Author: Ajay Vishwananthan

Publisher: firthForth Books

ISBN: 9781938466403

The first impression I had of reading Vishwanathan’s series of seven short stories is one of claustrophobia within a vast country, rich in culture and faith but rife with poverty and customs which stifle the lives of his characters. Written in spare poetic prose the writer concentrates mostly on the experiences of small children caught up in a world too big for them. Trapped in desperate life situations where they need to escape. In fact escaping is a reoccurring theme in these stories which contain many interconnecting motifs. 

In the title story we meet a small, nameless boy, forced into working in sweated labour, separating silk from worm cocoons. The methods in doing this a dangerous and cruel. The cocoons are thrown into buckets of scolding water and he and the other small boys he works with, Ganga and Chaami, (we never learn the narrator’s name) have to take out the balls of silk with their bare hands. Vishwanathan describes the methods of working in delicate but unsentimental terms in a dialogue between the narrator and his older, more experienced friend, Ganga.

 ‘“Isn’t the water hot?”

 “It is. But I don’t feel anything”. Ganga pulls his left hand out. I notice dark purple blisters beneath his knuckles and tiny bubbles with fiery rings of red around them. “You’ll get used to it”.


I don’t respond. I just stare at his damaged hand.’ 

This numbing of feeling due to the damaged skin and nerve endings within the hand serves as a metaphor for the acceptances of suffering and the numbing of emotional feeling. Eventually too the storyteller also stops feeling the pain as his own hands as well as in his own emotional life. His guilt ridden parents, who have taken him out of school in order to work, avoid looking at his scars and blisters and are overwhelmed by anguish at what their son is going through, but are powerless in the face of the economic forces which led to their actions.

However within this and the other stories there are acts of quietly dramatic rebellion. Eventually the boy helps his friends escape from the factory, by distracting the cruel and violent overseer’s woman as they slip unseen at the back of oxen pulled cart. He however remains, sacrificing his own freedom for the sake of his friends. Despite his desperate situation he is more fortunate than they, as they are separated from their families.

Other themes of casual violence and oppression as described in brief scenes suggestive of violence against women which in this and other stories take the form of sexual coercion and as in the “Snake Walk” where once again the nameless child narrator mentions the bruises on his mother’s arm when his father the Snake Walker of the title is the worse for drink. Also in the powerful final story “The Keeper of Lamps” which involves a sharp critique of religious and gender power relations within the Hindu religion where a beautiful woman is regarded as a virginal deity by local worshippers unaware of the nocturnal visits of the Thakur, village elder, who repeatedly during secret nocturnal visits to her home, impregnates her with boys who are taken away from her when born. The story ends with the planned and dramatic escape of her adopted daughter who is being groomed into the same role. 

The escapees of the stories disappear together or alone, but never to a specific destination. They just escape, to nameless places without form or structure, unlike the oppressive, cruel but predictable worlds they are running from.

In “ Wind in the Hair” Vishwanathan applies the techniques of flash fiction when he describes the inner monologue of a Moslem girl, discarding her traditional dress, uncovering her hair and donning jeans, before stealing her father’s car keys and car, for temporary escape with her younger brother. She knows that whereas her brother will be scolded she will be get corporal punishment from her strict father. Tradition holds that one should punish the daughter more harshly, but the short moments of freedom are worth it. 

Given the social realism of the stories, one would expect the prose to be terse and spare. However there is a lyricism in Vishwanathan’s writing which reflects the warmth and vastness of the land he described and the depth of his people.