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A Collection Most Cloying


Inspirations for books can come from the most unexpected of sources – from the obvious in your face incident to tangential, barely related happenings that spark trains of thought that lead to novels. Nabokov's Lolita apparently “was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage.”

Muses lurk everywhere. In the right hands, apes with charcoal in their hands can become seductresses.

In the case of “Sujatha” Rangarajan, one does not need to look too hard to find out where the muse lurked: His typical middle class Brahmin upbringing – a unique mix of conservative and liberal extremes, a steady diet of Dahl, O.Henry and Carver, an engineering education, and an interest in science fiction.

Drawing themes from the milieu he was most comfortable and using a lot of techniques borrrowed from the masters – mostly Dahl methinks – Sujatha developed a successful formula early in his career. A matter-of-fact prose style with a lot of irony thrown in helped make him immensely popular, and that popularity persists to date.

At seventy, he is prolific as ever – supplementing regular columns in several magazines with the occasional work of fiction. If you allude about his popularity to Sujatha, he will bristle. He is convinced that the whole popular tag is a conspiracy to belittle his literary achievements, and says as much in his introduction to “Sujatha's Selected Short Stories”, a two-volume collection of a hundred and something of his best short stories.

But the truth is, after the initial creative burst that helped him break into the league of very popular writers, Sujatha stagnated; he was reduced to churning out story after story using the same formula. And I don't blame him for it – an environment where your name guarantees instant commercial success is not really conducive to self improvement. He also alludes in the introduction to the pressures of working with deadlines affecting the quality of his stories.

The best evidence of this stagnation is this anthology – after the refreshing effect of the first few stories ennui sets in. It is not that the quality of the later works is bad – no matter where you start in the book, the repetitive nature of the stories in the anthology becomes evident after the first few stories. It's all the same after some time: The wry first person narratives (always male, almost the author), the bold (for those days) descriptions of women, the twists at the end, the slightly macabre plots and the upper middle class setting.

This is not to say I didn't like the book: taken one at a time, most of the stories in the anthology are competent, and a handful of them are outstanding. Sujatha's use of irony is especially good – in one my favorite stories, a family discovers a bag filled with money at their doorstep. Scared, they want to go hand the bag over to the cops, but the husband realizes he has no money to hire an autorickshaw to go to the police station. He sends his wife off to borrow some money from the neighbors.

If the books had been whittled down to about twenty of his best stories, this would have been a collection to treasure. As it stands though, the books are a little too long, and a little too repetitive. Do buy them both, but don't read them in one shot – take your time, and read a lot of other authors in between.

PS: I have to mention this – the production quality of the books is awesome. Uyirmai Padhippagam has done a great job – typo-free hardcovers at this price are very cool.

Cross-posted on teakada.