What makes a good anthology of short stories? This is a deceptively tricky question. If you had a bunch of random stories that were brilliant individually but had no common thread, or if you had some ordinary stories that were cleverly woven into a single theme, would either of these make a good anthology? It makes you wonder if putting the anthology together is as much a work of art as writing each story.
The Simla Paintings and Other Stories is a collection by Rita Joshi, a glance into the world of women, spanning colonial India as well as the modern day. The blurb promises their struggle in a traditional society, ‘the desire to resist authority’, and the ensuing ‘conflict and violence’.
There are six stories in the collection. ‘The Simla Paintings’ takes us on a journey to find the story behind a series of mysterious paintings by a young British woman; ‘The Goddess’ tells the tale of a couple of young girls forced to live as ‘living goddesses’; ‘Curtain Call’ tries to find out why a middle-aged, failing actress committed suicide; ‘The Case of the Missing Necklace’ is a traditional mystery story; ‘Driving through Delhi One Evening’ is a mish-mash of stories heard by a woman who gives other women lifts; and ‘The Awakening’ is a story told in couplets about a woman’s ‘search for expression’.
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- Each of the stories included in the collection has promise. There is intrigue and suspense, jealousy, friendship, desire, hatred and many more complications that make up the human condition.
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- Unfortunately, the stories are narrated in a stuporous monotone, in the manner of a (deathly dull) academic lecture. The style of writing has nothing of the art of storytelling in it; it’s more a series of sentences placed one after the other, and would have been better suited in an instruction manual.
- While each story has potential, there has been no attempt to structure it in a way to hook the reader, set up a conflict, create suspense or even build its way to a conclusion. Most of the stories are peppered with inane and unnecessary detail, and the flat narration (sorry to repeat) doesn’t help. It is also an extreme case of ‘telling rather than showing’.
- There seems to have been no attempt to edit any of the stories:
I was very sad about Padma. I told my mother about Padma. She told me to ask Padma over. I invited Padma to tea.’
(In case you haven’t got the point, this story is about Padma.) There are copy-editing lapses as well as typos. The decision to separate paras with a line space (and no indent) makes it seem like there is a section break after each para and is distracting.
- Despite the theme of the collection, the stories, all, seem to have been constructed within a thoroughly patriarchal framework.
- The last story is particularly bizarre. A woman with a new car decides to give lifts around Delhi to other women. Even if you ignore the fact that random women seem to hail her down on the street to ask for lifts, it isn’t clear why the lift-takers are vomiting out their life stories to a random (if kind) stranger without so much as a hello. One of these stories include a chapter-by-chapter description of three books the lift-taker had written!!
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- I shall refrain on commenting on the rhyming story as poetry is not my cup of tea.
Anthologies are tricky to get right.
A copy of this book was given me by the publishers, Heritage Publishers, in return for an honest review.