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The Unforgiving City and Other Stories

by Ananya Sarkar
(Kolkata, West Bengal, India)

The Unforgiving City and Other Stories
Penguin Random House India Private Limited, 2021
ISBN 978-0-670-09424-0
Pages 255, Price INR 599

A Spectrum of Contemporary India

The Unforgiving City and Other Stories is a stellar collection of short stories by Karnataka Sahitya Akademi winner Vasudhendra, translated by Dr. Mysore Nataraja. After the semi-autobiographical novel Mohanaswamy that was available in English translation in 2016, offering an empathetic insight into the ordeals that homosexuals face in India, this is the latest book of Vasudhendra for the English-reading public. Woven with poignancy, gentle wit and dexterity, the stories revolve around Bengaluru and its suburbs, and paint a modern life replete with its contradictions.

The opening story ‘Recession’ is set in the backdrop of an economic downturn, probably the recession of 2008, when “there were more than fifty applicants for one position…With layoffs everywhere, thousands of software engineers were sitting at home and applying for any job that came their way, even if the salary was less than what they were getting earlier, even if the jobs were not challenging enough.” It charts the life of a couple and the paths they are obliged to tread when reality hits them hard. When at crossroads, they identify the thin line between what they need and what they want and opt for the former. The story ends with a feeling of wistful sadness, unfolding life’s paradox with subdued irony.
In contrast, ‘Ambrosia’ recounts the story of Ambaabai, a traditional Brahmin homemaker who loses her appetite as well as sense of thirst upon consuming an unfamiliar green in the forest. Ambaabai names it “ambrosia” because of its incredible qualities. But what begins as a matter of surprise soon turns into a grave problem, the solution to which is both difficult and elusive. In ‘When the Music Stops’, the protagonist, Parimala is the driving force in her family, achieving distinction in her grades and eventually becoming an engineer and moving to Bengaluru. But when buried family secrets come to the fore between Parimala and fiancé, she rethinks her future ¬– sacrificing her love for her informed views backed by science. Though she had recompensed for all the trouble and sadness caused by her brother, Parimala unwittingly inflicts a fresh wound in her parents’ lives with her decision, which embitters her too. This story also portrays the tribulations for family members of developmentally disabled children. Society is quick to toss the veil of stigma instead of being empathetic. This becomes especially evident when the beautiful and well-accomplished protagonist is rejected by prospective matches due to her sibling being mentally challenged.

Technology can both be a boon and a bane.
And it is only with discreet use that something as innocuous as a cell phone can be leveraged optimally. This is powerfully explored in ‘The Final Offering’ where a single device creates a momentous and irreversible change in two lives. The ramifications are truly chilling. Again, in ‘The Red Parrot’ the author plays with a childhood image to animate the horrific transformation of an idyllic hometown and the exploitation of native dwellers. The titular story ‘The Unforgiving City’ reveals the ruthlessness residing under the garb of civility among the well-mannered occupants in a posh apartment complex. The inclination for gossip, debate and discussion as a means of excitement rule paramount here, trampling humanity in the process. With no room for genuine compassion, the complex is an “unforgiving city” – utterly oblivious to people’s sufferings.

In each of the stories, there is a human element that resonates, no matter what the reader’s background or mindset. Also, Vasudhendra imbues the work with irony, which in some cases is gentle while in others wryly stark. Another thing that comes to notice in the book is the narrative technique. Most of the stories do not follow a linear narration, instead intercutting and cross-cutting the storyline to maximize interest. This is done seamlessly and deserves credit.

Dr. Nataraja has also done a great job at translation, using native terms from Kannada where necessary while also defining those for us. For example, in the story ‘The Cracked Tumbler’, on page 123, there is reference to the dish hulipaya, which the translator explains is “a sour curry with dal and methi leaves”. Such instances help to bring out the social milieu of Karnataka and contextualize the stories aptly. It makes way for an immersive experience, enfolding the English readership within the particular culture.
Since most of the stories deal with modern, urban life, the book may not appeal to those keen on knowing about rural India. Also, some of the tales can be disturbing to the sensitive soul. Nevertheless, the portrayal of the world through Vasudhendra’s lens is authentic and poignant to the core.

The peppering of humor and playful banter between characters from time to time is refreshing. Also, the author uses each of the stories to uphold facets of society that we are acquainted with but find hard to acknowledge. Indeed, the pages chronicle a rapidly changing India, where old mores give way to new and the loss of innocence leads of unspoken dilemmas.

Thanks to Vasudhendra’s insight and penmanship and Dr. Nataraja’s fluid translation, The Unforgiving City and Other Stories provides a rich reading experience, making us cry, laugh and sigh by turns.


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