This collection of 15 short stories takes its name from the first of the 15.The stories cover a variety of themes, settings and characters and are set in three countries, United States of America where the author lives, India, his parental home and Israel where he spent a part of his life. His first book, a novel, A Play for the End of the Worldhas received international acclaim. A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness is his second literary endeavour. We will return to this eponymous first tale later. It is among the longest and most complete, and fulfils some of the criteria set out by Edgar Allan Poe about the short story as a literary genre.
Poe, as readers are perhaps aware, is regarded by many, particularly the American literary community, as the inventor of the short story as a literary form. It is necessary to mention that the debate about the short story has not ended with Poe and its essential character remains as elusive as ever. But all agree that a short story is not a story that is short. It is expected to achieve a single narrative effect. It cannot be longer or shorter than what it is.
To return to the book in hand. One of the recurring themes that binds the diverse narratives is intimate and familial relationship. The story ‘Lilavati’s Fire’ is a poignant example of a woman dealing with an empty nest; “...in those first few days when it seemed impossible to fill the hours — she had discovered two books from her childhood.” Aparna has to deal with her husband’s gradual alienation, her son Sanjay’s departure and her own loss of youth. How she comes terms with this new life is the core of the narrative.
‘When the Tantric came to Town’ is a delightful read. It is an immigrant’s story at its finest: Bengali mother in Kolkata, her beloved son and his estranged American wife in North America. There is a touch of magic realism in this story. Prem Chatterjee is a harassed school teacher in the US. His wife Julia lives separately. A tantric is sent by his mother all the way from Kolkata to solve his problems. To tell any more would be telling too much.
At the heart of some the stories is the child, loved and sometimes uncared, innocent and helpless. ‘Daisy Lane’ is one such example. A childless American couple, 12 years into their marriage arrive at an orphanage in a north Indian city. They have come to India to adopt a child. The negotiations were completed with Ravi, the caretaker of the orphanage, at a farmer’s market in Westchester “as if adopting a child were like buying the perfect orange”. The couple see the little toddler asleep in an unkempt crib. The orphanage is located in a lane over flowing with rotting garbage. Ironically, it is called Daisy Lane. Little children oblivious of their situation or fate, play with broken toys in this “boutique orphanage” called Day Care in Daisy Lane. It is a cautionary tale, cynical and dark.
‘Import’ is another child-centric story. A babysitter from India comes to America look after a child of a biracial family. The cultural and social tensions are immediately palpable but the child remains blissfully unaware. It is an open-ended story with Rupa the babysitter following the family “almost like a prisoner”.
‘A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness’ is based in Kolkata. It is a complex tale operating at several strands. There is Nikhil’s love for Sharma and his impossible longing to be a parent. Sharma is married, lives in a village and works in a foundry, Nikhil is urban, sophisticated, upper class. The initial pages describe their relationship with great tenderness, But when Nikhil appeals to Sharma about his aching desire to be a parent, “we should not tempt the gods”, Sharma warns him. The sequence of events and the denouement must be left unsaid. It would be unfair on the narrator to reveal more.
This review has attempted to give the reader a flavour of the stories and in the process examines some of the recurring themes. A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness is an eclectic work and cannot be pigeon-holed as immigrant literature. But these are eminently readable tales told by a narrator who is at times an empathetic observer who follows the characters from a distance and sometimes a confidant trusted by the participants in the heart of the action.
A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness
By Jai Chakrabarti
pp. 258; Rs.599