“I can guess your thoughts, sir, at this very moment, as I sit in your beautiful air-conditioned drawing room, sipping tea from your expensive China, nibbling on nuts from sparkling crystal… I’m a little worried about the air-conditioning – will it harm her? I mean, my instrument.”
“They call her the Rudra Veena.” “Rudra fashioned her after Parvati.” “He watched her while she was asleep… Look at these two resonators, two perfect globes covered with such intricate carvings. They are heavy, blue-veined breasts, of course. And the stem of the instruments, just wrought so – that’s her delicate arm…..”
“You mean you haven’t heard of the Curse?”
I have chosen these extracts from the story, ”The Choice” because they are a sort of template for the elements Mitra Phukan blends in her stories. Voice. Tone. Background sketched in with the casualness of dropping pennies in a wishing well. Tension, facts revealed bit by bit. (“What you haven’t heard of the Curse?” The unspooling of the curse takes up the rest – 4/5th – I made a physical word count – of the story).
The themes of the 13 stories can be broadly classed as music, love, male infidelity, humor.
These elements may be individual movements, but, just as in a complete musical work, the movements have to be played in succession, Mitra Phukan festoons them together skillfully in their literary avatar.
Music runs like a beautiful strain in “The Choice,” “Ekalavya,” “The Tabla Player,” and “Homecoming.” Music is not only a theme in these stories but is worked as an art to reveal character. Such is the love of the unnamed narrator of “The Choice” for the Rudra Veena that he cannot be dissuaded from devoting his life to it in spite of the possibility of dire consequences. When the curse does materialize in his family, he has to make a heartbreaking decision.
Just as “The Choice” is about the sincerity and commitment of musicians, “Ekalalaya,” exposes at the posturing and hypocrisies of the ustads and pandits. A culture correspondent observes the unrealistic demands a renowned sitar player, Pandit Deenabandhu Misra, makes on the organizers of a concert with the same cool eyes as she records the dedication of the pandit’s talented fan, Rishabh. In an effort to be accepted as a student, Rishabh plays a self-composed dhun before the Pandit. Impressed, the pandit invites him to see him Mumbai. The follow up invitation never materializes. Mitra Phukan’s subtle ending lays bare the difference in character between the “renowned” master and the sincere and honest talent.
Rishabh’s dedication is matched by Ram Kumar’s commitment, in “The Tabla Player,” to his profession . Unlike the ustad in “The Choice,” Ram Kumar places his art before family. Tragedy is the currency with which he pays the price.
“Homecoming” shows an instrument maker in the twilight of his life, widowed, arthritic, mourning the loss of a daughter who has eloped with the local goon. He lives on his memories. He recalls the ceremony and the love with which he used to make musical instruments for Muslim ustads and Hindu pandits. He gave names like Ragini, Sruti, Gandhari, Bhairavi, “the daughters of his skill and love,” to the instruments he fashioned. Mitra Phukan merges his love for his errant daughter with the emotion he lavished on his handiwork in an ending that is as masterful as is moving.
The musicians and the instrument maker make cameo appearances in each other’s stories. A trained musician herself, she has written the music-themed stories in such a way that they can be read like raags within the main melody.
“The Homecoming” is a link to the three other stories that are about love, “The Gift,” “Spring Song” and “A Long Drive.”
After his wife, Ishita, died, Aditya, in “The Gift” allows the garden that she loving tended to not only lose its bloom but also to go to seed. The lives of his son, Rishi and daughter-in-law, who live upstairs in the same house, are barren in the female sense. Two small miracles happen. On the Sunday on the story opens, a woman that Aditya, Rishi and the daughter-in-law have never seen comes to the house and hand Aditya a flower pot of a variety of roses that Ishita loved.
“A garden needs tending. ‘Nurturing. It’s like life. Like a child.’ .And with that, with no further words, she turned around and walked down the driveway towards the gate.”
When the three find their voices, “it’s … it’s a sign, said Rishi.” The neat end shows what it was a sign of.
The title of the story “Spring Song” has a double meaning. One is the literal one; the story is set at the time of Bohag Bihu, the spring festival of Assam. The other meaning comes through towards the end when we realize why the narrator outgrew her love for a handsome, talented singer, when and how she rose above the stigma of being seen as the betrayer by the singer and their common friends, when we understand how her achievements in science make her see a greater song in nature. The writer uses the second person narrative that suggests a letter being written.
On the surface, “A Long Drive” may sound clichéd: a widow, who has “images” caged in her mind and anger in her heart, meets a visiting divorced NRI, at a dinner thrown by a friend who like to “pair” people. Their emotionally bruised personalities hesitatingly open up to each other during a long drive through the countryside. In a story as alert to the nuances of low-key anguish as to the moments of sudden, unguarded tenderness, the answer as to what the outcome will be is tantalizingly elusive up to the very end.
Male infidelity is the leitmotif of “The Reckoning”, “Jogeswari”, and “The Revenge of Annapurna.” Three women, three approaches fighting the humiliation. The different approaches determine the direction of the narrative and reveal hidden reserves of character.
In “The Reckoning” infidelity, insurgency and psychological trauma are blended. Shrabana’s husband Ranjit, the manager of a tea garden in acres of uninhabited green, takes up with a nurse twenty seven years his junior. Shrabana borrows and adapts a tactic the insurgents use to take revenge for herself and her 16 year old son’s trauma. Shrabana’s strategy boomerangs when insurgents kidnap the 16 year old and demand ransom. The prose is as agitated as Shrabana’s body when the author records her actions; it is as calm her thoughts when enters her mind.
In Jogeswari, the wife “disables” her philandering husband with a “weapon” that people with a scientific outlook may not believe exists. In “The Revenge of Annapurna” Bowari adopts an approach that is almost Gandhian. She out-models a model daughter-in-law for her in-laws’ eyes and shames her wayward husband by increasing her devotion to him.
“A Full Night’s Thievery” is as much a story of Assamese towns in the forties of the last century as it is the story of a resourceful thief, Modon Sur, who was never without a water tight alibi. “Like any self-respecting town (Rupohi) had a thief as well. For having a local thief was a marker of the affluence of the town itself.” This quotation is a sample of the tongue-in-cheek language in which the exploits of this lovable rogue are related.
In contrast to Madon Sur’s self-confidence, Harish Babu in “the Rings” believes that “my horoscope is a battlefield for all the planets, it seems. They have been at war with each other ever since I can remember.” His remedy for every imagined physical ailment or reverse in fortune is to turn to gemology and add a new ring to his ring-laden fingers. When a lucrative contract slips through his fingers, Harish Babu consoles himself by philosophizing: “With so many planets stacked against me, what else can one expect?”
However the most unique character in the collection is the state of Assam. The stories are full of its manifestations in various forms. The moods of the mighty Brahmaputra find expression in Rishabh’s raags. “These glinted and glistened like the lapping wavelets of the mighty river that flowed behind him. The meends that he played were the heavy curves of the river; the taans that rippled through his fingertips were the birds that quested eagerly on its banks, sometimes taking wind in a flash of vivid color.”
In “The Reckoning” it materializes as 12 terrorist who kidnap a tea garden manager’s teen-aged son for ransom and in “The Long Drive” as the rebels who stop and rob the occupants of a car in the countryside.
Men’s cruelty is contrasted with the serenity of nature. “Yes, it’s Bohag (Bihu). The kuli calls out endlessly to its soulmate far into the balmy nights. Setting aside their usual shyness, cascades of kopou bloom boldly, as busy bees hum happily around this sudden abundance of beauty.” “ It’s a defining feature of our land, isn’t it? Xeuji xeuji, xeujiO,xeuji dhoroni duniya,’ he said, quoting the poet. ‘Green, green, how beautiful is this green earth’.”
And witchcraft: “I watch fascinated, as she withdraws the three objects. The root of that particular plant, dug up on a moonless Amavasya night from the edges of the cremation ground. The withered claw of the hen that had been sacrificed before the huge image of Kali on another moonless night. And lastly, the hair from the head of a person after he had been placed on the pyre.”
In her novel, The Collector’s Wife, Mitra Phukan introduced the world to the student’s agitation in the 70s and 80s, the illegal migration from Bangladesh and a full blown insurgency. “A Monsoon of Music” records the interaction of nature, music and personality. With the publication of A Full Night’s Thievery-Stories, Mitra Phukan has cemented her reputation as the most perceptive and versatile writer in English to emerge from the seven states of the North East.