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Review

Hurtling through Time

Book review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: A Sense of Time

Author: Anuradha Kumar

Publishers: Weavers Press, 2021

A Sense of Time is a collection of short stories by Anuradha Kumar that stretch across different periods of time, hurtling through the past into the future. A two-time Commonwealth award winner, Kumar has authored thirty-one books, written for Economic and Political Weekly among many other journals and newspapers, woven stories for children under a pseudonym and has released two books almost together in 2021, the other being The Hottest Summer in Years amidst excellent reviews.

Reading Kumar’s A Sense of Time is akin to going on an unplanned journey which takes you to places most unexpected, the roads twisting and turning as you march on with bated breath, wondering where or what it might lead you to. You have to remain alert at all times lest you might miss something crucial to a story. The narrative style in each story is crisp, never faltering once. And the most striking thing is Kumar’s ability to conjure vivid imagery in the mind of the reader. The spaces that her pen creates might either be real or illusive, the enticement is decidedly palpable.  

The story, ‘Entomologist at Trial’, is a about a small town lawyer trying to make it big at High Court. He fails each time he bases his decisions on idealism. It is essentially a satire on the society which derides integrity and where being successful is far more important than being right. ‘Pandemic 2121’ is a love story based in an imagined future where the protagonist is separated from her lover, from a different planet, because of the policies of her planet’s government. Here the author addresses the innate human longing for things simpler and basic to human nature for sustenance amidst a pandemic like situation similar to that witnessed in 2020.

In some stories, Kumar explores the world of women from distinct backgrounds. Rekha from ‘Rekha Crosses the Line’ is a bored middle class housewife looking for ways to distract herself from her mundane existence and from the anxieties forced upon her by the familial expectations. It also explores the murky world of Godmans thriving in a society where people flock in the hope to find answers or to while away their time deliberately, knowing exactly what they are entering. ‘All the Way to the Twelfth Floor’ follows the events of a day in the life of Gauri who works as a house help for different apartments in a society. Kumar focuses upon the perilous circumstances women engage in this work sometimes confront, their apprehensions and the acts they feel obliged to do to for the sake of their livelihoods. It is also a peek into the apathy with which the society treats women working as domestic helps and employers’ lack of concern to the vulnerabilities they might be exposed to.

Dorothy Cries in the Busis the story of a journey taken by two women of different nationalities brought together by circumstances and their effort to connect with each other. It essentially focuses on their similarities as women dealing with their marriages and discovering a kinship in unusual circumstances. ‘Missing’ takes us to the world of a woman married to an army soldier and her efforts to keep the household functioning in the absence of her husband who rarely gets a leave from his posting. The story, however, also turns our attention to the meagre salaries the army soldiers earn and the psychological stress they endure which is seldom focused upon. The heroic welcome that Gudiya’s husband receives in the village upon his return on a vacation stands in stark contrast to the reality of his everyday life marred by difficulties to procure even nutritious food for his ailing father.

Some stories are also biting satires on the ways a society acquires and becomes accustomed to. ‘The Man Who Played Gandhi’ is a story of a man who gets invited to play Mahatma at various events. Das takes great pain to look like Gandhi, wear similar clothes, practice the same kind of gait and the way of spinning the charkha. He also memorizes Bapu’s speeches which he delivers to sometimes a rapt audience. As the years after independence progress, he realises people don’t really care about the Mahatma or his ways anymore. At one event, he is invited to appear only to be made to disappear again — as a magician’s prop. Through the course of this narrative, Kumar highlights the growing indifference of the citizens towards the ideals or edifice upon which India was constructed after a long struggle faced by the independence movement.

‘Big Fish’ takes us to the world of a refugee family living on the brim of society, its fears and vulnerabilities. It also showcases the apathy of a government towards such people whose sole existence could hang on the whims of officers given charge to identify them.

The titular story, ‘A Sense of Time’, has elements of supernatural where time gives the impression, of drifting and sometimes advancing, but traps the reader into a delusion with such alacrity so as to leave her mystified by the experience. The disorientation which Kumar manages to entice a reader into is at once intriguing and spell-binding.

Kumar’s writing clearly comes out as bold, experimental and confident. The pace with which she commences a story never loses its hold on the reader. Though there are a couple of stories where the ending may leave a reader wondering or wanting for a closure but author’s choice to keep them open ended emulates life as sometimes experienced in reality. Instances where you may come across people only passingly and may never come to know everything about them. But then this is how life is. This is the beauty of it, our ability to keep some experiences in memories and identify our own existence as transient, only fleeting for those we unexpectedly meet on our journey.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL. 

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Interview

In Conversation with Anuradha Kumar

She has a strange mix of oeuvres. She flits between young and adult readers — writes for all ages across borders, across continents and across oceans, in newspaper, journals and in books. She has written thirty-one books in all (a number of them with Hachette India), has won the Commonwealth awards for short stories a couple of times, written under the pseudonym of Aditi Kay, worked in the Economic and Political Weekly for almost 9 years and now lives in USA weaving stories of people around her and the worlds she inhabits. Meet Anuradha Kumar, who has already released two books in 2021. One is called The Hottest Summer in Years and the other that held me mesmerised has been published with Weavers Press San Francisco and is called A Sense of Time and Other Stories.

The unique thing about A Sense of Time is that it stretches through different time zones, the past, the present and the future. It has stories that linger and leave an aftertaste of nostalgia and the past or encapsulate you in the future in a world where living and working in outer space is as much a reality as is the recurrence of pandemics. It carries you into a dimension that Kumar builds with words, a unique space where her perceptions evoke a sense of the unusual, the sensual and the real. A strange story about a bus journey of an American in India which uncovers the commonality of experiences of women across continents, of a man who trains to be Gandhi, of Indians in America, of a strange case in court, of friendship between a child and a wanted man, a murder in the train which travels in a strange way through time — the titular story — and many more.

What makes these stories riveting is they make you feel like you have tasted the manna from the land of  Lotus Eaters and for some time, you forget your own reality and live with the characters. They stay in your head even after you finish the stories. Reading her stories was a pleasurable experience and finishing all of them created a longing to read a few more from Kumar’s pen. Without more ado, let us plunge into a discussion on Anuradha Kumar’s wonderland.

Tell us Anuradha, what spurred the writer in you? When did you start writing and why?

It was quite an accident. I did write when asked for the school magazine, but the more serious kind of writing, like now, came later. I remember being very bored during my time in the corporate world and writing down something. And I found that quite a panacea for boredom. And soon, writing became more than just a panacea, and more than just a response to things other than boredom.

But your ‘why’ holds so much more, and I feel quite pompous answering that. But the more one writes, and reads, there are just more questions. So, while earlier writing meant getting things like character, plot and narrative arc in place—things a good writing programme can teach you—now it’s a bit more about the answers you are seeking to various things, and writing is one way toward that.

How many countries have you lived in and how has this impacted your writing? How long have you been away from India?

For a bit more than a decade. And we have lived in Singapore, and in the US, first in Maryland and now in New Jersey. I guess I must be bothered by questions of identity, and belonging, but also about how the self changes in response to alienation and isolation and movement. Changes that can at times not be visible and emerge years later or in entirely different circumstances.


At a point, you wrote as Aditi Kay. Were these all children’s books with Hachette India? Why did you take a pseudonym and what made you drop it? 

Adity Kay is how I write historical fiction; for older readers especially the three books on ancient India’s three ‘big kings’ (Chandragupta Maurya, Vikramaditya and Harshavardhana). These have been published by Hachette india and the last of the three came out only last year.
When I began writing these in 2012, I was already writing more children’s fiction as Anu Kumar. My editor advised that a different name would help in not bringing up any ‘association’ with the other name, and the series could be presented as something unique by a new writer. 

Recently, you have brought out an unusual collection of short stories, A Sense of Time. What spurred you to write such diverse stories — each one could be seen as a stand-alone that leaves a lingering after taste in one’s being?

These were written over the last decade. The oldest was, I think, the first one, ‘The Entomologist at the Trial’—I realised I was wackier then—and the most recent ones are the Pandemic love story, and ‘Comfort Food’ — both these set in worlds different from the ones I had known even a decade ago. I just had them and kept returning to these stories, revising them occasionally, and then early last year, Moazzam, my publisher, suggested I send him some stories, so I revised them again. And this book happened, all thanks to him.

You have a unique story set one hundred years from now. What spurred you to try a sci- fi in the middle of stories rooted in our times or the recent past. Did you research to write the sci-fi or is it fully from your imagination?

It partly rests on a historical coincidence. The influenza epidemic was just a century ago, and I read somewhere that pandemics similar to ours will never really go away. Neither will love, nor will our attempts to find it regardless of the differences that exist between us.  

What kind of research goes into writing all these stories?

I hope to learn from what other writers do. But it’s always a learning process. Every writing is a way to learning how to write for the first time. I (try and) read a lot of the writers I admire Alice Munro, William Trevor, Yiyun Li, Michael Ondaatje, Yoko Ogawa, and others, and reading must go simultaneous with the writing that one attempts. Looking back, as I gathered up and revised, and at times rewrote all these stories, what I found interesting was trying to remember where I was, what I was reading, when I wrote the initial version. For years and months later, how I looked at this story was different, and I wanted to now rewrite and revise it a different way.

Few of your stories leave the conclusion undefined and the reader wondering about how the aftermath links to the narrative. It is a distinctive style and unique. But what made you do it and why?

The conventional, old-fashioned story had a beginning, middle and end. I still hope that for my reader/s, my stories will linger in some way. That they will remain with the character, the story, for a while, maybe a long while. It’s much like what happens in real life. People we encounter, some of them linger on in our memories for various reasons. I’d like my stories to be that way too.

Most of your stories are outside a world caught in the pandemic, how do you see life beyond this virus? Do you think the future will be like the past?

I wish I had a ready answer to that.

I think this long isolation has made us reconsider and rethink various things, especially how we relate to one another. Questions about who and what really matter have always been important, and maybe this time has made us think on these things that much more.

Your stories are rooted in different issues that affect man. Do you see a commonality in the thread that runs through the stories, like you did in Coming Back to the City: Mumbai stories?

I can’t say quite so easily. I am curious about how people see the world, in everyone’s unique perspective, and also in trying to see the person under the skin. In fact, this latter thing, about trying to get under a person’s skin sometimes stopped me from writing a story, because I sort of got knotted up in all  the complexities within us, and sometimes not being judgemental isn’t a good thing when writing a short story, so I had to work  that out too. Am still working this out.

You don multiple hats in writing — switching between young adult and adult fiction and beautiful essays on history in online forums. How do you juggle your time to do all of it?

I just write, I don’t know anything else. And the good thing is, if you shut the world out, all the craving for attention, and just focus on what really matters, one does get better at it – at writing.

You moved your publisher from India to US with this book. Is there a reason for it?

I’ve lived in the US for around 9 years now. And I still am published in India. Am truly a borderless writer, Mitali!

So, your writing spans continents and the Pacific. Isn’t that wonderful! Your stories are based mainly in India. And yet you have been away for many years. How does that add up?

I think I answered this above. It’s that these stories were written over a decade. And I guess one can never really leave one’s country of origin. The more borders one crosses, memories of homes left behind seep in, and these change in texture over time. I found this while reliving my stories. I am still finding this out.

What are your future plans?

To be a better writer, a better person. Oh, and a better cook!

Thank you Anuradha for sharing your fabulous journey with us.

This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Sense of Time and Other Stories.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Excerpt

A Sense of Time

Title: A Sense of Time and Other Stories

Author: Anuradha Kumar

Publisher: Weavers Press, San Francisco, 2021

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Dorothy Cries in the Bus

She spoke for too long on her cell phone. That was the first thing Malati noticed about the foreign lady seated in front of her in the bus. She had brown hair fading at the corners and she spoke English. She sounded American to her ears. All this Malati noticed in degrees, having been too hassled to really look when she’d boarded the bus. There were last minute instructions she had to message her husband, even if she was leaving him and never coming back. Having sent off her last message, she sat disoriented for a while. Her eyes strayed ever so often to the glass fronted dial of her cell phone hoping it would light up. But of course, it didn’t. He really didn’t care. Even now, when he should rightfully have been worried about her, whether she’d boarded the bus all right, what with the heavy rains all along the Konkan till Goa, he was with that harlot. Malati felt certain that they were at the temple in Mahalaxmi, necking on the steps, offering prayers, all in the vain hope that the gods would not consider them shameless. The hair on Malati’s arms stood up in anger and indignation. 

   Images rushed through her mind, a savage anger that made her long to jump off the bus, hail a rickshaw and rush straight home. But she wouldn’t do that, not yet. Let Ashok miss her. He would know how difficult it was to run things in the house without her. Soon he’d be calling her up, begging her to return. Malati smiled at the thought, the anger disappearing into the sunny silver of her changing thoughts. How many days should she stay away, she wondered. Should she wait for him to fetch her?  

   She sat up straight, adjusting her sari around herself. It was then she gave herself time to take in her surroundings. Was everything as it should be? Perhaps the air conditioner was on too high. When the conductor came around, she would ask for it to be lowered. She paid 500 rupees extra for an air-conditioned seat and she was determined to get her money’s worth. She looked around at her neighbors. Some students on her left and an old lady on her right, who was perhaps being shunted off to yet another set of relatives. Would that be her fate too? Malati wondered. And just in front, though she could not see her face yet, was that American. Everyone who moved down the aisle, to their seats behind, bottles of mineral water, groundnut or chikki packets, even bananas, in hand, turned to look at her. It made Malati curious too. But she didn’t want to crane her neck or peer over her seat because that might feed the other woman’s vanity, make her think she was special. Women were the same everywhere that way, even Malati knew that. In any case from the back of her head visible over the seat Malati could tell she dyed her hair. A golden brown shade that was, as she’d already seen with some gladness, already fading. 

   She would wait for her to get up. Passengers usually did that, most of them in the minutes just before the bus started. It was an inevitable and uniform act, that after sitting for so long patiently, in the silence that prevailed after the driver had slammed the door to his cabin shut, before the conductor began his sedate traipse down the aisle, to click away at the tickets extended to him, people always remembered some last chore. Minutes before departure, the stench emanating from the public toilets rose unbearably high forcing people to send prayers of relief up to the heavens once they heard the engine revving up. The woman in front though didn’t get up and in the silence broken only by the steadily advancing click of the conductor’s stapler, Malati heard her voice too. It had to be American, she was sure now. The accent Malati could easily place thanks to the serials she watched. 

   But then the woman sounded distressed as well. She was on her phone again. Malati tried her best to follow the conversation, but it was short, and she could only make out the bye-bye at the end. Malati did not miss the last sob in her voice. Languages could be diverse, but nothing could hide expression. The American was crying to this person on the other end. Possibly her husband. These Americans were free in their feelings that way. The serials showed them kissing and hugging each other, openly, and always for too long. It really embarrassed Malati, even when she was by herself.  

   From the gap between the two chairs, she saw the woman move her hands over her face. She wiped her tears away. Poor thing, Malati thought. Such a long way from home, she was. Malati wondered whether she should ask to exchange seats with the woman who sat next to the American woman. But next to her sat someone who looked to be one of those students from the engineering college. They always traveled in groups over the weekend and did not deign to speak to anyone. Just because they were more educated, so fluent in English and rich. Malati sniffed. 

About the book: 
The stories in A Sense of Time and Other Stories offer a range of themes and emotions. They speak of the challenges of being human, the unpredictability of the mundane, the strange attractiveness of the unfamiliar, and the constant quest to make connections and find love, even with an alien from another world. In ‘An Entomologist at the Trial,’ a small town lawyer’s ambition turns on his attempt to resolve a thorny case that falls amusingly flat. ‘Pandemic 2121: A Love Story’ and ‘Missing’ are stories, varied in theme, that yet speak of the loneliness of keeping love. How does one save a love when everything is conspiring against it, these stories ask. ‘All The Way to the Twelfth Floor,’ ‘The Bus and the Minister,’ ‘Big Fish, and the title story, ‘A Sense of Time,’ speak of the alienation and helplessness of the common person when confronted with a faceless, stony-eyed system. A world with rules set in time, where conventions matter more, leaves little room for those at the very bottom who have little choice but to wait endlessly for succour. ‘Rekha Crosses the Line’ on the other hand, is a more subversive account of a woman who gives in to her desire for some fleeting moments, only to wonder if it was really worth it. ‘Alterations’ casts a satirical eye on a wannabe scientist’s experiments as he craves world recognition. And finally, ‘Comfort Food’ and ‘The Man Who Played Gandhi’ speak of our quest to make sense of those long gone, those whom we have lost. Written in the span of a decade and more, these stories will hopefully stay on, linger in the mind, long after being read. These stories might make you see yourself and even others in a different way. It takes only a little empathy to allow the hidden to surface.       

About the Author:  
Anuradha Kumar is a prolific and established writer. A Sense of Time and Other Stories is collection of short stories after The Girl Who Ran Away in a Washing Machine and Other Stories (Kitaab 2016). She has written several novels, including three works of historical fiction as Adity Kay. Anu also writes pieces on history for Scroll.in. Her stories have received awards from the Commonwealth Foundation, and The Little Magazine India. She was born in Odisha, lived in various parts of India, Singapore, before moving to the US more than a decade ago. She now lives in New Jersey with her husband and daughter. 

Read here interview by clicking here