MuchchadGadh and Other Stories

By Sangita P. Menon Malhan

Publisher: Vitasta

Pages: 244

Price: Rs 250

Each time you pick up a book of short stories, it is to travel in time, to diverse lands, meet interesting characters that amuse, shock and fascinate. This collection of 18 short stories by journalist-turned-author Sangita P. Menon Malhan takes you on a journey of multiple experiences, evoking a wide range of moods and emotions.

In “The Irrepressible MrPhull”, you laugh—and empathise— at the plight of the Phul family as they struggle to cope with their overly gregarious, self-appointed friends who have the knack of surfacing, uninvited, in the unlikeliest of places.

In the next instant, in “Game in Gorakhpur”, you are suddenly transported to the Kotwali Thana in Maya Bazar from where Inspector Hanumanth Kewar sets out to chase down the most notorious Jibbal Sainthwar—for a second time. Wasn’t Jibber supposed to be locked up in Maharajganj, some 55 kilometres away? And now, as the Inspector negotiates the crammed bylanes on his motorbike from the District Court to the Bus Stand area to the Hanuman temple, you crave for more.

There is no such setting for “The Cabinet Committee Meeting”, where members of a housing society are in an emergency meeting on a Sunday morning to contemplate action against their absentee secretary. The fake busyness, the futility of the proceedings, the self-important air of the members, the petty bickering among residents and of course, the inevitable savouring of tea and samosas—the portrayal is as authentic as it is hilarious.

Two of the stories use superstition to build the plot, before delivering a cruel (anti-) climax.  The very first short story in the collection, “The Despicable man”, takes you through a public bus journey in the mountains on a stormy July morning. Its myriad characters—a group of teenagers on a holiday, a large family with many heavy suitcases, a newly-wed couple, the superstitious conductor and of course, the despicable man with the scummy coat—are very well etched. The plot builds up with a certain ease, before delivering a twist in the ill-fated climax.  Vintage short story stuff!

“The Time has Come”, set in the Chatterjee household, revolves around a morbid prediction about their son, Shonin Chatterjee, who is the marketing head of a pharma firm in Bhopal. Shonin is dismissive of astrologers, and fidgety and impatient as his mother and his wife prevail upon him to stay home. Amid multiple rounds of puja, tension around the prediction builds up in the Chatterjee household, before the climax strikes.

My pick from the collection is “Shocking Pink”. Stark and uninhibited, the narrative is on a roll, an outpouring that shocks even as it charms.

Sangita Menon Malhan, who worked with Delhi Mid-Day, The Statesman and The Times of India before turning to full-time writing, probably revisits her days as a journalist in “Oshbo”, gently bringing out the petty machinations in a newsroom. But it is the title story, “Muchchad Gadh,” that really tickles. A clean shaven city professor is on a visit to this quaint little village “between Barmer and Jalore”, where all men show off their handsome moustaches. They sport “Hungarian moustaches”, the “Dali kind” or even the “Imperial” variety, and nurture them with regular oil massages for the weekly Moocha Ri ceremony. The curious professor is shunned and ridiculed in the village, until he finally succumbs to their guiles.

But this collection does not let you rest. Just as you are settling into a light, happy groove with “The Network Junkie”, along comes a gripping account of a pirate attack on the Blue Whale (“The Pirates of Aden”). Once again, a story sketched out in great detail and this time, the racy account is designed to thrill.

While these stories are the stuff to curl up and enjoy, what stays with you is the dark stuff that haunts and allures at the same time. Here, Sangita breaks the mould with narratives that are honest, distressing and cathartic. In “The Perfect Suicide”, two strangers out on a mission to commit suicide as a desperate means for glory, bump into each other. Their conversation, and the eventual fate of their mission, is as fascinating as it is bizarre. 

The author explores women characters with completely new warts and textures. The persona of the bald, scarred Bai Sa and her touching relationship as mentor to 21-year-old Baruni (“Qaidi No 48”), the promising bandit Sejal with a fondness for the axe which she wields to telling effect (“The Pursuit”), Vidhi, the young czarina who pulls the plug (“The Heiress”) and the talented, colourful and liberated “Begum of Ballimaran”— are all refreshing women characters springing out of the pages of a short story book.    

But my pick from the collection is “Shocking Pink”. Stark and uninhibited, the narrative is on a roll, an outpouring that shocks even as it charms. Between descriptions of bloody, near-death mishaps, it is an honest journey of revulsion and conflict through the mind of an individual.

Sangita’s original take on storytelling—and on life, is visible in “No Bad Hair Days”, her account of her experience with breast cancer. This book took final shape between chemotherapy sessions. In “No Bad Hair Days”, she chooses not to take the more likely path of struggle, pain and pathos in describing her journey. Rather, the author stands apart as a witness to the entire experience, and recreates that phase with a detached, light-hearted narrative that intrigues, fascinates, inspires and ultimately, heals.