It’s no secret that what Neelesh Misra does best is nostalgia. Misra’s charm is widespread - his audio stories have been a source of wistfulness for people who have witnessed both temporal and spatial displacement from their roots. Such displacements create a nuanced network of emotions, ranging from relief to regret, belonging to homelessness, and it is this network, this web of latent sentiments, which Storywallah seeks to investigate and exemplify.
Comprising of twenty short stories by nine writers who were handpicked by Misra himself, the book definitely raises expectations. From the image of a narrow lane to the very font of the title on the cover, the book promises us “stories from everyday India” written by “distinct voices” that “strike a chord at once”. These three quoted phrases in the previous line are sourced from the book’s back cover blub, so it would only be apt if the book’s merits are evaluated against these qualities.
But before delving into a deeper critique, let’s first examine the basics. The twenty short stories in the collection really are short. The language throughout the book is extremely accessible, making it a quick read. The length of the chapters only goes on to consolidate the pace. The stories are overwhelmingly located in the Hindi-belt of India, were written originally in the Hindi language, and are translated into English by Khila Bisht. Almost every story has a moment of reminiscence which also doubles up as a plot device. The stories have plenty of triggers, both tangible and intangible, to facilitate this reminiscing.
However, regardless of the themes and devices, the stories themselves are either flat or afraid to venture deeper to produce any novelty or a moment of grace. Instead of being told in “distinct voices”, they are constructed using the same formula. Each story begins in the present with the protagonist returning to a semblance of home. On the journey, they start reminiscing. The past is made a convenient site for conflict which is then resolved years and decades later in the present.
The stories strongly remind one of reading an issue of Sarita or Kadambini, except that Sarita and Kadambini published such stories at least a decade before the publication of Storywallah. Reading those stories in their time was exciting, reading Storywallah in 2018 is not, and one doubts the timeline of these stories. They are separated from the contemporary and frustratingly sheltered in the make-believe world of small towns.
Now it is already unfortunate that India’s small towns are regarded as a stagnant space bereft of change. Misra’s Mandali, instead of countering the stereotype, submits to it way too eagerly. In these stories, the “provincial” towns are the Shakespearean Forest of Arden where people get perspective, their woes are dissolved, the catharsis is attained. In other words, such spaces serve the urban gaze more than the that gaze serves them.
There is little appreciation or critique of provinciality itself. There is no attempt by the Mandali to change the stoic perception and one wonders if the writers even thought about such a prospect. It is also astounding that Misra, as the compiler and the mentor, did not see how each story was formally replicating, and was being replicated by, the others; that he did not see that in claiming to portray the provincial life, the writers took the very provinciality in the stories for granted.
it is already unfortunate that India’s small towns are regarded as a stagnant space bereft of change. Misra’s Mandali, instead of countering the stereotype, submits to it way too eagerly. In these stories, the “provincial” towns are the Shakespearean Forest of Arden where people get perspective, their woes are dissolved, the catharsis is attained. In other words, such spaces serve the urban gaze more than the that gaze serves them
It is an axiomatic piece of knowledge that places, whether mental or physical, are the anchors for belonging. For a collection that is invested in fleshing nostalgia and homesickness out of places, token descriptions of such towns serve little to no purpose in the building of the story.
The reader could very well be in Dalhousie and yet register no hills, no change in atmosphere. Without a grounded articulation of a place, the stories are left prone to the same destabilisation, the same displacement, which ironically, is the Mandali’s concern. Even the story that is set in Delhi treats the city like a flailing, ethereal kasba, so much so that except for the locality’s name (Vasant Kunj) and mentions of a park and a cafe, the city is hardly allowed a presence. This homogenisation of spaces across the book is gravely problematic; what it does is generate only a specific kind of nostalgia which is then repeated in the stories.
Usually, an anthology that is made by contributions from different writers is expected to carry higher diversity in voices and content. This is precisely what makes such anthologies exciting; there are enough options to choose favourites. On the other hand, if a single writer publishes a collection of stories, the reader knows already that the voice will not undergo a drastic change. That there might be a set of preferred words, phrases, devices which the writer will use. In the context of Storywallah, it is difficult to separate the writers on their individual merit.
No one particularly stands out from the deluge of superficial writing, neither the characters in the stories leave an impression. The nine writers think as one, write as one and use the same narrative tricks, as if fed secretly on a decade-old, expired stylistic diet. Teamwork is a fine and admirable quality, but this kind of teamwork makes the book less of a vibrant anthology and more of a work by a distracted writer.
Consequently, there are moments of boredom, broken by nothing but the reader’s own willingness to give the book a chance. In a way, Storywallah’s biggest achievement is its readers, who, as English-language speakers in a globalised India, share similar predicaments with the anthology’s characters. The characters, though weak, are recognisable.
There is a strange kind of admiration in India for “simple” things. Things written in a “simple” language, a book of “simple” stories, and so on. Storywallah is “simple” too, but it is much more “simplistic”. The difference between “simple” and “simplistic” is that the latter is a fetishised version of the former. It is this fetish which does not allow the stories to be radical. It restrains the writing as much as it restrains provinciality, and by the time one is half-way through the book, its conceited simplicity becomes uncomfortably apparent. One already knows that the next story will follow the same appear-remember-disappear structure of the previous ones. This revelation of the formulaic takes away any excitement of pursuing the book any further.
Storywallah, at best, is a one-time-read anthology, probably on a long journey. It is a self-indulgent collection concerned more with the tropes of nostalgia than a meaningful articulation of it. Often, the protagonists reminisce out of compulsion, as if they were stuck and unable to move the story forward without taking a short detour through the past. There are good moments and likeable bits, but they are too scattered and too sparse for what is otherwise an uninspiring collection of stories.