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Review of 'Songs of a Mermaid' by Deepak K Choudhary


The stories we pen, read or narrate to one another are quite like streams flowing across diverse terrains of life, inherently (and indispensably) ‘connected’ by the broad features of their making. More often than not, these stories depict slices of life in an array of situational contexts (experienced, observed or imagined) with a measure of relatability and evocativeness that the reading gentry finds engrossing in different ways and to varying extents. Moreover, most of the stories have a bunch of characters who, like us, act in disparate conditions of existence which they negotiate with and respond to in different ways. The actions performed by them constitute the plots, sub-plots and counter-plots of the stories, leading to the specific ends planned by their authors. It is ironical, however, that notwithstanding these generic similarities, our stories are actually read and appreciated more for the ways in which they ‘differ’, than for the ways in which they resemble one another. This anthology of 16 engaging stories, aptly titled Songs of a Mermaid: Tales of Urban Women, tells us why the perception of divergent tools (articulated by the inherent patterns of meaning employed in them) to achieve identical ends is often so pivotal to our understanding and appreciation of the literary narratives that are conceptualized and brought out together as singular works of creative collaboration.

As the fruit of a highly calibrated collaboration, Songs of a Mermaid: Tales of Urban Women stands out by showcasing multiple shades of diversity in terms of storyline, plot structure, diction, narrative technique and style of expression. Each story in this collection leaves an impact on the reader with its nearly impeccable craft, characterization, treatment and execution of plot despite the fact that the textural features are apparently the same in all the stories. I think the sustenance of the basic textural features throughout the anthology is by no means a limitation of the anthology, nor does it show the contributors’ reluctance to experimentation. Instead, it seems to be only a conscious strategy adopted by the contributors to broaden the scope to be more experimental on the structural front, and dedicate their energy and attention to making their output more effortlessly relatable to the empathetic reading public and sensitive literati. 

Gender relations define the thematic core of all the stories. As the title of the anthology suggests, all the stories have female protagonists some of which are the first-person narrators. Except in “The Veil” and “The Clay Doll”, the first and the last stories of the collection respectively, gender relations primarily involve females and males of the same generation. In two of the stories, “The Siren’s Refrain” and “Love in Times of Tsunami”, there is a surreal twist to the plot as the female protagonists in them are not real-life, human females but mermaids, the mythological sea-dwelling creatures who are shown to have adapted themselves to the human ways of living, feeling and behaving while living with the rescuing human males.

Conflict between the opposite genders in an avowedly patriarchal context is at the heart of the female-male relationship dealt with in many stories. At times, as you may notice in stories like “What Did Nargis Wish for?”, “Because You Are Mine” and “Clipped Breath”, this conflict is direct and palpable assuming openly violent proportions. In these two stories, the haplessness of the female protagonists seems to be more glaringly linked to the monstrously abusive male ego that demands their complete and unconditional subjugation in all situations. The sense of loss is too prolonged and deep-seated in their case to make them realize that they can stay alive only by either silently accepting their fate of unconditional subjugation or retaliate to break themselves free from the clutches of the monster. Unlike these stories, “The Snow Globe” presents gender conflict in a more subdued way where the tangible experience of physical violence is subtly replaced by the protagonist’s perception of silent trauma and torture she is subjected to, followed by a sense of deracination and emptiness.

“A Doctor’s Dilemma” and “The Veil” are the two stories in which the protagonists’ sense of guilt defines the limits of gender relations. The two stories are completely different in their setting and motives. In the second case, the protagonist’s guilt is a long-guarded secret, which she discloses to her daughter-in-law. It indicates gender relation on an intergenerational plane in a traditional social setup. In “A Doctor’s Dilemma”, the guilt is associated with a woman who is a modern, well-educated person capable of exercising her freedom of choice.

Melancholy is the most striking emotional strand that runs through most of the stories. Even in the stories without a focus on gender conflict, melancholy seems to be pervasive albeit implied on several occasions. In the stories like “Oceans Apart” and “The Muse in My Heart I Bore!”, which are about the relationship of love rather than conflict and incompatibility, melancholy remains the sole perceptible emotion in the end, marked by some unforeseen tragedies. Unlike these stories as well as the two surreal stories of man-mermaid romance where melancholy primarily shapes the ends, “The Dawning Sky” presents an extremely gloomy picture of betrayal and bestiality attributed to unapologetically supercilious and diabolical males victimizing hapless and credulous females. The protagonist’s melancholy with a dash of optimism to overcome a disturbing past is noticeable throughout this story that employs the flashback technique to reach the end. “The Clay Doll” is another story that brings melancholy to a high scale culminating in the tragic murder of one of the two female protagonists caused by superstition and bigotry prevailing in a male-dominated social system. Gender relations are again the most striking aspect of the narrative and they guide the actions throughout the story.

“The Hidden Secret”, “End of the Shift”, “Raison d’etre of the Vibrant Contender” and “Against My Sweat and Blood” are the other stories in the collection that are remarkable for slightly different reasons. To me, these four stories have a somewhat unconventional brilliance that make them significant. “The Hidden Secret” and “Raison d’etre of the Vibrant Contender” are stories where we clearly hear the voice of strong and decisive women who can fight against all odds, and choose to act according to their will without caring a dime for patriarchal social norms and stereotyped gender relationships. In “The Hidden Secret”, for instance, the female protagonist shows the determination to free herself and many others from the fear of a monster to whom she is unfortunately betrothed. In “Raison d’etre of the Vibrant Contender”, the female protagonist, a promising sportswoman, stands up determinedly against social stereotypes and successfully counters the humiliation heaped upon her. This is the only story where the protagonist questions the traditional gender relations and ends up choosing another female as her life partner. The other two stories, which have been mentioned earlier, are different from all other stories because of the conversational style adopted by their authors to narrate them.  “Against My Sweat and Blood” and “End of the Shift” are the two Chekhovian pieces that capture slices of life involving their protagonists written in conversational style. Both of them have realistic urban settings that make their plots thoroughly relatable. “Against My Sweat and Blood” is the story of an estranged woman fighting a prolonged legal battle with her husband, while “End of Shift” captures some moments in the life of a saleswoman and her unexpected encounter with a strange customer. There is hardly reference to anything too gender-specific, which in turn lends freshness and originality to its content with the working urban woman occupying the centre-stage.    

Storytelling at its best is much more than just putting stories in words and presenting them to the audience; it’s primarily about living our stories, feeling their pulsation, assimilating and internalising their spirit and finding in them a refreshing way to come to terms with the undulating topography of human existence, the myriad roller-coaster challenges it poses, its inherent ambivalences and contradictions, unlocked mysteries, unpredictable emotional dynamics and complex ontological core.  The craft of writing stories with any measure of finesse therefore comes from a deep-seated love and fascination for life. Standing at the end of the trail, I feel each story in this anthology not only illustrates these assumptions, but also offers a new perspective to understand what makes a story so special in its appeal and impact. While going through this beautiful anthology, I have also realized that each story has its own distinctive persona with wonderfully absorbing dimensions that no perceptive and empathetic reader would like to overlook.  

Friends! I wish you all a thoroughly enjoyable reading. We will be grateful if you share your invaluable feedback regarding your reading experience with us.

 

DEEPAK K. CHOUDHARY “DARSHAK”



Senior Editor, Author & Poet: Deepak K Choudhary

Deepak K. Choudhary is a Delhi-based multilingual litterateur, content creator, editor and translator with a Master’s degree in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University. A maverick versifier, as he loves to call himself, he has a curious heart and perceptive eye for life’s multifaceted proscenium and its volatile settings, its seething helms and layered peripheries, enabling him to undertake an engrossing journey through multiple spheres of existence replete with their own narratives and effervescent galaxy of icons, iconoclasts and freaks.

His poems have been featured in a number of literary journals and magazines such as The South Asian Ensemble, Indian Literature, Chrysanthemum Chronicles, Vigil Pub Magazine, INNSAEI, Samakaleen Bharatiya Sahitya, Gagananchal, etc. His two poetry books in English (solo anthologies of poems) titled BIRDS LIKE US and THE CITY NEVER SLEEPS came out in July 2018 and August 2020, respectively. Two other books that are slated for release include his third collection of poems named MOONS, MIRRORS AND MONOLOGUES…’; and his maiden collection of belles-lettres, A PEN-PUSHER’S SCRAPBOOK.

Currently, he is associated with Chrysanthemum Chronicles, the New Delhi-based literary group and publishing platform, as a Senior House Editor.

 

 

 

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