6 October 2016

My Lawfully Wedded Husband and Other Stories

Having read the Muzaffar Jang mysteries earlier, including a set of short stories set in Mughal India, I eagerly awaited Madhulika Liddle's latest offering. Her writing style is easy and relaxed, and even her historical mysteries reveal a strong vein of humour. While she self-describes herself as a short-story writer, her grasp of plot and eye for detail and her thorough research into the period she is writing about, has made her novels about a (very likeable) historical detective a welcome addition to the Indian crime fiction genre.So, when My Lawfully Wedded Husband and Other Stories came out, and I saw that it was classified as Crime Fiction, I expected the stories fit the genre. Not so, and not as much. Some stories in the collection do deal with crime, but most do not. Here, I must also add that it would be rather difficult to slot Liddle's work into any one particular genre. What do all her stories share? A very vivid characterisation, a reasonably strong plot, a strong hold over her language, a piquant, often dark, sense of humour that persists in popping up in the oddest of places, and the proverbial twist. All this, and more, is evident in the dozen short stories, whose disparate plots veer from straightforward crime to psychological mind games, from sheer wickedness to impish mischief, from horror to the pretend supernatural.

From the collection, my personal favourites are:
Houri - from its setting (a brothel) to its protagonist (a whore named 'Helen'), to the thing that everyone wants to get their hands on (a sinduk), the story moved in unexpected ways. It is a clever sleight of hand, and the characters come alive (including the lifeless sinduk).

My Lawfully Wedded Husband - where the worm turns after all and Liddle cleverly denies the worm a voice, setting the whole story on its head.

In 'On a Night Train', she slowly builds up the tension, until the anticlimax makes you let out your breath in a whoosh. It is wickedly humorous and is a masterpiece in ingenuity; of course, it is only funny when you are not at the receiving end.

'A Tale of a Summer Vacation' is seriously chilling. I could wish that the explanation for the deux ex machina wasn't provided, but having said that, the explanation came right at the end, and when it does not really take away from the enjoyment of the story itself.

'St. George and the Dragon' made me laugh out loud. had me grinning from the beginning, and occasionally laughing out loud. Once again a story of a worm turning over a new leaf, this worm turns, and how! While it is reiterates the 'downtrodden employee revolting against an evil boss' trope, Liddle scores in the way she etches the characterisations. I loved the sardonic humour, the devious machinations, the very true-to-life background...

'Silent Fear' was a revelation, the ending surprising, even for me, even when I was primed to expect the twist.
As for the others: 'A Brief Lesson in Trust' had me going 'Huh, what?' at the beginning. The reading calls for a slight suspension of disbelief of its essential plot point. Once you accept that, it all seems natural. Perhaps I have been reading too many mystery stories... I saw the ending come a mile away; but it is a testimony to the author's skill that that didn't take away the enjoyment of reading a well-crafted piece of writing.

'Sum Total' is a good attempt at a psychological thriller. A young woman, pushed to the end of her tether, goes on a killing spree. And one after another, each of her adversaries meet a seemingly natural death. Or so she confesses. Is she a murderess, or isn't she? Or...?

'Feet of Clay' looks at people and events from a child's point of view. It is an interesting view because, as one finds out at the end of the story, the child's sense of loss is not about what one would expect. Liddle weaves a masterful tale about a crime that is usually swept under society's carpet; it is interesting because the focus is not on the crime at all, but on the perpetrator, and not in the manner that one would think, either. This was one twist that I certainly did not expect.

'The Howling Waves of Tranquebar' takes us to a Danish settlement on coastal Tamil Nadu. The objet d'horreur here is an innocuous beer mug that has to be restored to its original owner, or else... The story meanders through the scenic route between Pondicherry and Tranquebar, and the atmosphere is deftly built up using dialogue and descriptive passages.

'No.63', to me, was one of the weaker stories, and that is only because, in this collection, the story seemed repetitive, and the twist, when it came, wasn't quite as unpredictable as you would wish.

I have mixed feelings about 'The Crusader'. I loved the premise. I'm sure many of us have wished we could do what the crusader does in the story - and worse. And again, there's nothing wrong with the writing, which is as crisp and delightful, the dialogues are very natural, and Liddle does do a good job of making you believe that it could happen, so... I just remember finishing the story and thinking, 'No, that was just a bit over the top.' But I'm sure it resonates with a lot of fellow sufferers.

Madhulika Liddle's characters are ordinary people, her settings are natural, and her grasp over the very difficult task of writing everyday dialogues is effortless. My Lawfully Wedded Husband and Other Stories is the perfect read for a rainy day, with a hot cup of tea and a plate of samosas on hand.

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