CHENNAI: Literary fiction is tough to write, and tough to get published. Getting a first book out can take years — years in which several stories are placed in different literary journals and rejection letters are collected for volume length work almost as a ritual. This means that a first book, when its time comes, more often than not contains writing done during a considerable period of time, all through which the writer was also honing the craft.
Rheea Mukherjee’s debut collection of stories Transit for Beginners (Kitaab, Singapore) seems to exemplify the above. In that lie both its refreshing value and its minor shortcomings. One can see the gradual development of a talented writer in the book: the other side is the variance in quality within the fifteen stories in the collection. This reviewer pondered whether the title itself was a private joke: a here-to- stay writer emphasising her transition from early beginnings.
That is unlikely, though. For Transit for Beginners is also the title of one of the stories in the collection, perhaps its strongest. At Changi Airport, a woman in her early 20s and a slightly older man decide to spend the hours before their next flights together. The woman, who is also the narrator, isn’t the most politically correct person. In the beginning of the story, she goes into the airport bathroom to freshen up. Discretely trying to wash her armpits, she feels comfortable seeing that other women are also making full use of the bathroom.
The exact description is revealing: “Luckily for me there were a bunch of Bangladeshi and Indian women who were using the bathroom as some sort of hostel. By this measure, I looked far more sophisticated.”
Are we to assume that those women are using the bathroom as a hostel because they are Indian/Bangladeshi? If yes, the narrator’s assumption of sophistication derives from something over and above this identity — it is class. But with the man, Rudra, who is from the same class, greater sophistication cannot be assumed. Thus starts a game of one-upmanship, which soon turns into banter. Going further, banter comes to resemble an authentic human connection with some erotic potential. But the end changes everything, and the woman emerges the worse from the transitory encounter.
One of the strength of Mukherjee’s collection is how comfortably it traverses a wide spectrum of that grand edifice called the Indian middle class. Transit for Beginners is about globe-trotting yuppies, Sweetie is about a meager household where sexual abuse takes place, Reckless is about the strenuous love relationship of an entry-level IT professional, Hungry is about the moral conundrums of a steward at a shady hotel, and so on.
There are also some stories like The Rectification Still and A Larger Design that are focalised on characters’ personal losses, and do not need to rely on the class dimension. Overall, Transit for Beginners signals the arrival of a promising new voice in the Indian scene.
(The writer will publish his first novel Neon Noon in July 2016)