Friday, May 31, 2013

Kith and Kin: A Portrait of a Southern Indian clan


I have been trying to take a crack at Sheila Kumar’s collection of short stories Kith and Kin (Rupa, 2012) for a few months but without much success. In between, I read more than half of Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time and then abandoned it—it didn’t seem to go anywhere. I returned his The Finkler Question unread to the library. I flitted from book to book, mostly nonfiction and even dabbled into Manto’s stories for a while. But I could barely finish a novel (managed to read three chapters of Buddenbrooks). And all this while, Kith and Kin, sitting on my bookshelf, excoriated me for being so fiendish and obtuse. I became my own nightmare.

Then I came across an opening, a mental pass, that offered me some redemption. Or cut me some slack, if you go for the less dramatic.

I was travelling and I carried Kumar’s book to give it one more try. Luckily, this time the book yielded to me. Is the mind more receptive to new experiences when one is traveling at 30,000 feet above the ground? Is the airborne mind so tremulous with unexpected disasters that it is eager to absorb anything new? Anything that can distract the mind is a welcome absorption at that altitude.

During the two hours of flight time, I could read Kumar’s stories and enjoy some of them.

Kith and Kin contains 19 stories about the Melekat clan of Kerala. Ammini Amma is the matriarch of the clan and Mon Repos is the matriarch’s house in south Malabar. The various members of this clan— three generations of brothers and sisters and their grandchildren—inhabit different cities in India. This is a proud clan, with beauty running in the genes, but with some customary exceptions.

Through these stories, Kumar explores a range of human emotions, both carnal and spiritual and always with a touch of wit and humour. In Kingfisher Morning, for example, Sindhu’s affair with Deepender comes to an abrupt end when she finds out that he was two-timing with Seema, her own sister, in Delhi. There is even a slow-mo moment when this discovery takes place but instead of feeling blue after encountering her sister, Sindhu thinks of Seema’s hairy armpits. Deepender loathes women with hairy pits. “Hope Seema has done something about hers,” she contemplates.

Some stories in the collection end with a twist in the tale which feels contrived. In All Those Doors, Anita, a journalist, goes to interview a famous theatre and film actor—‘a thinking woman’s sex symbol’ who has retreated to the hills near Coimbatore. The interview goes very well and Anita imagines a life with this famous person—an opposite of the shallow Chetan, her boyfriend of two years.

As Anita leaves the house after the interview, the actor goes back into his house to surf kiddy porn. Some might think this is a clever ending but there is this sudden shift in the point of view which is jarring.

In these stories, Kumar shows her flair for comic writing. But this is not the sort of comic writing that reminds you of early Naipaul; nor does it display the chutzpah of Rushdie’s literary playfulness.

To Kumar’s credit, she draws most scenes well and some of her passages are expertly well-written. However, her prose is overwrought at places and she barely exercises restraint, resulting in overexposing her characters. Also, there are far too many references to contemporary books, writers and film stars in these stories. It is possible that Kumar prefers Woody Allen over Hemingway. But all her stylistic choices mar an otherwise readable collection of short stories which could have been a deeper study of a Southern Indian clan.  

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