The book is a thin volume of ten short stories that can be read in one go. The stories are about ordinary people in ordinary situations— with candid glimpses into life’s extraordinary moments. Every now and then the veil lifts to reveal life’s surprises, its splendors, its ironies. Reality is what we see on the outside, but it is also what we fleetingly see on the inside, made visible through cracks and gaps. And it is those cracks and gaps that Abbas draws our attention to—although I distinctly felt a certain predictability about Abbas’s style, which kind of dampens the reader’s attention. The same does not hold true of his films, which are vastly more imaginative. Halfway through many of the stories, I correctly guessed what the ending would be! For me, maudlin is the word that describes the treatment of many of the stories.
The title story, “Rice,” is about Durga, a poor mill worker’s wife who delivers her baby when she is out standing in the long queue to buy rations. It is stark and grim, and yet represents the joys of new beginnings. The queue is relentless, but hungry mouths have to be fed, and hundreds of women patiently wait their turn outside the government grain store, miraculously open after many days, during a period of grain shortage (which is reminiscent of the darkness of the Bengal famine of 1943 captured on celluloid in Dharti ke lal, 1946). As the crowds teem around and bags are filled with rice, birth—at once mundane and magical—unfolds.
In “Sylvia,” a nurse is elated at the thought that it is her last night of work at the hospital, but then as dawn approaches, she confronts a mind that goes in loops. The more she looks forward to her new life, the greater her wavering. Expectedly, the stories have a certain cinematic feel about them, and it is not difficult to imagine the characters playing themselves out before the camera. In “Sparrows,” Rahim Khan, who is callously indifferent to his family and fellow beings—he is constitutionally incapable of amicability towards his kind—is like moldable clay in the company of the chirpy sparrows that make his hut their home. There is a certain self-destructiveness about Rahim that he is unable to help, which makes the reader at once loathe and pity him. He has a touch of Thomas Hardy’s Henchard about him.
In “Twelve hours,” Vijay, a revolutionary leader released after sixteen years in prison is briefly freed for a few hours—and in that time, he goes to see a film, a talkie, in the company of Bina, a female comrade. It is 1943 and, as Abbas says, Vijay, having missed out on the arrival of the talkie in 1931, has neither heard Saigal’s songs, nor seen stars such as Joan Fontaine, Paul Muni, Bette Davis, Ashok Kumar or Kanan Bala. Vijay and Bina go to the screening of a rather outdated action movie called Toofan Mail (1934), famous in its days, produced by Ranjit Studios, starring Billimoria and Madhuri. (For the vintage-film buff in me, these references to big names from the past were most entertaining.) Vijay is absorbed in the picture for a while, but then it triggers certain emotions that he has not known in a long while. Restless, he leaves midway. Having been a prisoner for so long, Vijay has forgotten the pleasures of life, and the reawakening is painful.
The most filmi (if I may use that word) of the stories is “Flowers for her feet,” where a prostitute called Chandra purposely spurns, in the end, the kind young man who loves her because she has lost her legs, a fact that she hides from him because she does not want to ruin his life (somewhat like Deborah Kerr trying to throw off Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember, 1957); and while he still brings flowers for her feet as always, Chandra pretends that she favors somebody else. “Saffron Blossoms” is a figurative tale, though no less melodramatic, of the blood from a dying Kashmiri bride, shot by soldiers putting down anti-establishment protests, giving the saffron flower its red color. “Three Women” takes a look at three women, all disillusioned for various reasons, dying on the train tracks, and the reactions that the deaths evoke. It is the least sentimental of the lot.
In “The Umbrella,” a man, on his payday, gets ripped off a by a woman, a petty thief, during a bus ride on a rainy day: this was a giveaway from the start. “Reflection in a mirror” is about Radha, a beautiful nautch girl who briefly becomes the mistress of a wealthy man, only to realize that a mistress can never take the place of a wife, and decides to return to her courtesan life. That familiar, age-old wife-mistress divide of Hindi films, beaten to death. Finally, “The mark of an Indian” is about an Indian bravely taking on a drunken British cop, and earning the latter’s respect in the process.
In his preface, Mulk Raj Anand praises Abbas’s lyricism, but I would qualify that. There is a certain lyricism but, unfortunately, the soppy treatment of many of the stories detracts from that lyricism. Anand also mentions that Abbas has captured both the strengths and weaknesses of his characters: while this may be true to some extent, one puts down the book with a feeling that the characters are not as well rounded and fleshed out as they ought to have been. And, finally, as I said before, the predictability of the stories kills it for the reader. One had rather read Abbas’s script of Shree 420 (1955) or his other films—that is inspired writing—than wade through this insipid stuff.