Book Review

These Circuses That Sweep Through the Land by Tejaswini Apte-Rahm

-- Mariam Karim

Publisher: Aleph 

Genre: Fiction

Extent: 156pp

This is a book of stories about the stillness, repetitiveness and suffocation of people’s lives, women’s lives in particular. It has a Hotel California feel in each story except the first. ‘You can check in anytime you like but you can never leave….’ The characters are all prisoners of their own personalities. As the song goes: 'We are all just prisoners here, of our own device….’

The first story about the aficionado of beetles is a weird tale but actually does not represent the essence of the entire collection. Tejaswini Apte constructs existential dead-ends, suffocating and inescapable. Exactly as in Sartre’s play Huis Clos.

In ‘The Mall’ the woman who can’t get out of a shopping mall is a telling comment on the modern woman with money to spend but who is pathetic in her directionlessness. In ‘The Girl who loved Dean Martin’ the protagonist cannot have a true relationship because of her obsession with the already dead star.

The woman who believes she’s stuffed with cotton in ‘Cotton’ is again an allegory on the wastefulness, fear and suffocation of the lives of lonely, self-centred housewives. ‘The House on the Hill ‘illustrates how we are all trapped in social and economic classes, and there can be no real mobility despite hypocritical exhibitions of communication. ‘Sandalwood’ is every woman’s worst fear come true – to be thrown out of her own home, to be needed by neither husband nor children, her entire life’s efforts and dreams  come undone.

In ‘Mili’ the character is so obsessed by her own loss of self that she cannot reach out to the man who loves her. ‘These Circuses that Sweep Through the Land’ is an evolved tale of mentor and mentee, the jealousies, love and hatred, contempt and rage that an exist between the two.

Tejaswini Apte is a pleasure to read as she has complete control over the language and stumbles at no point. Her prose is flowing and masterful.  Her detailed and vivid descriptions are what actually fashion the inescapable situations in her stories.  She is sensitive to all sights and sounds using them to create the scenarios. She knows exactly what she’s doing and skillfully produces the effects she wants: 

That night I stand on Primrose Hill and take in the bird’s eye view of London spread before me. A tattered light tumbles over the scene, changing the sky into a tangle of dim forms and shapes where roofs appear decrepit and houses become small tumbledown dwellings. The city looks like a vast but temporary settlement.

She builds up the drama beautifully. Unfortunately the endings are extremely unsatisfactory and leave the reader frustrated. There’s not a single story (except the first, which isn’t that deep anyway ) that one can say ends with an expert twist or turn as good short stories tend to do.

Another critique would be that although there are dozens of characters, the writing doesn’t change for them, so actually it could all be one person narrating all the stories. It appears Mili has the same inner soul as Chanda or Padma or Anshu . They all perceive the same things in the same way.

The stories are such that if the characters didn’t have Indian names they could be set anywhere in the world.  Except for the servant girl in ‘The House on the Hill’ they are all about upper crust, well educated, urban,  westernized Indians, who know Desperately Seeking Susan, drink Japanese rice wine, and Bloody Mary. ‘Mili’ and ‘Drinks at Seven’ do have a Bombay feel. In the latter story the way Lalit says, ‘Lucky Mian has been around for fifty years, haan,’ is typically Bombay. But the rest of the stories are about Indians only in name. They could be any people anywhere, especially in the west.

It is a debut collection, but the writing indicates that here’s an author to look out for. Slightly better plotting would mark her as an outstanding writer. The book has been flawlessly edited and published by Aleph.