Friday, March 09, 2018

Ladders Against the Sky by Murli Melwani

A Review by Kusum Choppra

The title of Murli Melwani’s collection of short stories should have been “Against Many Skies.”      More than half the stories crisscross  India and her myriad cultures; the rest follow the ancestral trading trails beyond India’s borders trod by the hoary ancestors of a unique community, the Sindhis.
I was so impressed by the perspectives the stories present that I could not  help but make brief comparisons of today’s  reality with the  layers of  literary pastry, appealling to different sensibilities, across numerous boundaries into the hearts of many readers.

“ A Bar Girl.” A  touching story  woven around the life styles that both Amar
Badlani and Rak have  chosen, that prevent them from stopping and evaluating
their lives or asking where there are heading. For me the significant event
was  Amar heading for Rak’s village, where it came home to him that his
estrangement from his family had its roots in his  working life.
His damage control efforts lead him to finance  Rak’s nursing education and
make overtures to his kids and grandkids.  Did he succeed?
The young Jimmy Ramnani, In ”Writing a Fairy Tale,” had literary aspirations.
But the attraction of money and the ties to family led him into a comfortable life
that distracted him from his dream. In Carmen, the wife of one his bigger
 buyers, he found a kindred spirit who revived the dormant literary aspect of
his personality. However, when push came to shove, money does very often edge
out emotions.    Call him a nice and warm human being but a calculating one.

As a kid in Jakarta, I remember seeing and hearing about Sindhi men with local
wives. People talked disparagingly about them. But then that’s life, you take the
sour with the sweet and turn it into bhel.  Sentiments echoed same community
wives, with the  “Mei Mard hu” attitude  in “The Mexican Girl Friend” and  in
“Hong Kong Here I Come” quite forcefully.
The feelings and unhappiness of the women  in their life matters little to both men. 
Ego justifies coldness to a wife selected  with such clinical calculation from the
arranged marriage market.
There are comic mini dramas of the arrange marriage arenas  in “The
Bhorwani Marriage”; while   “Requital,” apart from the refreshing atmosphere
of the North East, reminds the  reader of the universality of being a Chicken
Head, young men, who steal the customers and data bases of bosses who gave
them that start in life.

Perhaps the story with the most empathy for mingling of communities was  
“Water on a Hot Plate.” The narrative flows with events, meaningful conversations,
memories, touching on classic dilemmas of expatriates. In this case an element of
poignancy is added by the fact that the chief concern of the older characters
 is about the loss of their unique culture with its blend of Hindu, Islamic and
Sikh traditions.  While Gen Next had other weighty concerns.

“Sunday with Mary” is  typical middle class life and yet it is atypical. How
many couples take that trouble to ferret out that little space in a hard existence
for each other and organize the day and week around it? Six days of spoken
and unspoken bickering? These are the marriages that survive all the odds and
there plenty of them around.
“ Shiva’s Winds,”  is about those who challenge the elements;
why the seasonal laborers trek to higher altitudes, the  vagaries of weather,  
and finally the baby who conquers the elements while adults don’t.
What is different about the “Inner Light”story is that the brainwashing of a young
kid practically from birth!  As gory as those reality shows featuring children,
put them through such terrible wringers by parents, for those 15 minutes of
fame on the idiot box.
“The Shrine” is yet another take on sati, after Padmavati, this time for a lover
where the husband failed to ignite.

Not one, but four stories draw focus on our innate refusal to accept each other,
zeroing in on and shows our biases against background, economic status, caste,
region, or religion. Why do we insist on creating and drawing lines instead of
dissolving them when we do  have a hoary  history of merging n mingling.
Who decreed that death by fire was the punishment for stealing two brass

I love the irreverent as in  “Waiting for Leander Paes, Sania Mirza or Somdev
Dev-Varman.” It speaks up, while examining the players’ personalities via
their playing styles, and mastering it's master!

Let me confess.  As a post-Partition Sindhi, these stories evoked so much
delightful nostalgia for a long gone past, those memories of eavesdropping
on conversations of homecoming uncles and cousins, accidental overheard
chatter, tales of wheeling dealing, adjusting to different environments, the
second families abroad, the celebrations, the songs, looking, listening,
absorbing, until one day one realized  - so this is what being Sindhi is
all about!

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