When I joined the family business four years after studying in the US, my passport and my personality tamped with approving acknowledgment, I heard that Tara was married to Shiv and had two daughters. The first day at work, as my father escorted me to a teak-panelled office I could only blink back memories, staring at my new laptop swirling with profits and boastful balance sheets.”
This passage, taken from Tara, one of the seventeen stories in Aseem Vadehra’s debut book A Chance at Happiness, displays the traits of a recurring Vadehra protagonist of sorts: Male, early thirties/late twenties, generally belonging to a prosperous merchant family in Delhi; living out a life of crushing emptiness amidst the burgeoning business and the bourgeois aspirations. Despite the sameness of a lot of these protagonists, the author does capture quite a few surprisingly poignant moments in their lives. In Tara, the protagonist reflects upon his high school sweetheart thus: “I would meet Tara after Tabla lessons and before Table Tennis.” The author goes on to describe this precarious circle of contentment at length- “Taals in the afternoon, one taal after another, the taals of the table and the tabla, the mechanical strokes of repetition, bouncing and striking my fingers, clutching and whipping my wrist, the tabla an extension of my empty hand, the racquet an extension of my Tara-filled hands.”
Vadehra’s leading men are forced to take a long hard look at their constricting, intensely materialistic lives; either through a moment of existential epiphany, (like Amit Gupta in the titular story A Chance at Happiness) or through an encounter with an all-but-forgotten face (as in the case of Akshay, who meets his now-retired high school teacher in Mr. Alexander) You could say that this is firmly on the trodden path; but these stories are breezy, charming reads for the most part. At their best, they leave you with a lingering sense of melancholy, a sense of transience; even when there’s an optimistic or vaguely uplifting conclusion.
Mr. Vadehra’s debut is an assured one, and his stories are a pleasing, if not formidable addition to the canon of ‘Delhi literature’, which has seen a robust and very diverse set in recent years.
Not everything is gloomy, though: every now and then, the author surprises you with jabs of unadulterated black humour, as in the case of Nitin and I, a wacky, offbeat story where the author lets his hair down in a burst of frenzied debauchery, violence and surreally funny riffs. While this story is far from being the pick of the collection, it does display the debutant author’s noir sensibilities, and his potential for pulling off a narrative like this.
Dropcap OnIn another story, when the protagonist proclaims his love for the books of Haruki Murakami, you know where the author’s coming from: Murakami’s writing, his short fiction in particular; displays a deep scepticism towards the ultra-efficient, cosily prosperous (and curiously hollow) lives led by his protagonists, in a very cosmopolitan, post-industrialized Japanese setting. While comparisons with Murakami, one of the greatest writers alive are, of course, ridiculous; Vadehra’s Delhi boys do channelize a similar, angst-ridden outlook towards their mega-city. Ironically, this is expressed most explicitly in a story titled In Bombay, where the unnamed protagonist observes-
“Three years ago when it was a bitter weekend in Delhi, and the weather was heavenly in Bombay, I was a mediocre architect living a mediocre life in Delhi. I am the same now. The monotony of my daily life had weathered my exterior to crumbling paper and my insides were molten with the stale, desolate air of Delhi. For me, Delhi held no promises… the city was beaten and tired. Just as I was.”
Because Delhi is very much a character, too, in these stories; make no mistake. Whether it’s A Date in Paharganj which describes an encounter with a beautiful European woman in the infamously seedy Delhi neighbourhood (remember the Chanda segment of Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D?); Diwali or Dior, Vadehra is meticulous with his reconstructions of the capital city. By the time you get through the seventeen stories in A Chance at Happiness, you realize that the charms of the book far outweigh its shortcomings. Mr. Vadehra’s debut is an assured one, and his stories are a pleasing, if not formidable addition to the canon of “Delhi literature”- which has seen a robust and very diverse set in recent years- think Delhi Noir, the 2009 anthology, Supriya Sahay’s 2010 book of sketches Delhi on the Road ; or more recently, Dave Prager’s Delirious Delhi.
Moreover, bibliophiles in Delhi have another reason yet to thank him; Mr. Vadehra is the co-founder of the superb Spell & Bound Bookshop & Café at SDA Market, close to IIT Delhi. It’s a very atypical bookshop in this day and age; with its generous, eccentric, ever-evolving collection and its air of welcoming cosiness. These are qualities which hearken back to a simpler time- An elusive dream which the disoriented, nostalgic heroes of Vadehra’s stories are desperately chasing.