I read the stories in My Lawfully Wedded Husband and Other Stories back to back, one after the other. I know that’s not how short stories are ideally read, but I couldn’t help myself. Waiting to reach the end was agony. The way the stories begin, the plot appears to be deceptively simple, and most of these stories flow in a linear fashion, but the twist at the end will have you re-evaluating everything. Though I know of the famous Muzaffar Jang mysteries authored by Madhulika Liddle, this was my first brush with her writing. She has won many prestigious awards for her short stories and some of the stories in this collection have been published before.
In My Lawfully Wedded Husband and Other Stories we get a peek into the lives of people, who at first glance appear to be normal, until something sets them off and sends them tumbling over the edge.
Sum Total, is about a mild mannered working woman brought up by her mother to be a docile(=good) woman, quite unlike her boisterous and quarrelsome father. But she becomes a murderer. She narrates her sordid tale, telling us how it all began and her reasons for murdering each person. It offers an insight into the mind of a person who is psychologically unstable. I loved how the story was narrated, especially the twist in the tale ending. There’s no blood and gore, just an unreliable narrator, but the effect is chilling.
In A Tale of a Summer Vacation a little girl goes to spend a few days with her grandma in a picturesque village in Goa. She learns that people do strange things for love, even though she’s too young to really understand what love is. It is also the story of two sisters, who end up in different circumstances because of their ability, or lack thereof, to study people. The twist, when it is revealed, is jaw dropping. The laid back atmosphere in Goa and the surroundings are beautifully described, adding to the charm of the story.
A Brief Lesson in Trust is about an old classmate who comes to the rescue of Geeti even though she never really liked her in college. They haven’t been in touch, but Geeti asks for the unnamed narrator’s help because she believes her friend to be a good Samaritan. Though the story is a little far fetched, the ending was a surprise. I liked the way the story starts and ends with the same thought, “Trust is a dicey thing”.
We see the story unfold from the perspective of a little girl in Feet of Clay. She is fond of an old man, a hawker who brings baked goodies to her doorstep everyday. She waits for him every day, but one fine day he stops coming. Days later the police take him away, but nobody tells her what he is guilty of. Knowing that she will never see him again, she is inconsolable. I liked the way the story was narrated, subtle and understated. The author talks of a crime which is rarely talked about in our society. As the story ended, a question presented itself – Do we like (or even see) people for who they are, or just for what they bring to the table?
In My Lawfully Wedded Husband, a woman considers life with her staid husband unexciting, and has an affair, completely unprepared for the shock in store for her. I enjoyed this little revenge story where the meek delivers a mighty blow.
A couple moves into a new neighbourhood. Their friendly neighbourhood aunty, who resides in Number 63, helps them settle in. A frequent visitor to their home, she stops visiting once her relatives come to live with her. They begin to think something is amiss when they hear loud noises at night, and later, see her with bruises. The truth, when it comes out, is unexpected because we have been conditioned to view people a certain way.
On the Night Train is about the interaction between two people travelling overnight in a largely empty train. A young man who has travelled before on this train, acquaints himself with his co-passenger, and they get talking like strangers usually do. He goes off to sleep soon after but his words leave the other passenger deep in thought. The ending will leave you gobsmacked. While travelling we strike up conversations with our co-passengers and are absorbed in their stories within minutes. But how much of it is fact, and how much is fiction? The story plays with this idea.
The story Hourie revolves around a prostitute and her life in a whorehouse, where she lives with other prostitutes and a madam. In her profession it is rare to find a male friend, but she does. Her friend Kalyan seems to be quite taken with her despite her lack of beauty. The madam, who runs the whorehouse, entrusts Hourie with a heavy box around the time she and Kalyan become friends. Why has the box piqued everyone’s interest? The story gives us a peek into the lives of these women, but the outcome is somewhat predictable.
A snide joke cracked by a colleague about an office ghost has unexpected consequences in Silent Fear. Short and crisp, we swiftly reach the end in 4 pages. I enjoyed the story and was shocked by the ending, but it felt a little abrupt.
In St George and the Dragon, Mr George, a diligent and honest government employee is oppressed at the hands of his bribe hungry and lecherous boss, Ravi Behl. Mr George is sufficiently outraged, but doesn’t do anything about it. But when his boss eyes the woman he admires, he decides to teach him a lesson. The story’s unexpected sting in the tale ending is genius.
Anyone who’s ever been annoyed by a badly behaved moviegoer will take great satisfaction from The Crusader. A couple talks loudly; a man shouts into his phone in a movie theatre while the movie is playing. To their surprise, they are chosen as winners in a lucky draw, but their prizes are unexpected, to say the least. I loved how the story progressed but didn’t like the lines from the movie cutting into the narrative, though it was an interesting way of creating the atmosphere.
In the last story, The Howling Waves of Tranquebar, freelance journalist Rukmini is in Pondicherry for an interview with a movie star, who’s staying in Tranquebar (now called Tharangambadi). She meets her friend in Pondicherry, who is there on a trip with her mother. She accepts Rukmini’s invitation to accompany her to Tranquebar because she is bored. Fredrich, a hippie Rukmini had befriended earlier, tags along with them. She creates such an incredible atmosphere with her words that you are instantly transported to Tranquebar. I was waiting for the twist with a feverish anticipation having known how these stories are structured, and was amazed by the way it was delivered.
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- Madhulika Liddle is very good at creating a believable world in a few pages, making you care about what happens to the characters, and keeping you invested in the story enough to bother about the outcome. Her stories are clever and suspenseful, and a race from start to finish to uncover the twist.
- She deals with themes such as retribution, jealousy, backstabbing, adultery and murder with elan. Some stories are deliciously macabre and laced with a generous dose of black humour which reminded me of Roald Dahl’s The Landlady.
- She is a masterful storyteller with an observant eye and a knack for dialogue. The writing is effortless making this anthology immensely readable.