Book review: Mahesh Rao's short stories reveal him to be a master of time, place and emotion
The threat of violence is the thread that holds together these witty, moving, and powerful tales
One Point Two Billion
by Mahesh Rao
Like many of Mahesh Rao’s stories, Minu Goyari Day is a slow-burning fuse. We are in the imaginative universe of the boy next door, who is fascinated by volcanoes, the internet and Rasputin, and terrified of wetting his bed. Only by degrees do we realise we are watching him watch the unravelling of his mother, whose husband was blown to bits by a roadside bomb in Assam when the child was a year old. The man’s shoes were unaccountably untouched, and the boy, who has no memory of his father, confesses he thinks of him “mainly when he goes to Bata and sees rows of lace-ups and loafers gleaming on their brackets all the way to the ceiling”.
In the best stories in Rao’s One Point Two Billion collection, meaning shimmers between the lines; apparently humdrum observations and innocuous happenings, taken together, create a resonance that lingers in the air like a vibration. In The Agony of Leaves, set in a Nilgiri tea estate where there is nothing to do except watch the rain and play rummy, a man falls in love with his daughter-in-law. The inexorable accretion of the old man’s misreadings of glances and words turns a harmless bit of daydreaming (“A man my age must be allowed a last frolic in his head”) into tragedy.
The title refers to the population of India, and the book traverses, with a kind of dizzying thoroughness, the length and breadth of the country. The thread that binds the stories is not culture or religion or language but violence. In almost every piece, seemingly inconsequential flutterings build up to a storm of aggression. An old crone imprisoned in an internment camp in central India feeds her starving body with revenge; a spoilt rich kid in Delhi drowns her little step-brother-to-be in a hot tub; a wrestler in Uttar Pradesh leaves a friend half-dead; a mass grave is discovered in lands belonging to a feudal family in Rajasthan.
It sounds schematic, and a few of the stories trudge through predictable terrain. Most of them manage to sidestep the obvious, though, and the tired old battles in them are given a new edge. Sometimes it is just the odd comic detail that does it. In the Kashmir story, a hollow-chested, slack-jawed, timid young man carrying out the riskiest venture of his life is befriended with untimely and unwanted warmth.
I’m still wondering how Mahesh Rao, originally from Kenya, did it: did he get a really big travel grant that allowed him to live in all these places? Did he learn 10 languages? How is he able to inhabit the various cultural universes his book animates? Because inhabit them he does, and with the greatest ease. He has a ventriloquist’s gift for different voices, writing with equal conviction about a traditional wrestling school and a yoga institute for foreigners.
Witty, moving, and powerful, many of Rao’s stories combine atmospheric evocations of place with surgical examinations of emotion.