Like Smoke: A Collection



Like Smoke: A Collection

By : Anil Menon  /  2016

Like Smoke: A Collection

Like Smoke A Collection.jpg
Like Smoke: A Collection
Paro Anand
228 pages
Rs 250.00
ISBN: 978-0-143-33400-2
Penguin Books, 
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This anthology contains stories from Paro Anand’s earlier anthology, Wild Child and Other Flowers plus eight new stories. Best suited for a teenage audience, the stories are “issue-centric” and deal with grim things like Hindu-Muslim conflict, violence in Kashmir, childhood molestation, divorce, dislocation, and being a class misfit. Perhaps these are typical Indian teenager issues. However I suspect the “average” Indian teenager is more likely to be concerned with scraping through tedious exams while trying to look forward to life as a sepoy for some MNC. Either way, the stories are accessible, well-written and worth reading irrespective of the baggage one may bring to the volume.

Several of the stories have overlapping concerns. For example,'Those Yellow Flowers of August', 'Milk', 'Like Smoke', 'This is Shabir Karam', and 'Waiting' are about young lives thrown for a loop by sudden random acts of violence. Similarly, 'Shadow of Greatness', 'See You Shortly', 'They Call Her Fats', 'Jason Jamison and I', 'For Batter or For Worse' deal with overcoming body-image issues. 'Hearing My Own Story' and 'Wild Child' are about abused children. The story 'Like Father, Like Son' differs from the rest in that it deals with the supernatural.

My favourite story in the collection was 'Waiting', half of it narrated from a dog’s point of view. A dog with a loving master who one terrible day fails to return from work. The dog is trapped in the apartment and it is several days before it is rescued. It reminded me of an anecdote in Lev Razgon’s Gulag-memoir True Stories about a Russian neighbour arrested by the Cheka, leaving his starving bird trapped in the sealed apartment. Periodically, it seems, the dying bird would utter a piercing shriek. No one dared to break the seal and rescue the poor animal, but at the same time…

However, none of the stories in this collection end on a tragic or existential note. There was a boy who poked his eyes out with a compass. Then what happened, the terrified child might ask. He went blind; now stop waving that fork around and eat your salad. Anand’s stories don’t have this acceptance of dukkha. They all have relentlessly happy endings. Given the magnitude of the catastrophes that the young protagonists have to endure, the happy endings make the stories often sentimental and unconvincing. The lead story 'Those Yellow Flowers of August' suffered the most from Anand’s predilection to protect her darlings. Its beginning “I hate Muslims”, uttered by a girl who’s lost her father in a terrorist attack, is absolutely brilliant, and I doubt there’ll be a reader who won’t want to read the next line, next para, next page. But all the tension is dissolved when a cute Muslim boy kisses the heroine. The girl overcomes her biases, the boy moves on, presumably to cure the next accidental bigot, God is in his heaven and all is well.

Anand’s desire to reassure her young readers that there’s always hope works best in stories like 'City Boy' or 'See You Shortly' where the change in the protagonists’ views happens on account of the story rather than the author. Or like the final story 'Teenagers are Pack Animals' where there is no great change at all, but nevertheless we get a sense of what it is to be a good teacher.

Anand is a writer with a social conscience and the stories in this collection will comfort young readers who’ve had to endure great tragedies. They will also teach more fortunate readers to empathize with people less fortunate and think about concerns larger than themselves.

Anil Menon started out wanting to be an accountant, took a long detour through computer science and ended up a fiction writer. He’s the author of The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (Young Zubaan, 2010) and has a forthcoming novel Half Of What I Say (Bloomsbury, 2015).



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