world of old-fashioned love, belonging and its distinct flavour of life making its way through small-towns and big cities.

The reviewer teaches English Literature at a Delhi University College.
*An abridged version of this review appeared in The Sunday Pioneer Newspaper on 14th October 2018.

Kalyanee Rajan teaches English language and Literature at Shaheed Bhagat Singh Evening College, University of Delhi, India. She is a polyglot and her areas of interest range from Shakespeare Studies, Translation studies, Indian Writing in English, English Language Teaching, Classical Indian Poetics, to Dalit Literature. She completed her M Phil from Jamia Millia Islamia and is now exploring sociological implications of radical literature in the Indian context. She has published several articles in ISSN journals apart from co-authoring a beginner's handbook on Translation. Her book-reviews have been published in international dailies as well as periodicals. She is a member of the editorial board of a literary e-journal called: Lapis Lazuli- An International Literary Journal (ISSN: 2249-4529). She writes poetry in both English and Hindi, and is an avid follower of national and international politics. 

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