No Presents Please – Jayant Kaikini (tr. Tejaswini Niranjana)

Tilted Axis Press is a doing a wonderful job of publishing Asian fiction and thanks to them I have discovered the writing of Jayant Kaikini, and more specifically this excellent short story collection penned by him. Jayant Kaikini is a well-known Kannada poet and prose writer, having won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 974. While he is now settled with his family in Bangalore, he worked in Mumbai for two decades and in this collection of stories has perfectly captured the flavor of the city. 

No Presents Please is a wonderful, unique collection of 16 stories that encapsulate the essence of Mumbai, of what it represents to its inhabitants, many of them small-town migrants, drifters or ordinary middle class families, whose struggles don’t typically make for screaming headlines. It is a vivid portrayal of city life, a sense of place evoked by exploring the identities and the spirit of Mumbaikars.

The stories “Interval” and “Crescent Moon” both depict individuals who feel constrained by their present circumstances and yearn to escape, and one day very suddenly actually do so. In “Interval”, twenty-year old Manjari Sawant and her beau Nandkishore Jagtap alias Nandu decide to secretly elope. Manjari stays in a chawl next to the ice factory in Thane, while Nandu is an attendant at Malhar Cinema. Manjari is fed up of a life that revolves around endless cooking, cleaning and washing and dreams of a better life, a view shared by Nandu who is bored of his daily routine too. On the day they elope, both put into motion their dreams of starting a new life but in unexpected ways.

In “Crescent Moon”, Pandurang Khot is a bus conductor stationed at Ghatkopar Depot. Every year during Ganesh Chaturthi, Pandurang travels to his village to participate in the festivities and to immerse himself in the revelries and the bonhomie of the villagers. But when his superior refuses to grant him leave this year, Pandurang is beside himself with rage. He starts the bus seemingly giving the impression that he is on his everyday rounds but then on the spur of the moment makes a detour and drives the bus all the way to his village.

“Dagadu Parab’s Wedding Horse”, one of my favourites in the collection, brims with absurd comic elements. The action begins on Mulund’s LBS Road where Dagadu, the bridegroom, in all his wedding finery is perched on a starved-looking brown horse, moving along with the procession. We learn that the horse has been stolen from one of the stables and when they reach the Shivaji Maharaj statue all hell breaks loose. The sound of a motorcycle screeching frightens the horse and he gallops away furiously taking Dagadu along with him, while all the members of the procession begin hunting for the horse and the bridegroom, but in vain.

The best of the lot is “Mogri’s World”, a story delving into the life of Mogri, a feisty, street smart woman who finds a sense of purpose in the unlikeliest of places – an Irani café. Mogri’s parents are construction labourers in Mumbai living a hand to mouth existence. Not believing in sticking to a family, Mogri’s father has another wife and children residing faraway in their village, as well as a mistress in another part of the city. Like her mother, Mogri grows up with this knowledge without really questioning it. But Mogri is unlike other women in many aspects. She does not care for marriage which she defines as nothing more than moving from one dingy room to another and decides to take up a job instead. Beginning as a waitress in a bar serving drinks to men who disgust her, Mogri moves on to an Irani restaurant in Town, where her work and the genteel ambience instill in her sense of peace and contentment.

In the four hundred square feet of the Light of India (the Irani café), the light played hide and seek. The knots in Mogri’s mind loosened. She felt her anxieties melting away in spite of not talking to anybody about them.

The people who came to the restaurant seemed to be there for the open air and the light. Some would sit for hours, with a bottle of beer and a book. Sometimes friends, and lovers, would sit there in silence, also for a long time, sipping endless cups of tea…There was a sort of peace here beyond the bustle of the street, so much so that the few who came in intent on making a racket were taken aback at the quiet atmosphere and left as quickly as they could, to look for another restaurant.

In “Tick Tock Friend”, Madhubani is participating in a TV quiz show which is being filmed in the studios located in a hospital. Winning the prize would lead to circumstances considerably improving for her and her father, but the prospect of the relentless barrage of questions daunts her. She experiences some solace in the hospital environs where despite people’s endless worries about health, there is also a display of compassion not found in a competitive environment.

Hospital canteens have a uniquely mellow atmosphere, the kind of greedy anticipation found in regular restaurants and canteens, the subconscious smile with which an expectant customer greets the waiter bearing a tray on which rests a dosa or a large puri – you didn’t see that here. What you saw were people filling thermoses for the patients under their care, grabbing a quick bite while wondering anxiously whether the duty doctor might come around when they were away in the canteen.

“A Truckful of Chrysanthemums” is a heartbreakingly chilling look at the mistreatment meted out to a maid who has worked at a family home for most of her life, while the story “Water” takes place during the feverish Mumbai rains, a time when roads are flooded, people abandon trains to wade in knee-length water, and traffic comes to a standstill, but there’s still an air of camaraderie all around.

In No Presents Please, then, Mumbai is not depicted as a city or a place defined by its iconic landmarks – Gateway of India, The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Jehangir Art Gallery and so on. Rather, what we see before us is Mumbai as an idea, its undying spirit and what it can enable its inhabitants to dream of and aspire towards. There are several moments when they grapple with existential anxiety, but during other times also discover kinship with strangers. It’s a city where the surreal meets the everyday and possibilities open up unexpectedly.

We find ourselves in the milieu of chawls, kholis, Irani cafes, bars, old cinema halls, local trains…the posh and affluent areas of South Bombay and Bandra find no place here. A lot of the objects depicted spur a feeling of nostalgia for the 90s era – Gold Spot bottles, Pan Parag, video cassettes, kala khatta sherbet and so on.

The torch of No Presents Please burns brightly on people living on the margins of society or ordinary people going about their day to day lives – stunt artists, bus drivers, mujra dancers, nine to five office goers to name a few. We are offered a glimpse into the lives that unfold in their small, humble settings, their endless drive for a better life which they believe is possible in the vast, teeming, bustling and sometimes cruel metropolis of Mumbai.

These are stories that reveal a range of facets – poignant, heartbreaking, absurd, comic – and gradually work their magic on you.

“Whatever you might think, sir, once one has stayed in Mumbai for a while, and one comes back after a journey, there’s a strange sense of security. Look at the taxi and auto chaps here, they always return your change, however little it is. There’s something that welds us all together here.”

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings – Penelope Mortimer

I was greatly impressed with Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater when I read it a couple of years ago – a novel about a woman on the verge of a breakdown feeling trapped by motherhood and having to contend with an insensitive husband. Despite the subject matter, it didn’t come across as bleak and credit goes to Mortimer’s wonderful writing style and her penchant for wit. A lot of these themes are also prevalent in Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, her short stories offering, which I thought was brilliant.

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is a collection of twelve, unsettling, edgy, perfectly pitched tales that disrupt the perceived bliss of marriage and motherhood. It’s also an uncanny depiction of the horrors lurking in the banality of everyday life.

The collection opens with a bang – the first story “The Skylight” is a masterclass in suspense and tension highlighting the interplay between the burden of motherhood and a mother’s protective instinct towards her child. Our unnamed woman narrator is travelling in a taxi with her five-year old son Johnny to a farmhouse in the French countryside. Right from the beginning, her discomfort is apparent to us – the blazing heat is too much to bear inducing a state of torpor in both her and Johnny, and she is filled with forebodings on the house she has rented for their stay. Her husband and daughters are to join them later on.

Now it was real. She was inadequate. She was in pain from the heat, and not a little afraid. The child depended on her. I can’t face it, she thought, anticipating the arrival at the strange house, the couple, the necessity of speaking French, the task of getting the child bathed and fed and asleep. Will there be hot water, mosquitoes, do they know how to boil an egg? Her head beat with worry. She looked wildly from side to side of the taxi, searching for some sign of life. The woods had ended, and there was no relief from the sun.

Her worst fears are confirmed when they reach their destination – the house is locked, the owners are nowhere in sight, and she does not have the keys. Amid a creeping sense of dread, the woman struggles to find a way into the house and chances upon the skylight. The problem is that the opening is too narrow for her to wiggle through it, but she surmises Johnny can slide down without a hitch. She lowers Johnny down the skylight into the attic with precise set of instructions of what he has to do once he is inside the house. But as the minutes begin ticking, Johnny fails to appear. This is a brilliant story where Mortimer toys with the reader’s emotions with the result that we end up being as much as a nervous wreck as the mother.

The title story “Saturday Lunch with the Brownings” is another first rate tale that depicts a seemingly innocuous family ritual where tensions simmer beneath an outwardly calm surface. Madge Browning and her husband William find themselves arguing continuously about their children – William’s real daughter Bessie from a previous marriage, and his step-daughters Melissa and Rachel (Madge’s children). Madge wants the Saturday meal to go off smoothly, aiming for the lofty ideal of a perfect family enjoying a meal together, but William is constantly undermining her efforts until it all culminates in a dramatic confrontation.

If we can get through lunch, Madge thought, we shall be all right. She beamed at him (William) encouragingly as he picked up the carving knife and fork. It was at times like this, when they were all together and relatively peaceful, that she almost felt they might make a success of it. She had given William roots, set him at the head of a family table, given him something to work for; she had given her own children a home and a father. The picture was as clear, as static and lifeless as a Victorian bliss of domestic bliss. It was her ideal, doggedly worked for…This is Saturday Lunch with the Brownings.

In “Little Mrs Perkins”, Mortimer once again deftly manages the reader’s perceptions lulling them into a false sense of security only to later pull the rug from beneath their feet. The story takes place in a maternity ward where the narrator has just delivered a baby. She observes the young Mrs Perkins being wheeled into the same room onto an adjacent bed. Mrs Perkins is in a delicate condition, on the brink of a likely miscarriage, and has been advised absolute rest. In the hands of the doctor and her caring husband, Mrs Perkins is put to ease and the narrator (as well as the reader) is led to believe that all is well, until the story takes a nifty turn to reveal Mrs Perkins true intentions or priorities.

“Such A Super Evening” is another stunning piece with a clever viewpoint on the nuances of married life, while children feature prominently in many of her stories with their unique perspectives on the complex world of adults. In both “The King of Kissingdom” and “The White Rabbit”, Mortimer displays an expert grasp on the interior world of children, ridden with guilt and insecurity, who are grappling with the fractured relationship of their parents.

Some of the essential themes running through these stories are – infidelity, marital discord, family life which more often than not becomes a fraught battleground, unwanted pregnancies, a sense of entrapment in motherhood, using children as means to gain an upper hand in arguments with spouses and so on.

Mortimer’s vision is singular and her sharp, shrewd portraits of the minutiae of family life that can unexpectedly erupt into volatile drama make each of these stories utterly compelling. For a lot of the material on display in these rich layered tales, Mortimer drew from her own life experiences. She once quipped, “I mined my life for incidents with a beginning, a middle and an end, finding even the dreariest of days contained nuggets of irony, farce, unpredictable behaviour.”

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, then, is a marvelous collection – each piece is like a finely chiseled, perfectly honed miniature whose beauty and horror lingers in the mind long after the pages are turned.

Last Stories – William Trevor

William Trevor’s Last Stories is an exquisite collection of tales featuring lonely lives, individuals resigned to a quiet existence, love not panning out as desired, and finding contentment in small things.

As tends to be the case with any short story collection, some of the stories were very strong, while others failed to hit the mark. For the purposes of this review, I will focus on the ones that made an impression on me because in a sense they also form the essence of the whole collection.

One of my favourite stories, At the Caffé Daria, is a tale of two women – Anita and Claire – good friends once upon a time but no longer. Anita is now a publisher’s reader and frequently visits Caffé Daria as part of her daily routine. On one of these visits, she runs into Claire who informs her that her husband recently died. The death of Claire’s husband brings back a flood of painful memories, as Anita recalls a past tarnished by betrayal. The reader is made aware of Anita and Claire’s friendship when they were dancers in a troupe called Fireflies. During this period, Anita agrees to marry an older man, who declares his undying love for her, and chooses to settle down. But while she is content with married life, her husband abandons her for Claire, leading to a rift in their friendship. When the man dies, in a fit of loneliness, Claire seeks out Anita, but will the latter find it in her heart to let be bygones be bygones? This is a brilliant piece on how betrayal can tilt the delicate balance of friendship, on how loneliness and anger afflict the two women as they cope with abandonment.

Claire cherishes in her lonely solitude what Anita, in hers, too late embraces now: all that there was before love came, when friendship was the better thing.

What is the price one is willing to pay to harness talent? At the heart of The Piano Teacher’s Pupil, is our protagonist Miss Elizabeth Nightingale, a woman in her early fifties, “slender, softly spoken, with a quiet beauty continuing to distinguish her features.” Miss Nightingale, now all by herself, gives music lessons in the same rooms where she spent most of her childhood and also carried out her secret love affair with a married man. Her parents are now no more, and the affair fizzles out, but Miss Nightingale is not a bitter woman, for “after all there was the memory of a happiness.” When a child prodigy begins to take piano lessons from her she is dazzled by his talent, until, she realizes he is equally adept at stealing objects from her room.

She had sought too much in trying to understand how human frailty connected with love or with the beauty that the gifted brought. There was a balance struck: it was enough.

In Mrs Crasthorpe, the titular character feels profoundly humiliated because she is the sole mourner at her husband’s bleak funeral, in a village he requested, though she does not know why. But, Mrs Crasthorpe is a woman of secrets herself, and believes that although she married her husband for money and was blessed with a comfortable life, she couldn’t really blossom in their union. Thus, she perceives his death as an opportunity for her to rise in life.

I shall relish my widowhood. I shall make something of it.

Her journey through grief and attempting to forge a new life is contrasted with that of another character called Etheridge. Etheridge has also experienced tragedy with the death of his wife, who he loved dearly, but he finds solace in work, reinventing himself and somehow moving on.

Etheridge’s path occasionally crosses with Mrs Crasthorpe’s, though he wishes it didn’t, and this uneasiness is also mirrored in the reader. This is an excellent, nuanced tale of two people, who grapple with a major upheaval in their personal life, and yet what fate eventually has in store for them is diametrically opposite. 

In An Idyll in Winter, a teenage girl, Mary Bella, living in a big house surrounded by a farm, finds her imagination fired up by her tutor, Anthony, an older man. An attraction that does not play out then, Anthony alters his career path to become a cartographer, marries and settles down with two daughters. A chance visit to the farm, several years later, kindles the romance between Mary Bella and Anthony, and the latter proceeds to end his marriage. Fear grips both the women in the story as they are bound to a man, who despite his best intentions, ends up equally hurting them.  

With that simplicity a loneliness began for Mary Bella that was more than loneliness had ever been before. Belittling the solitude she had so often known, it was mysterious too, coming as it did while she still had the companionship she valued more than any other.

The story Two Women, begins thus: “Cecelia Normanton knew her father well, her mother not at all.” Cecelia is aware of her mother’s absence during her childhood, but is plagued with doubt whether she is dead. This feeling of uncertainty persists, and her father is reluctant to make things clear. Meanwhile, a new life beckons for Cecelia. Once she is ensconced in a boarding school, where she begins to blossom after initial hiccups, Cecelia notices two women who are possibly stalking her – they are always present at her hockey matches and other events. Who are these two women and will they shed some modicum of light on Cecilia’s origins?

This flimsy exercise in assumption and surmise crept, unsummoned, into Cecelia’s thoughts and did not go away. Shakily challenging the apparent, the almost certain, its suppositions were vague, inchoate. Yet they were there, and Cecelia reached out for their whisper of consoling doubt.

Last Stories proves that Trevor is truly a master of the short form. His writing is brilliantly understated and nuanced, the stories abound with sensitively portrayed characters.  He crafts his sentences with care, and every piece crackles with aching poignancy.

Not all the people in his stories are lonely though. They are certainly alone, but some find peace in routine and the life they have shaped for themselves.  Others are lonely creatures not only because they have no one that matters, but also when they are in relationships. Some are marginal people, on the fringes of life, like the dead woman in The Unknown Girl, whose life is summed up in a sentence – “Between the childhood and the death there was a life that hadn’t been worth living.” Others like Mary Bella are beset by persistent dread of losing the love they possess.

What is also remarkable about these stories is how unpredictable they are. A story will coast along in a certain direction, and the reader might form some assumptions, only to realize that it has shaped up in completely unexpected ways. A tincture of melancholia seeps into each of these tales, punctuated by ambiguities and moments of creeping doubts. Last Stories, then, is a fitting finale to Trevor’s illustrious writing career.

Two Faber Stories – Edna O’Brien & Claire Keegan

The Faber Stories is a wonderful series of short books devoted to either a single story or a couple of them by an author. They are akin to wine tasting – you want to sample a sip before deciding whether to go in for the bottle.

On a recent weekend getaway, I packed two of them in a suitcase – Paradise by Edna O’ Brien and The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan. Honestly, I had never heard of Claire Keegan before and was dimly aware of Edna O’Brien. Both the writers are from Ireland and these stories are a great reminder of how rich Irish literature really is.

Both the stories come in at around 60 pages in these Faber Stories editions. And both have done their job of piquing my interest in trying out more of their work in the future.

Since these stories are short, I intend to keep the reviews brief too.

Paradise – Edna O’Brien

In Paradise, the protagonist – an unnamed woman – is on vacation with her millionaire lover, who is also not named. They are holidaying in the countryside and staying in his mansion. They are not alone though. Guests stream in and out on all days and the couple are required to entertain. It is a milieu of wealthy people. 

At once we are made aware of the woman’s discomfort in these surroundings. There is this unspoken code of the super-rich she is pressured to confirm to, which causes her great distress. It is mainly evident in the swimming lessons she takes everyday despite the fact that she enjoys neither the sea nor the water.

To the rest of the guests, swimming is akin to any other activity that naturally comes to them. Thus, the woman is burdened by the expectations placed on her of becoming a swimmer when the lessons end in the final days of their stay.

‘Am I right in thinking you are to take swimming lessons?’ a man asked, choosing the moment when she had leaned back and was staring up at a big pine tree.

‘Yes,’ she said, wishing that he had not been told.

‘There’s nothing to it, you just get in and swim,’ he said.

How surprised they all were, surprised and amused. Asked where she had lived and if it was really true.

‘Can’t imagine anyone not swimming as a child.’

‘Can’t imagine anyone not swimming, period.’

Meanwhile, the sex with her lover is great but she feels that when it comes to intimacy they are not yet on the same level; he is particularly reticent. Given that he already has had a few marriages under his belt, everyone around is pretty sure that his relationship with the woman is not going to last either. Painted in nuanced scenes, the strength of their relationship is something the woman begins to question too.

She knew she ought to speak. She wanted to. Both for his sake and for her own. Her mind would give a little leap and be still and leap again; words were struggling to be set free, to say something, a little amusing something to establish her among them. But her tongue was tied. They would know her predecessors. They would compare her minutely, her appearance, her accent, the way he behaved with her. They would know better than she how important she was to him, if it were serious or just a passing notion.

Paradise then is a gorgeous story about the pressures of meeting expectations imposed by society, the differences in class, and how the wealthy have invisible barriers around them that are difficult to break in order to be accepted.  There’s a sense of dread throughout the story that keeps you on the edge – will the woman survive the ordeal or will she snap?

Edna O’Brien is an assured writer and her prose drips with elegance. Luckily, I do have a collection of her short stories Love Object sitting on my shelves, so I am eager to savour them too, hopefully sooner rather than later.

The Forester’s Daughter – Claire Keegan

While in Edna O’ Brien’s Paradise, the spotlight is on a mansion peopled with the moneyed class, The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan is set in the heart of the Wicklow countryside in Ireland. The protagonist is Victor Deegan, a hardworking, sincere farmer who is struggling to make ends meet and hold on to his house (both literally and figuratively).

When Victor’s father dies and his siblings express no interest in taking over from him, Victor inherits the house. He takes a loan against the property to buy out his brothers’ share so that the place now truly becomes his own. But being indebted has its own share of ills, and Victor is under constant pressure to ensure that there is a steady income to pay off the loan after a certain number of years while at the same time keeping the expenses minimal. The prospect of a comfortable, retired life is what keeps him going.

Wanting to settle down, Victor persuades country girl Martha to marry him. Martha is unsure at first, but seeing that she has had no good marriage proposals, succumbs to his demands.

It is clear at the outset though that the marriage is an unhappy one. Both fail to live up to expectations that they have from their union.

Before a year had passed the futility of married life struck her sore: the futility of making a bed, of drawing and pulling curtains. She felt lonelier now than she’d ever felt when she was single. And little or nothing was there to around Aghowle to amuse her.

The couple go on to have three children – two sons and a daughter. To Victor, the sons are a disappointment. The eldest has no interest in farm life and yearns to move to Dublin when the right opportunity comes along. The second son is a simpleton. It is the daughter who has the intelligence and brains. While her presence somehow makes Victor uncomfortable, she is Martha’s favourite child.

One day, Victor comes across an abandoned gun dog when out in the fields. Having no clue who the owner is he takes the dog home and gives him as birthday gift to his daughter. She is thrilled. To her this is evidence that her father loves her.

And so the girl, whose father has never given her so much as a tender word, embraces the retriever and with it the possibility that Deegan loves her, after all. A wily girl who is half innocence and half intuition, she stands there in a yellow dress and thanks Deegan for her birthday present. For some reason it almost breaks the forester’s heart to hear her say the words. She is human, after all.

But Martha is not happy, she knows better. She is filled with foreboding that it is all going to end badly.

And while the story hurtles towards its sad but inevitable conclusion, there is nevertheless a ray of hope expressed in the possibility of new beginnings.

The Forester’s Daughter then is a wonderful, riveting tale of the consequences of an unhappy marriage and how it affects others around them, particularly the children. It is also a statement on the mundaneness of everyday life and the constant struggle to keep head above water financially, all of which can have a crippling impact on any family unit.  Is there any meaning to it all?

I don’t have any Claire Keegan on my shelves and a book buying ban means I don’t see reading more of her work anytime soon, but I will be looking out for her books later.

All in all, two excellent reads from the Faber Stories collection!

Sudden Traveller – Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall writes exquisitely. Of this I was convinced when I first feasted on her novel Haweswater, a passionate love story set in the Lake District, which also examines the impact of dam building and consequent displacement of the people in the valley. Interestingly enough, the only other novel I read since then is her last one, The Wolf Border – a novel which I thought was good but not great, although I do recall some bits of it simply because the central premise was so original.

When it comes to the short stories though, Sarah Halls’ writing takes on a whole new level. She has now released a total of three collections – The Beautiful Indifference, Madame Zero, and now Sudden Traveller. All are miniature works of art.

Faber & Faber Hardback Edition
The front cover image is from ‘Mother and Daughter’, 1913 by Egon Schiele

Sudden Traveller is a slim book at 124 pages and comprises seven stories.

The first story ‘M’ has shades of ‘Mrs Fox’, of her earlier collection Madame Zero. In ‘M’, the protagonist is a woman and a lawyer who decides to do pro bono work for a shelter. This is a shelter for women – beaten down, abused, and out of luck. Her efforts are in vain though, as the shelter is eventually demolished.

But while this avenue shuts down, another one opens up, as the central character undergoes a physical transformation.  

The last decision of life, and the monetary drop, a first rush, like the waterfall’s crest, the brink of climax. For that second, such kinetic beauty, trust in nothingness. Then – a crack behind her, huge and dull and viscose, as the wings extend, unfurl and are filled, begin her flight. Suddenly, the city is far below, turning slowly in relied, roadways, estates and parks, contoured and furrowed and rapidly passing, a new landscape, a map of the hunt.

She becomes a mythical creature at night who can fly. And she sets about providing relief to the women who have been wronged.

Such a raucous call. There are so many – she could not have known before. And she cannot find them all. She seeks first the ones who transmit loudest, smell strongest, those who cannot hide and for whom it will be worst. Girls. The girl given animal tranquillisers, shared by seven of them, a lottery of seed inside.

But it doesn’t stop there. Earlier, only concerning herself with rescuing the women, she now branches out into punishing the men responsible for their sorry plight. In other words, she becomes an avenger of sorts. This is vintage Hall with all her trademark themes of feminism, and transformation.

After the visceral quality of the first story, the second one ‘The Woman the Book Read’ is mellower but no less beautifully penned. It begins hauntingly enough…

Ara. The name was unusual; he wouldn’t have recognized her otherwise. If she’d walked past him in the street, even if she’d been sitting opposite him in the café and he’d had time to study her, he probably wouldn’t have guessed.

Our male protagonist is in a beach town in the Middle East. One day, while in the midst of discussing business with a colleague, he hears the name Ara being called out. The invocation of this name brings back a flood of memories and transports him into his past.

We learn that Ara was the daughter of the woman he was involved with then. At the time, Ara was a child and the two develop a bond, which over the years fades away. In the present, Ara is now a grown woman who may or may not remember the man her mother was in a relationship with all those years ago.

Relationships of adults with children is a dominant theme in the third story too called ‘The Grotesques’. Here the central focus is a mother-daughter relationship. It’s 30-year old Dilly’s birthday and her overbearing mother, who is hosting a family get-together for Dilly, sends her out to run a few errands.

Dilly, meanwhile, is having a miserable day. She comes across a cruel prank played on a homeless man, is caught in the rain – wet and wretched by the time she reaches home, and is pining for a hot scone at her own party.

In ‘The Grotesques’, Hall has brilliantly conveyed the sense of claustrophobia in close family settings. Dilly’s mother is outspoken, at the centre of things, and her dominating personality confines Dilly to the sidelines.

Mummy could change a story or revise history with astonishing audacity, and seemed to instantly believe the new version.

Dilly is awkward and introverted as compared to her more accomplished siblings, and this puts her at odds with her mother – the two are as different as chalk and cheese.

Vengeance again is the central theme of the story ‘Who Pays?’, a story set in a Turkish forest with a very fairytale feel to it.

Who sees? Who pays? Always the women.

Sex and eroticism is an element that is vital to Hall’s writing. In ‘Orton’, an elderly woman with a heart disease, and fitted with technology, decides to visit a place in the moors called Orton. It is the scene of a previous sexual encounter with a man in her youth, before she married. Although purely a physical contact, it is a memory that is still vivid in her mind, enough for the woman to want to revisit the place.

Hall’s descriptions of the moors are gorgeous….

The moor hadn’t changed. The grass was restless, bleached and occasionally bright auburn when the sun lit it. Long walls ran upwards towards the fells, and the cleaved limestone pavements sat pale and dull on the slopes. Wind-leant trees, peat gullies, flocks of heather and the occasional darting thing. Under the clouds, great dark shadows moved across the hills.  

The title story ‘Sudden Traveller’, which to me is the highlight of the collection, is a beautiful meditation on death, loss and grief. It is also a piece in which she has expertly juxtaposed birth (of the protagonist’s child) with death (of the protagonist’s mother).

One can’t help but feel if there is a touch of the personal here. Hall gave birth to her child around the same time that her mother died.

Not surprisingly, the opening is a cracker…

You breastfeed the baby in the car, while your father and brother work in the cemetery. They are clearing the drains of leaves and silt, so your mother can be buried.

We learn of the mother’s illness, the endless hospital visits and waiting in her final days and the final act of burial. The grief and the coping involved. Against this, we are given a glimpse of the early days of motherhood: a happy one, but challenging nevertheless…

You are so tired there are moments you are not sure if you are awake any more. It feels like those early newborn days, the fugue state of new motherhood, when the baby was in a separate plastic cot at your bedside.

It’s not all gloom though. Rays of hope shine through, as does the prospect of picking up your life and starting again.

Nothing is unchanging. Rain that seems unstoppable, that seems impossible to see through, that keeps coming down, obscuring the world, washing away time, will end. Like everything else, it is only passing spirit.

And then you know how it will be. Breaking cloud, sky with discernible colour, fantastic-seeming sunlight. The rain will lift. The river will recede.

Overall, Sudden Traveller is a fascinating collection of stories that explores the themes of feminism, of what it is to be a woman, metamorphosis, and motherhood.

The collection is aptly titled with multiple meanings that convey not only physical travel but also journeys of the mind. It could either be harking back to the past or staring into an unknowable future. A lot of the characters in these stories witness a big change or are thrust into situations suddenly and are compelled to survive and make best of the situation. 

This rain is not helping: savage, unrelenting, incanting, strange even for here, making it hard to see anything clearly or think clearly. What you sense is mutability, the selves within the self. The terror of being taken, ahead, into sheer darkness. What is coming? Not just this lesson of a dying mother. But travel — You can do no more than intuit. You suspect your dreams are communicating far more destruction than you have interpreted, and in this you are correct. The future is a window that cannot be opened until it is opened.

Sarah Hall’s voice is unique and utterly captivating. There is a fierce, sensual quality to her writing that is entirely her own. She excels at lush descriptions and creating arresting images. It also explains why her short stories are so much better than the longer novels – her razor sharp sentences and spare, lyrical, staccato like prose comes across more vividly in the shorter form.

In one of her interviews with Guardian, a few years ago, here’s what Hall had to say on writing short stories…

“You’re required to fit much more in. It’s the world-on-the-head-of-a-pin thing. It was excellent discipline for me, the baggy, sloppy novelist, to think about form and plot.”

Here’s a quote in another equally interesting interview with Guardian (after the publication of the rather wonderful collection Madame Zero)…

“I do like short stories to be a powerful distilling. It is a place for dark psychology and a potent literary dosage. When I start out it usually stems from a thought, or something I heard in the news that gives me a shape. I like reading stories that give you a huge wallop, one you don’t see on the surface.”

In a nutshell, Sarah Hall’s short stories are rich, flavourful, and meant to be savoured slowly.