Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Happy Birthday! by Meghna Pant

A financial journalist with NDTV Profit and Bloomberg-UTV, Meghna Pant inhabits two worlds: the quantitative world of finance and the creative world of storytelling. She has reported from the New York Stock Exchange and has met and interviewed a galaxy of personalities representing politics, business and entertainment. Happy Birthday! (July 2013, Random House India) is her second offering in as many years. One & A Half Wife (May 2012, Westland) - Meghna's bestselling debut novel - was shortlisted for a clutch of awards, including the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award. It received critical and commercial acclaim, and went into multiple reprints. And thereupon began her writerly journey...
About the book: Happy Birthday! is a celebration of the complex, mysterious inner lives of our fellow human beings, by the award-winning novelist Meghna Pant. A dedicated friend undertakes one last labour of love for a childless woman. Nadia - married into money - finds herself facing uncomfortable truths about her comfortably numb marriage. A retired civil servant of modest means struggles to support his snooty foreign-returned daughter. And so on...
Meghna Pant's knife-sharp stories are compelling, emotionally intelligent and provide a rare glimpse into the strange workings of the human heart. They evade neat categorization, and are the perfect read for all curious spirits.'
My twopenceworth: The jacket cover is tastefully done; it exudes joy and serenity. However, the title is misleading - perhaps deliberately so, and each balloon (on the cover) contains a story vignette. Happy Birthday! And Other Stories is a collection of thirteen many-flavoured and thought-provoking tales that make for a compelling read. Of myriads of layers... they are akin to peeling shallots; each tale is a slice-of-life; realties we see around us, realities we do not pay much attention to... realities we'd rather ignore. And forget. The stories are not interconnected, but unlike random brushstrokes on a canvas or a series of linked vignettes... they resemble a multi-hued kaleidoscope. Impactful, the stories are sure to leave their imprint on the readers and stay with them for a long time. 'The Gecko on the Wall' and 'Clip and Cane' are a tad predictable, while 'Friends' and 'Happy Birthday' (the title story) is not all that novel... though you'd still want to read them. The pages turn easily... but none of the stories make for a breezy read. And so, one can only put this down to a.) their content and b.) Meghna's simple-yet-powerful writing style. However, 'The Gola Master', 'Lemon and Chilli' and 'Hoopsters' are quite well-crafted; they bring forth a multitude of emotions in the reader: sometimes funny-yet-moving, at other times heartbreaking-but-never-sentimental. 'Shoulder Blades' is somewhat underdone (or maybe overdone - can't quite make up my mind). Perhaps the author's pen lost focus a wee bit. Or, maybe, it's a bit of both. In 'The Message', 'The Bailout', 'After Ashes', etc ~ the emotions are many and complicated.
~ Umm, I wouldn't like to play spoilsport. So, do grab a copy and read all you can. The few editing errors are easy to let go. Hopefully, the author will continue perfecting the precision of her language and attention to detail, the seamless shifts of moods, feelings and emotions, and the novelty and logic of her storytelling - to bring before us every shade of human behaviour.
Here are a few lines from Hoopsters:
"We enter a narrow muddy path with jhopadpattis on both sides. Lalit apologetically turns his head towards me; the car can move no further. Seven or eight dusty children in ragged clothes surround our car, their noses pressed flat against the windows, their teeth white through the tinted glass. If we leave the car here they'll scratch the silver-grey paint, sit on the hood or steal the rear-view mirrors, so I tell Lalit, 'I don't trust these slum people. I think you better stay in the car.'

'Memsahib, I can take you to Mary's house,' he says gently.

'How would you know the way around this kachra place?' I ask. 'I live here,' he says, and our eyes meet in the mirror.

I look away and croak a reply, 'Wait for us here.'
He nods his head slowly as Sara and I squeeze through the small space between the car and the corrugated iron wall of a jhopadpatti. The children scatter."
Rating: 3.5/5.  

Meghna Pant is a gifted storyteller, a unique voice... and someone to look out for in the future.
Details of the book: Happy Birthday! And Other Stories/ Author: Meghna Pant/ Publisher: Vintage Books, an imprint of Random House India/ Binding: Paperback/ Language: English/ Publishing Date: 2013/ Genre: Fiction/ ISBN-10: 8184004038 ISBN-13: 9788184004038/ Pages: 296/ Price: INR 299.

Picture: The book jacket cover of Happy Birthday! Courtesy: link.