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Poetry to prose, Daruwalla proves mastery over short stories

Keki N Daruwalla
Keki N Daruwalla

A tongue-tied lawyer joining the freedom movement led by Gandhiji to emerge as a successful politician is one of the stories that may find resonance with the movement led by Anna Hazare against corruption in a short stories collection authored by Keki N Daruwalla.

Daruwalla, one of India's best-known poets, comes across as a gifted practitioner of the short fiction craft with "Love across the Salt Desert".

These are not exactly of recent origin. Of the 20 odd stories written over different periods, five have been from his first collection "Sword and Abyss", eight from "The Minister for Permanent Unrest" and seven from "A House in Ranikhet".

In the story, "When Gandhi came to Gorakhpur" Shadilal, a small-time lawyer, dithers over leaving his profession to join the freedom struggle when the choice is made for him in unforeseen circumstances.

"Love across..." talks about love across the border, about a youth who risks jail by clandestinely crossing the border in the Kuchch region to bring his beloved home to his village in India.

Daruwalla's poetic sensibilities come across in this story. "What would he not do for her, the daughter of the spice seller, she who smelt of cloves and cinnamon, whose laughter had the timbre of ankle-bells, whose eyebrows were like black wisps of the night and whose hair was the night itself," he writes.

Love across the Salt Desert
Love across the Salt Desert

Another story "How the Quit India Movement Came to Alipur" is a humorous account of how the best laid plans could go wrong. All it takes is for a stand-in butler to serve a delegation of political workers dog biscuits by mistake to turn them against British Raj.

"The Case of the Black Ambassador" could be mistaken for a mystery story but is actually about a small-time journalist cooking up sensationalist stories to boost the circulation of his newspaper.

He is arrested for libel and released when the events take place as if by prophesy.

Prophesy is also the theme in "Shaman", a story about the Bhotia tribe in a Himalayan village. Kartikey, from a family of "Shaman" (oracle) leaves the village bordering Tibet in the wake of the Chinese invasion in 1962 foreseeing that the war would forever close the tribe's across the border trade with Tibet. After 12 years, he returns to marry his lover's daughter.

Adultery figures in at least two stories. In "The Day of the Winter Solstice" a village priest is shocked to find his young and pretty wife in mourning at the funeral pyre of a rebel soldier who had forcibly occupied their house during the 1857 uprising.

The other story "Walls" is set in contemporary times with Malti, a bored middle aged housewife, inviting over a younger woman, Chaya, to her house only to finally catch her husband at Chaya's house when ostensibly he was supposed to be at the club.

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The author has managed, with a combination of gentle humour and prolific imagination coupled with subtle twists and turns, to hold the reader's interest.

In the introduction, Daruwala, a former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, quotes Latin American writer Carlos Fuentes that a novel is like an ocean liner while a short story is a boat.

"I spent a decade over a novel and learnt the hard way what a task it is to write one. Yet I do feel that once in a while boats have as tough a time navigating through shoal and marsh and river as a liner has traversing rough seas," Daruwala writes.

The 230-page paperback, published by Penguin India, is priced at Rs 299.

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