Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Book Review: Unlikely Tales - Mani Padma

When I was just starting out as a blogger, one of the first things I wrote about was when I thought Afghanistan was following me. Not a person, not a gang, but a whole country. The movies I happened to watch, the books I read, even sporadic conversations and dreams - Afghanistan was written all over them. And this was back in 2010, when the war-torn country wasn't particularly in the news.

Looking back at that blog post gave me fond flashbacks of what a sweet little 18-year-old I used to be, convinced that such recurring references in my life could be signs. Whoever heard of such an absurdity, right? But, fast-forward seven years, here I am again...

...being followed by the Northeast of India.

In recent years, I've made a good many friends who either belong to or live in one of the Northeastern states. I've also written a lot about the culture and tourism of the Northeast over the years as a freelance travel writer. But lately, the region seems to have become the leitmotif of my existence. I've visited Sikkim twice in less than a year, I've started enjoying Bihu music (for the love of Papon ♥), and I just attended the Northeast Festival in New Delhi. In fact, to hark back to the title of this post, the only reason I accepted 'Unlikely Tails' for review was because the author, Mani Padma, is from Assam and I was curious to read her work.

Unlikely Tails, as the name suggests, is a collection of short stories that don't have your usual plots or endings. In the author's own words,

"How much do you know abut women? Do you really know them even when you know them?

17 stories.
Various shades.
Unexpected revelations.

But... the question remains, do you still feel you know them even when you know about them?"

That is undoubtedly the kind of enigmatic book blurb that gets you to pick up a book. Thankfully, the stories are short, easy to read, and suited for a cover-to-cover single-sitting read. Through 17 really short pieces, the author has attempted to reveal the inner workings of a woman's mind in myriad situations. And believe me, they aren't what most people would expect. The stories explore conflicting, often twisted emotions that form part of the psyches of not just women but men as well, a welcome deviation from the author's self-proclaimed intention to primarily talk about what women think.

I had two initial thoughts on the book: What does the cover image signify? And what is 'tails' a play on? It looks like some kind of a primate's hair on the cover image. Maybe there could be an animal theme tying the stories together, or perhaps the undecipherable cover image was a play on the often-unpredictable character of a woman's mind. But none of these elements revealed themselves in the book, so the jury is still out on that one.

What I like about Unlikely Tails
I am welcoming of any and every book that explores women-related themes or has women protagonists, especially if the author is a woman. Mani Padma has done a pretty good job of traversing the slippery slope of the female emotional make-up and revealing some of the emotions that to an untrained eye might seem totally unimaginable. I particularly liked the story 'Dead End' for its investigation of a suicidal person's mind (although the subject merits better treatment). 'Keep the Change' was the one story in the book that kept me guessing (in vain) till the end. 'Mamma's House' was heartwarming and deep, while 'Kinky Kaur' gave me a lot of smug satisfaction. 

What could be better
I found nuance and depth missing from the author's treatment of her characters. There was a lot of potential, which was perhaps lost in the somewhat unnatural way the characters talked about themselves. More research and a better understanding of a person's inner voice may help. The introduction to the book, written by another author, also compares Mani Padma's language to that of Ruskin Bond and Maupassant, which I think was a far stretch. I was reminded more of Advaita Kala and Anuja Chauhan for their tongue-in-cheek brand of humour and simple narrative style.

A recurring observation I made throughout the book was the author's obvious unease with tight narration and description. I will attribute that to the author not being a native English speaker, which makes her attempt to write in English commendable. However, the book could seriously use some editing and proofreading. The editorial job is shoddy, with the narrative randomly changing between first and third person for the same character and faulty use of punctuation almost everywhere. If the flaws were few and far in between, I wouldn't have made a mention here. But they are really hard to ignore in this book.

Among the many things that bugged me in Unlikely Tails, the first paragraph of 'Dull-iance' stands out, wherein the narrator claims, "There are two things that are found aplenty in our country" and then goes into an exposition on the second thing, completely forgetting to mention what the first thing was. This unresolved curiosity will bug me forever, though the story was honestly a good read.

To conclude, I think Unlikely Tails is a good first attempt at short fiction, though nowhere near perfect. The author has a distinct style of thinking and writing, one that I may not necessarily love because it's fresh, it's different. Given good editing, I expect Mani Padma to come out with a lot more stuff in the future that I would like to read.

The Bookworm's Verdict: 3 stars out of 5.
Publisher: Creative Crows Publishers
Price: INR 650 for a slim harcover (Pretty steep, I know!)
Buy here: Amazon / Flipkart


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