By Partha Sarathi Mukherjee
Title: Scream and Other Urbane Legends
Author: Ampat Koshy
Publisher: LiFi Publications Pvt Ltd, 2017
Ampat Koshy’s Scream and Other Urbane Legends must be read keeping in mind Koshy’s background as a poet, critic, and teacher as well as a Beckett researcher, besides being a fiction writer. In the acknowledgement, he writes: “These stories are written by a poet and hence drenched in the splendour of poetry…My stories are rooted attempts, structurally, to go beyond narration and description into a kind of meta-understanding of what the short story itself as a form is about now…A study of classical literature has helped me tremendously.” We see the influence of writers such as Beckett, Calvino, and Borges in his stories.
In many of the stories, Koshy touches greatness with his ability to navigate the personal and the political, the mundane with the ephemeral. The first story, “Aouda: The Confluence”, is remarkable for his ability to create a surreal, fantasy atmosphere that makes readers glide from road to underwater to desert and back effortlessly. “The Junction” experiments with narrative technique to describe the setting and bring the junction alive so vividly that it becomes an unforgettable character. The two sci-fi stories in the collection – “Urgent Evoke: 2120” and “Written on the Body” – stand out in the way the first one uses footnotes and second one employs experimental language. This excerpt from “Written on the Body”, a title taken from Jeanette Winterson, showcases the charm and power of Koshy’s language in the Creation Myths and throughout the collection:
…a million hers would again walk among all the stars, and galaxies and universes, hand in hand with the many hims, the many-in-one and the one-in-the-many…The cloud of melodies suddenly pulsed louder and louder and burst forth filling the throne room with unbearable lambent glory…and then he found himself also blasted away on to absolutely invisible bits…
Two stories on the mystery of creation – “The Sculptor” and “The Writer Who Lost it at the Edge of the World” – also haunt us. While “The Sculptor” is almost magic realist in its use of single sentences to convey meaning, the second story delves into the psyche of a dying writer: “… his body glowed with the light of a million suns, all of which she saw etched within him.” It provides a glimpse into the endless nature of creativity which almost rivals the divinity, but with drastic or tragic consequences for the protagonist, Roy.
Koshy’s fiction also touches on themes of ‘deviant’ sexuality with a rare sensitivity. “Those Unshent Feelings” explores frustrations inherent in lesbianism in the Indian context. “Sandhya” narrates the story of the eponymous protagonist, marginalized by social customs, who is forced to have sex to feed her husband. As she is tortured by her husband, she offers herself to Suresh in love, as he does not make any demands on her unlike her husband. “Lady Nina”, one of the finest in the book, represents the life of a gigolo with Beckettian minimalism and is based on a Marillion song and video of the same name. Here is an excerpt:
A jaded gigolo too can fall in love. After twelve tequilas and the disco, all paid for by the credit cards, he got off the taxi, last stop before going home to his wife and kids, yes, even a gigolo can have a wife and kids and care for them, and went to the bar, after paying the driver off, in his white coat and trousers, looking natty. He was tall and handsome with long hair, a beard, and had begun to bald, but was still irresistible. She was there, looking beautiful and serving drinks to the customers. He had one too and watched one, an oldie, slipping money into the pockets of her coat, he could not make out if it was for favours received or to be given or just a tip. The drink suddenly felt bitter and he made a face drinking it, then he got up and left, knowing that her eyes were following him. They met outside when she was leaving the place, both knowing they would find each other there. She took him home. Her sister was out the whole night baby-sitting and the husband not there. She was looking for the right man. All the men she had kissed had turned into frogs and not princes or they were just ships sailing by in the night but he looked different, he was working-class background. She knew he had fallen for her and so had she. At the end of it, he left, after kissing her, and she could see the anxiety in his face about whether she found him a good lover but no word said about returning. She cried and went to sleep hugging her pillow, the Edith Piaf still on the turntable and the black flowers on the cushion watching her unblinking in the red light.
While reading “Gran’dad and the Little Boy who wanted to be Poet”, I found the wild rage in the eyes of the grandfather revealing the place of the Poet in the harsh realities of today’s world. “The Last Scarecrow” is a story of class of exploitation, the value of toil and human dignity in the midst of constant oppression, by the ungrateful, modern, and unscrupulous society. The writer’s “Gaza’s Child” is about endless wars in the name of religion or race. The story shows that war cannot be the ultimate solution in the life of common human beings, as these unproductive wars are the virulent efforts of warmongers to continue neo-colonial oppression.
“Anamika”, a novella, deals with the moral dilemma of its protagonist, Kris, who comes from a safe middle class background in a small town in the south of India and is happily married with two kids but falls in love with a girl young enough to be his student or even daughter. While she vanishes one fine day, remaining the unnamed or Anamika, the resultant whirlpool of emotions makes him a mature writer. The use of Joycean stream-of-consciousness towards the end captures the emotional complexity of Kris to good effect. He manages to craft two unforgettable and lively characters that leap off the page and make us feel melancholic at the impossibility of their longing. In a story that is a lighter shade of Lolita, what works here is the intensity of the protagonist’s emotions expressed powerfully in words that call to mind both Romanticism and Modernism in its heydays.
To see how enjoyable and readable Koshy is at his best, here is an excerpt from “Miracle”:
Along with him, in the semi-dark of the streets lit only by the orange pools of the not yet turned off sodium vapour lamps and rain puddles that reflected them ran a strange entourage in fear, quizzically – a cat, a dog, a girl, and a little boy with an occasionally slightly bleeding third eye on his forehead with a strangely jerky half-walk and half-run, wind-milling his arms continuously. Ramu had rain streaming down his face, but one could not be entirely sure they were not, instead, tears of helplessness.
Scream and other Urbane Legends is a genre-bending collection of short stories – a powerful, unique, memorable, and original collection. Ampat Koshy can be called one of India’s genuinely experimental writers, carving out an uncharted road in these times.
Partha Sarathi Mukherjee, alias Sarathi Lokenath, is a teacher of English literature and also a published poet and writer in various anthologies and e-zines. After his premature superannuation, he is still in the teaching profession at the age touching sixty. He is the author of Between Life, an anthology of poems in Amazon. He has recently received the International Reuel Prize for Best Teacher (2017), instituted by The Significant League, at Delhi Litexperia on August 2017.
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