It's been an unusual year for Indian publishing, and not least because of the pandemic. Seldom does one encounter a handful of short story collections in the annual calendar of English-language publishing, but this year has been an embarrassment of riches, compared to the usual meagre offerings, if any.
A few weeks ago, at the start of this series, I wrote about Udayan Mukherjee's fine collection of stories, Essential Items. Although inspired by all the big and small changes wrought by the pandemic in our lives, it wasn't documentary realism dressed up as fiction. Rich in character and detail, it was a collection thrumming with heart, and thankfully not tied up together by "linked stories" without which most publishers are loathe to buy short stories, when they at all do.
This week's recommendation, Principles of Prediction by Anushka Jasraj, is yet another accomplished collection of stories, distinctly different from the more familiar rhythms of Mukherjee's prose and narrative style. Twice winner of the Asia Regional Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Jasraj takes liberties with form, breaking it into fragments, shifting the voice of her protagonists from the first to the third person, and allowing poetic episodes to come together to create mood boards. It's a technique that belongs to the great American tradition of Gertrude Stein and Raymond Carver, but tempered with a soul that is firmly Indian.
Jasraj is bold and unfaltering with her choice of subjects. There is never a dull moment, even when she is writing about the trials and tribulations of women's lives. The sharp edges of her prose twists into the reader's consciousness like a knife, which is then turned slowly and sadistically, in the discomfiting story of a menage à trois in "Entomology", for instance. Preposterous settings, be it inside a travelling circus or a fortune-teller's den, are rendered with confidence, such that they never feel like alien spaces.
A number of stories end either in cliffhangers or without their rough edges sanded down to smoothness. If you like your fiction served in three neat courses of beginning, middle and end, this may not be the book for you. Or perhaps, it may be the adventure you need, flouting dinner-table rules and plunging in and out of a meal exactly the way you please.
Jasraj's characters tend to experience slow-burning epiphanies, instead of sudden dramatic interventions in their lives, though there are the latter too, from time to time. A girl has to wait for years until she is allowed to open her mother's last letter to her, which, she believes contains a life-changing clue. Another protagonist, skilled at theft, makes a wager to steal an elephant from the local zoo to impress her crush. An ordinary woman falls in love with a lion-tamer and longs to elope with a performing circus. Another one finds out the meaning of her marriage and the map of her desires in the course of a series of drawing lessons from an elderly woman.
Every time you imagine you have hit the strangest point in a story, Jasraj pulls another rabbit out of the hat. And yet, these daring twists and turns are not for the sake of mere showing off. Rather, Jasraj takes bold leaps into the known and unknown with a trapeze artist's confidence, guided by her instinct and secure in the belief that the story will land on its feet.
For the readers, though, these acrobatic feats can be disconcerting. In "Feline", there is a breathless anticipation about the fate of the protagonist, a private investigator hired by a woman to trail her ex-boyfriend. Inconveniently, the sleuth is attracted to the subject, and want to have sex with him. In "Notes from the Ruins", Dahlia seems like an emotional yo-yo between her friend Lilya and lover Prakash, but before long, she reveals herself to be adept at manoeuvring the feelings of the other two.
Principles of Prediction has moments when the communication between writer and reader takes a cryptic turn. The end of a story sometimes leaves a rubble of questions behind rather than certitudes, demanding a re-reading. This is not a book you can get to know quickly, it requires patience and a bit of tenacity, as you would need to know another human being, a mind starkly different from yours. Jasraj urges you to read deeper, slower, unconventionally. It may take a while to get used to her pace and process, but it's worth the wait in the end.