"If I had lived different lives in different times, how much of myself would have remained the same? Could I have been a million different people in a million parallel universes?” These lines from Ameta Bal’s short story, Static A.D., are bound to resonate with readers who embarked on journeys of reflection and introspection during the periods of isolation forced by the pandemic. The question of “how did I arrive at this person that I am today” is one that has always been on people’s minds.
While this story is extremely relevant to the present moment, it was written in 2019, before the pandemic, when The Punch Magazine sent out a call for submissions for its inaugural anthology of short stories. Just released, the stories of isolation, unrequited love, college romance, dystopian marriage, familial history, and more, find place in this selection of contemporary writing by women authors.
The India-based digital magazine, which aims to chronicle arts, literature and culture in the country and around the world, has always had a vibrant section of short stories and poetry, so it decided to test the waters for an anthology that blended new voices with established ones, reflected on the human condition and had the potential to surprise with its ingenuity and depth. The response was overwhelming, with writers from the US, UK, Canada, Spain, Russia and India sending in stories. Early in 2020, however, just when the anthology was being readied, covid-19 struck and India announced a nationwide lockdown.
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This period forced people to slow down, prompting many to rediscover their love for stories. “In isolation, as we practised social distancing, we rediscovered reading as a therapeutic form of escape from the terrible reality of the present, from the doldrums of despair…. Stories, the world discovered once again, had the power to connect across divides; it offered us a way to heal, rebuild, reconfigure and reclaim our lives,” writes Shireen Quadri, founder and publisher of the magazine, in the introduction to the anthology.
She realised that the themes the writers had touched upon—of disparity, division, nostalgia and angst—were relatable, so when Niyogi Books came on board late in 2019, they decided to publish the anthology. Released last month, it features 18 stories by journalists, authors and editors such as Geetha Nair G., Jayshree Misra Tripathi, Meena Menon, Humra Quraishi, Latha Anantharaman, Camilla Chester and Rochelle Potkar. The anthology didn’t set out to be an all-women feature. “Initially, these stories were read by an internal jury, without the names of the writers being revealed. We realised that most submissions had come from women writers, the ratio was around 70:30. Women were clearly responding to the times and writing ferociously. And so this anthology took the shape of contemporary writing by women writers,” says Quadri.
One memorable story is Geetha Nair G.’s Falls, about two people, Sudha and Ravi, who come from far-flung parts to Delhi to pursue a master’s in economics, and bond over a shared love for reading. They fall in love but then grow apart. They meet again, 30 years later, in very different circumstances, each wondering at the other’s misery about how things panned out.
Olya’s Kitchen, by London-based Helen Harris, is about the difficult relationship between her mother and grandmother, Babushka Olya, and growing up on the latter’s cooking. It’s easy to relate to Harris’ grief at losing a grandparent and her attempt to recreate those lost flavours by starting a food truck dishing out Babushka Olya’s signature pel’meni, blini and pirogi.
Humra Quraishi’s Kashmir Valley’s Soofiya Bano draws on the flood fury of 2014, and how the waters see a son return to his mother from police custody. Meher Pestonji tells a story full of dark humour in Ghost, about a 10-year-old, who loves playing pranks and acting as a ghost to scare his little sister, unwittingly inviting trouble for his family. “While the stories are rooted in the places that the writers are based out of, they are universal in their themes. Meher Pestonji’s story could easily be transplanted to a big family mansion in the Mediterranean, whereas Olya’s Kitchen could very well have been set in an Indian household. They are not foreign to the readers and are very contemporary in their treatment,” says Quadri.
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Ameta Bal’s story falls in the genre of speculative fiction and brings focus on the questions of “who am I?” and “what am I capable of?”. “Being online and always cued in; always reacting to issues big and small on social media, we put our personalities out there. We are constantly defining ourselves through our likes, dislikes and opinions. And with opinion comes ego—me versus them,” says Bal, a postgraduate in fashion and English literature who has worked with The Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Marie Claire and Elle. “When that happens, logic turns into emotion. And I find that anger has become a dominant and addictive emotion in our times.” The story’s two central themes, then, are solitary speculation of the self and polarisation of society.
The past year has seen a series of anthologies of short stories, a clear measure of this genre’s popularity. Befittingly enough, Quadri quotes Neil Gaiman in her introduction. “(Neil Gaiman) has described a short story as the ‘ultimate close-up magic trick’ that either takes us around the universe or breaks our heart in a couple of thousand words.”
Bal uses a metaphor to explain her fascination with the genre. “A novel would be like opening the door to another house and stepping in. But short stories, somewhat like poems, are maybe like opening a window of your house and letting an idea or emotion come in. And then you can spend time with this new idea in your own space, roll it around in your brain,” she says.
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