Short stories review: 7/7/21

THIRD EYE RISING  
by Murzban F Shroff

Third Eye Rising cover

... this is a joyous, optimistic collection… 

This third anthology by Shroff, packed with clever, tightly crafted morality tales, reminded me repeatedly of Thomas Hardy’s fixation with socio-biological determinism. The characters in this compelling collection are united by one desire: an urge to evade their fate. Both writers were keen to illuminate the constraints that class and money place upon lives, twisting and perverting them away from the course they might have run, if only society were modelled along more rational, meritocratic lines, where human feeling and talent were prized, rather than their origins.

Shroff’s stories all have India as their backdrop, whose rigid caste system renders fate still more heavy handed. We are told of sacred cows, superstitions, dowries, ancient rituals, a series of complex traditions and beliefs that further ensnare every character we meet. If they accept their own lot, they tend to struggle harder against their children’s. In Bhikoo Badshah’s Poison, a man elects to lie and cheat to get his son into a decent school, having witnessed the children at the local school be poisoned at their midday meal - the poison Badshah elects to accept instead is the corruption of his innocence, his alignment with the city’s wiles, rather than have his son face the destiny allotted to him: “the broom, the pan, and the stench of dirty, rotting flesh.”

In the first and finest story, The Kitemaker’s Dilemma, a master craftsman learns of a lonely boy disfigured by his father’s cruelty and neglect; he tries to cheer him with gifts, but soon learns the boy has no interest in material possessions, but instead seeks forgiveness for an imagined crime. In labouring to understand and value the boy, the kitemaker recalls a long-forgotten capacity for joy, and if that sounds saccharine, it surely would be at the hands of a less capable writer. Instead, tightly plotted, clever, yet simply, compellingly crafted, this story tells a simple Buddhist truth about attachment and abandonment, along the way making you burn with feeling for these two, so lost, so necessary to each other’s story.

Some of these tales venture into the realms of allegory - the devoted, dowry-less wife from the title track, who must carry a burning clay pot barefoot over rubble, searing her fingers to useless stumps, to persuade her in-laws of her purity. Love here confers superhuman strength - first in the wife, but at last in her weakling husband too, who chooses to destroy his father rather than lose his devoted partner. Love gives him the requisite strength and “He grew, in love and stature he did.” The clumsy sentence construction - unique, in this rhythmic, musical work -  forces you to linger over the words and notion, rendering them all the more powerful.

 

Love and purity saves another woman in A Rather Strange Marriage: a young disabled girl who is to be given to overseers to meet a destitute village’s tax burden. Her virtue saves her, and her tormentors are found brutally murdered. No milk and water Christian forgiveness here, nor hope of redemption. These characters are united also in their belief in karma, that the sins they commit in this life might condemn them to a thousand gruesome reincarnations, each filled with inventive suffering. Villains are not allowed to learn valuable moral lessons and become useful community members; instead they are horribly slain. And anyway, death is nothing to fear here: why do people grieve at funerals, one murderer asks, when they mark an end to a lifetime of suffering?

 

Nevertheless, despite the bloodshed, the brutality of fate, this is a joyous, optimistic collection. Its villains are creatures from pantomime:  we cheer their suffering and destruction. Love conquers all. Often brutally, but always morally.

Review: Melissa Todd

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THIRD EYE RISING by Murzban F Shroff

ISBN: 978-1952419027

spuyten duyvil publishing
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