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Published on: 04/8/24 3:49 AM

Book review: Mayadevi`s London Yatra by Bulbul Sharma

Human foibles, gently exposed

The latest book from consummate storyteller Bulbul Sharma is a collection of old published tales and new stories. Here the story isn’t as much king as the characters are. Drawn up with an eye for delightful detail, each character — sweet, strong, eccentric, creepy — totally take over the story and drive the plot.

After a long while, I found myself enjoying a book of stories that were just that, stories that told us of how people behave when faced with the quotidian of everyday life, when a crisis hits, when love and life collide. There is no symbolism here, no allegories, no point being sharply made, just largely relatable tales.

Here are  stories of the human condition, of people who live in Varanasi, Kolkata, in the hills, in London. An elderly woman is invited to join a beloved nephew abroad, only to realise she is to serve as unpaid help. A crusty old lady in preparation for a trip to England starts to learn English,  and the cook gets  so unnerved, he stops fiddling with the marketing accounts and   turns honest in case the old lady, armed with the English language, would catch him out. Even as they chuckle, the reader does not for a moment miss the warmth that seeps through the tales, the little reveals that celebrate strong women – yes, it`s mostly women who are heroic in this book.

Upbeat note

None of the characters are pushovers; some of them do carry a core of sadness in them but overall, they are optimistic human beings who refuse to be weighed down by their circumstances. Even as the reader wonders just how the characters can possibly shrug off their burdens, clear the obstacles in their path, they do just that in a slow but determined fashion.

The humour is a gentle,  unforced one, especially in stories like where a family needs to find a suitable priest for a shradh ceremony, one who isn’t too thin and starved nor too sleek and fat, one with feet as smooth as a baby`s showing he washed them regularly, one who isn’t obsequious or servile but has the proper distant look in eye and demeanour.

Food makes its presence felt strongly, and there are wonderfully resonating passages like this: the final menu was potatoes in a rich red gravy made only with tomatoes (no onions, no garlic), cauliflower with just a dash of ginger to  highlight its flavour, phulmakhani and paneer coated in a mild gravy, yogurt with a sprinkling of crisply fried boondi, and the mandatory kheer which was going to simmer on a low fire till it turned a special shade of pink.

And sometimes, the descriptive lines flood the page with emotion. `The rain here (in England) like the continuous weeping of an old woman to whose sorrow everyone had become indifferent.` Elsewhere, `a fine mist covered the garden, touching the trees with damp cold hands and the moon hid behind the clouds as if it was sulking.`

The strength in these stories are the personalities we meet therein. There is a long-suffering Junoesque woman loathed by her husband for her largeness. There is the young girl made to marry a spindly peepal tree to ward off future disaster, who remains innocent of all the goings on even as the adults around her are filled with an ominous sadness.

There is another young girl who loves to hide away, deliberately putting her family in a state of panic; when she actually gets lost one evening, she realises her games are not so funny after all. There is a young bride and the old family servant of the house moving `around deliberately like pieces on a chessboard trying to dislodge each other.`

There is the child thief, a nimble, pretty, intelligent girl who figures out how to thrive all on her own, eliciting the unwilling admiration of the reader. There is the Sen couple who after years of marriage have nothing much to say to each other until one special day dawns. There is a murder not quite foul, the ghost of a little girl, a piece of exquisitely embroidered kantha-work cloth which hides in plain sight the anguish of the creator.

All in all, a  heartwarming compilation of stories.

Mayadevi`s London Yatra by Bulbul Sharma. Speaking Tiger Books. Rs 399. 218 pages.

This ran in the Deccan Herald`s Books page on 7 April 2024.


Bulbul Sharmaheartwarming talesMayadevi`s London yatrashort storiesSpeaking Tiger Books

Sheila Kumar • April 8, 2024

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