Book Review: Happy Birthday! and other stories
Author: Meghna Pant
Publisher: Vintage Books, Random House India
I first set eyes on Meghna Pant at the book launch of her second book, ‘Happy Birthday! and other stories’, published within a year of her much awarded first novel ‘One and a Half Wife’. Here was a young girl, a little uncertain as she faced the rolling cameras for an interview, checking with her publisher ‘was I alright?’. I got a first taste of her writing skills with an impressive reading by Suhel Seth of her short story ‘Gola Master’, which blew me away. Subsequently I read both her books. Meghna is probably well into her third book by now.
We got her book reviewed by two people, one a management guru cum publisher cum writer-in-the-making Vinod Kaul, and the other a senior academician and an English language aficionado, who lives surrounded by high bookshelves lined with the best writers, novels, tomes and some – Latha Palat.
Book Review By Vinod Kaul
The book is a collection of thirteen short stories written by the journalist, Meghna Pant. This is her second book; the first one is a novel ‘One and a Half Wife’. This is surprising, debutant writers more often start with short stories and then graduate to novels. This is just the reverse. However, Meghna seems quite comfortable writing in the shorter format and her style is straight forward and unpretentious.
The world has indeed shrunk and its denizens travel and live in almost any nook and cranny either by choice or compulsions. In the sixties and seventies there was the rush from India to the ‘roads lined with gold’ in the West. The deluge has not only abated now, there is even a reverse flow. Many are lost in the changing environment and travel between city and city as nomads in a borderless world. This has been the author’s own personal experience having lived in Delhi, Singapore, Zurich, Dubai and New York City. As the son of a father in the Indian Foreign Service, I too can sympathize with the rootlessness depicted in the various short stories.
The first story, The Gola Master, depicts the fault lines that a modern urban nomad has to contend with. A father visiting India after a long gap has to hide his childhood emotional ties with a fading ‘gola’ street vendor from his ‘modernized’ and emotionally distant son who prefers to serenade a well to do girl-friend and her rich father. Other stories suggest that the international boundaries are redundant and fault lines appear whenever we cross our own inner boundaries. The author does suggest that the new crop of young Indians are sold out on Western materialism at the cost of losing sight of our ancient social values.
The characters are easy to relate to as they are like us – middle class and lower, greedy, short of vision. The stories, however, end with a twist that brings out that streak of greatness that is in deep slumber within us or at the very least makes us aware of idealistic pursuits even if we don’t have the courage to follow through.
If the stories are easy reads, the closing twists are also somewhat predictable leaving us a little unfulfilled. There is an arousal of sympathy in the reader but no greater message is conveyed. Towards the end, the stories delve into the world of the spiritual and the fateful. This takes away from the consistency of a ‘harsh and dark reality’ theme in the earlier stories.
The author has chosen the title as ‘Happy Birthday’ which is the third in her list of stories. While this is one of the more nuanced stories of the author, using it as a title along with a design of flowers gives a very wrong impressions about the contents of the book and incorrectly conveys a theme around children and cheerfulness.
The book is excellent as a travel companion to fill those long waiting periods in the waiting halls.
Book Review By Latha Palat
Meghna Pant’s debut novel (2012) won the Muse India’s Young Writer Award and was short listed for many more awards as well. Happy birthday and other stories (2013) is Ms.Pant’s first published collection of short stories.
Meghna Pant has an odd number of stories, thirteen to be precise, in this collection of stories. The stories are as unusual as the number chosen. Here we find a variety of stories, extremely intriguing yet familiar and with a myriad characters. Each protagonist is different from the other, with an emotional or social disconnect, but the stories have a common theme of each one’s dissatisfaction with life and how to solve the problem each one faces. Is that why all the stories end with a slight twist, an abrupt twist in the tale which leaves the reader wondering, at times as to what the author intends the reader to feel or think. Take The Gola Master, or the unlikely titled Dented and Painted women for example. We are left with a definite question in our minds. Should we interpret it the way we think it is or keep wondering what the author intended? Is that a deliberate ploy?
Happy Birthday, the title story of the volume, leaves one with a strange sense of dissatisfaction and many questions unanswered. But Meghna Pant’s language is effortless and she conveys a vortex of feelings and thoughts with ease and conviction. Another interesting factor is that many of her characters are based in a foreign country or have spent time there, so we see a lot of the “NRI” thoughts coming in, a kind of distancing oneself from the place of their birth, India. Most of the characters do not seem to have a liking or any kind of warmth for the characters they are associated with, and this runs throughout the stories. Strangers meet and communicate for a brief time and depart, no long lasting relationships take shape. However, the old couple in Lemon and Chilli has a sort of understanding and comfort level with each other. But that’s where it stops. There are fierce emotions laid bare for the reader to assimilate and this can be seen the wonderful story of Shaitans or Clip and Cane. Each story reminds one of some unfinished wish, a prayer or a longing of some sort. So, if one expects a ‘happily forever’ ending in any of these sharply defined stories, one may be disappointed. The stories have exceptional protagonists who fight their own private demons but no one emerges victorious.
Meghna Pant’s set of short stories deserves a read definitely and it is recommended for the more discerning reader. There are various depths at which one can read these stories and enjoy this delicious array of extraordinary stories.