This doesn’t make sense. It’s one of the most common responses I’ve heard from new readers who chance upon absurd literature.
I don’t want to compare Anushka Jasraj with the doyens of absurdist literature. Nor would I club her with the writers representing marginalized sexualities with nuance. I would let her be the way she allows her characters to, in the extraordinary collection of short stories Principles of Prediction (Context, an imprint of Westland): Uncannily believable species existing either in our or alternate universes.
How I got the book
I have tried to write various beginnings for this book review. False starts, as they say in writing workshops. But I wasn’t writing a novel or a short story; I didn’t need to worry where this is going, right?
A voice in my head said: It’s a review; tell what you’ve read. Ask them to buy this book if you liked it, or ask them to stay away from it. The other one said, inspired by Joan Didion: If you’re not sure about this paragraph, place it in the middle; no one will notice it. Who knows what people do and do not notice, anyway?
But someone did notice my articles, and she wrote to me. That someone is Anushka Jasraj, who DMed me on Twitter saying that she’s convinced that I’m the reader her stories will speak to.
Honestly, I wasn’t even sure if I’d like her work. She just hinted that I might like this collection. I am not quite sure what to make of her reading of me. She followed that up by sending me her book. A thin hardcover; a brilliant cover. Short stories, I thought. One at a time, let’s start with the first one.
Bam! Who is she, like for real!
The stories in this book
The first story in this collection is Drawing Lessons, winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in the Asia-region category. After reading it, I was sure that this collection will be full of psychoanalytical undertones and peppering-favorite-writers-in-story kind of a book. Like her characters, I was also not given what I was expecting. What I got instead was a crazy ride.
The protagonist is attracted to her drawing teacher. She discusses usual things with her sister over the phone, thinks that she and her husband are in two different marriages, and, according to her teacher, feels betrayed by her own body. She mentions Gertrude Stein and Goethe. Psychoanalytical. Almost hallucinogenic.
The other stories include, ‘Westward,’ which was inspired by a travel memoir written by Durgabati Ghose. In ‘Luminous,’ in which a linguist is assessing the impacts of a “new light,” which has “chipped away at our capacity for the sleep phase that permits dreaming.” In the story, when the linguist says to Susan that Prakash always looks “a little bit different each day, as if he was not one person but an army of twins,” Susan refuses to believe her. It seems that the characters in Jasraj’s collection are playing with the reader and sometimes collaborating with them to reach an explanation. If you’re a definitive-singular-ending kind of a short-story reader, then skip this book because it will leave you unsettled.
In the titular story, the daughter feels that her mother is “disorganized enough to return as a hurricane.” In ‘Circus’, the woman wants to live her life with a trans-person. For me, ‘Elephant Maximus’ seemed like an ode to The Little Prince. Jasraj writes: “There exists an unbridgeable abyss between the language of children and the language adults believe them to be speaking.” And in yet another Asia-region winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, ‘Radio Story,’ a daughter is left perplexed with the note she finds jammed in her father’s typewriter; it makes her reconsider her parents’ relationship.
‘Simple, Please’ presents an uncanny love, where the lover asks his girlfriend if she knows “what it’s like to be suffocated to death.” It makes me rethink all those times where I’ve been with people whom I think I’d never be with, if I were in a ‘sane’ mindset. But who knows what drives one person toward the other? This pull, which so many poets and authors have tried to articulate, and yet it seems incomprehensible. But as Professor Rao in the story ‘Entomology’ says “complicated questions can have the simplest answers.”
Letting the narrative decide it
I wonder what this review would be like had I reviewed it the way I review other books: It’s an assorted collection of stories deeply rooted in human conditioning, plays with the heart of the reader as it often renders them looking for a perfect ending, finds meaning in the bizarre, and places the most indecipherable of dreams and motivations at the forefront.
I could have also written that the parts where the writer is playing with the fluidity of its characters’ sexuality, the ambiguity in what they want, and the sheer audacity to change the levers of the story, sometimes even costing the reader its patience, make it ring true with me.
But I wanted to avoid these abstractions, and wanted to say it out loud, right from the bat: It might not be the book you’re looking for, but you’re in for a literary treat; want to read something that challenges you, this is the book you need!
I was overjoyed when I found Jasraj attesting to my observation. In an interview with Helter Skelter, she says: “I love stories where things don’t work out, characters don’t get what they wanted or what they expected, but we see an internal change.” She also mentions not knowing whether Zena or Sita — characters in her short stories ‘Entomology’ and ‘Circus’ respectively — “identify as ‘not straight’ and I don’t define a character’s orientation unless the narrative calls for it. People who are strict about heteronormative standards are probably afraid of their own capacity for being a little bit queer. I guess you could say the lack of those labels is important to me.”