Book Review | Surrealistic pieces crafted inexactly

The Asian Age.  | Shashi Warrier

Against this predictability and contrivance stand the occasional rhythm to the words, the touches of whimsy, a few flights of imagination.

Cover photo of 'The Inexact Room' by Salil Chaturvedi. (Photo by arrangement)

The stories in this collection of tend to be short: 22 of them fit into 184 pages, the two longest being 16 pages each. This is by no means a drawback, for a good writer can pack a lot into a few pages. As you read through the stories, bits of surrealism emerge, a sort of postmodern quality, which, too, is not a bad thing. Good imaginative fiction carries it easily.

But something else also emerges as you go through the book: a pattern. The sting in these stories is mostly in the tail. The very first story (‘The Bambai Run’), for instance, is about a slum lad trying to escape to the big city, “Bambai”, with two younger sisters. The lad, just eleven, has been afflicted with polio, and has an uneven gait. His sisters, nine and four, insist on accompanying him, driven by pictures of the big city in their minds. The three of them sneak out one afternoon, when their mother, who works in nearby houses of rich people, and their father, an auto rickshaw driver, are out. Their Granny, who’s supposed to keep an eye on them while their parents are at work, snores while napping after lunch. They flee on their mother’s precious new bicycle, which she acquired with great difficulty, and ride away into the unknown, only to be caught a few arguments later, by their Granny…

In ‘The Pink’, a man on his way to work one morning finds himself transformed miraculously, in a flash of pink, into a flamingo. His thought processes and opinions, though, stay human. Many adventures later, during which his attitude towards humans undergoes extreme changes, he’s dozing off when he hears a whispered conversation between other flamingos: a whole flock of them. And, when he tries to follow them, he makes a discovery that excites him: the miracle has changed not only his species but also his gender!

In the title story is a man who refuses to put a light bulb in a holder in his room, preferring instead to live out his nights in the dark, lit only by three bars of light coming in through the slatted window from a nearby street lamp. The rest of the room is dark and mysterious, and, to use the author’s word, inexact. But despite his resistance to changing the light bulb, he turns on the light switch every evening in a statement to the “neon-crazed city”…

Thus the stories become predictable: the endings contain a twist of some kind. Sometimes the author strains to put the twist in the tail, making the ending contrived rather than surreal, as in ‘The Bambai Run’, in which Granny mysteriously wakes up and outruns the bicycle! Against this predictability and contrivance stand the occasional rhythm to the words, the touches of whimsy, a few flights of imagination, and, perhaps the striving for freedom that run through the book. At the end of it though, one can’t help feeling that if only the writing had been good enough, the stories might have been outstanding...

The Inexact Room

By Salil Chaturvedi

Parragon (2022)

pp. 184; Rs 350/-