Book Review: NO ONE, AN OUTSIDER by Vivek Nath Mishra

Vivek Nath Mishra
Hawakal Prokashon
2021. page-127, ₹ 250/-


Vivek Nath Mishra's second book of short stories is significant on many counts. As he outlines in his introduction, "It's (story writing) a massive responsibility because a book can change lives, give readers perspectives". Ten delicately written stories in this sleekly brought out volume by Hawakal Prokashon do exactly that- offered "perspectives"- of a world that surrounds him- trying to make sense of it, in myriad ways. As apparent from the subtitle, 'Varanasi Tales', all the stories are set in Varanasi, the modern-day Benaras. This ancient religious town drawing people from across the world seems like a world unto itself. A strange place which, it looks as if it hasn't moved for centuries, where time got stuck, or moves a tad slow; much like the bulls of Benaras streets who inch forward lost in their own thoughts. Most of Mishra's stories bore this typical unhurried pace of life, a laid back attitude giving a damn to the rest of the world. The city serving as the trope and its people, as represented in all of Mishra's stories, both mirror each other. A close reading of his stories throws up 'epiphanies' illuminating the reader's universe. Sample these: " We have all been given oars in our hands, and I wonder if only to fool us ". "Most of the time, it is truth that people speak with terrible timidity". "Perhaps, the world has everything but a soul. There is too concrete for a heart to thrive". Amidst the bewildering maze of life, just see how the writer evokes a sense of place, "...but in Varanasi, nobody is a stranger. Nothing seems foreign. It takes people nothing to make friends..". Each town has its share of eccentrics. In a story, 'Plunge' one finds an eccentric madcap who refused to be a part of the rat race, resigned his job and chose to go 'slow' and sit 'still' on the periphery of life enjoying his own insignificance.

Vivek Nath Mishra
"I needed more slowness to watch- to see things as they were- not to be fooled by the time". Just think of someone quitting his job "to see the garden in the afternoon and seasons changing over it". The story 'a fake lotus' portrays a girl carrying the phobia of lotus flower well into her adulthood and beyond, all due to a psychological trauma inflicted on her by an insensitive father. These stories seem to grow under the giant metaphysical shadow of Vanarasi.

While capturing the ' lives' in these stories, Mishra's prose is lyrically captivating, the details are dense and surgical but without any clutter, with sufficient breathing space, with proper illumination spread out evenly over people, spaces and things.

Stories like this and so many others are an alert meditation on what it means to lead a small town life, a complex exploration of its vulnerabilities. The story 'It's Time' debunks the popular belief that places of pilgrimage offer peace and tranquility to an agitating mind and hold keys to overall happiness. But, yes, it does one thing, Varanasi makes philosophers out of common folk: "There is no memory. The world is a shadow. It has no shape. We are only smoke rising from the pyre", a protagonist blurts out. Not just this one, there are so many choicest one-liners peppered across the book.
"How can you lie to a person who trusts anything?"( Flood of Silence)
"Her father's callousness was equivalent to the governmental indifference to its people." (A Fake Lotus) Mishra's stories are simple and yet flamboyant in the sense that his is a self assured and confident voice, whose exuberance of narration lies in his childlike curiosity to know and imagine the 'interior' lives of people surrounding him. His eye for details is remarkable: "The blue veins on the back of her hands were bulging out. The look suggested that she had not been able to say all the things she wanted to say."

The opening story 'Flood of Silence' poignantly portrays a newly wed girl getting disillusioned, just two years into the marriage and learning to come to terms with the situation, in slow acceptance of her dull and drab life, trying to convince herself, even telling lies to 'herself' that things are just so fine. The story ends with a piercing question, "Where the children of bad marriage go?" Mishra delves deep into the psychic realms of his characters to bring out and show the lives lived in the dark recesses of their minds. thus, his stories meander through the small, ancient town, with its small talks, small dreams of people going about their lives as if the rest of the world didn't exist. Many of his protagonists seem a world unto themselves leading a life of crashed hopes and sabotaged dreams, of marital discords, suspicions and adultery; reflecting a worldview unassailed by the churnings that dog much of the world elsewhere; a life, unadorned and somewhat rustic but utterly genuine in its flow. It's worthwhile to note that his stories bear no great insights, no bombastic words, no ornamentation- just simple stories told with impeccable sincerity. But, this 'visible' simplicity is also deceptive in the sense that it has so many layers, and beneath the surface narrative flows a deeper undercurrent of life.

DURGA PRASAD PANDA is an accomplished bilingual poet, translator and critic whose works have appeared in prestigious journals like 'Indian Literature', 'Debonair', 'Kavya Bharati', 'The Little Magazine', 'Gentleman', 'Stag Hill Literary Journal', 'Outlook' among so many others. Some of his poems have been included in significant anthologies like 'Yearbook of Indian Poetry in English 2020-21', 'Shape of a Poem: A Red River Anthology of Contemporary Erotic Poetry', 'Witness: A Red River Anthology of Dissent'. He has attended several symposiums including 39th World Congress of Poets, 2019. Most recently he has edited a Reader on Jayanta Mahapatra's life and works for Sahitya Akademi.

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