The title of the book may be Winter Evenings, but the stories that its pages contain are crisp and fresh as a spring morning. The words flow freely, easily in Navtej Sarnas stories; nothing is laboured or forced.
An important aspect that is often ignored while writing short stories is the economy of style. But Sarna scores fully here; the stories are short19 of them spanning just 134 pages.
What really impresses the reader beyond the brevity and the deceptive simplicity of the plots is the perceptive, astute manner in which the stories are written. The attention to detail is something to marvel at and the keen observation on display never becomes heavy or laborious, as is often seen with Indian writers writing for a western audience. Coupled with the short crispness of the stories, this becomes a rare combination. There is thankfully no attempt to impress, no failed attempt at intellectualism or to deliver a punch that lacks impact.
So if you have a materialistic couple in Delhi who cover their emotional hurts with the flash of money, there is an Indian woman in Paris given to adultery, a stickler-to-rules bureaucrat delightfully letting go in a European casino, a young painter relying on the leftover paints of a dead man and his ambitions of a masterpiece, and the ghosts of 1984 returning to haunt a Sikh matriarchbeautiful vignettes of life that keep the reader hooked, eager to read the next one.
Once or twice, the stories do get intensely personal, leaving the reader a little clueless, as in the case of Half Way Home, but that may just add to the wonder for some.
Most of the stories have either been published or broadcast on radio before. But the compilation definitely breathes fresh life into the short story genre by Indian writers.
Short story: Winter evenings
Dr Anand unlocked the door and stepped into his house. The dark rooms were very cold. He switched on the light in the small living room. The window had been left open and the cold breeze had blown magazines and newspapers all over the room. Leaving his doctors bag on the carved low table, he picked them up, folded them and put them back on the table. Then he went to the window to shut it.
Though it was only six in the evening, the cold, brittle darkness was crowded with stars. The Milky Way was a faint and distant smudge of white smoke overhead. The mountains were strong, dark silhouettes but he couldnt see the moon. It must be there, somewhere, he thought, for he could see the glistening sheen of the river in the wide valley. An icy wind rushed to his face, and with a sudden cold shudder he shut the window and drew the curtains.
Keeping his coat on, he went to the backyard to choose some firewood. Back in the living room, he set three neatly chopped pieces in the metal sheet drum known in those areas as the bukhari. Unfolding the newspapers, he pulled out the advertisement pages, crumpled these into balls and stuffed them under the wood. Then he opened the vent on top of the bukhari, poured in a few drops of kerosene oil, and dropped in a match. In just a few minutes the paper had given its fire to the wood. It sent the smoke rushing up the pipe that lead out through the chimney into the crystal night.
And from his window, higher up on the same hill, Rao saw the smoke rising. He was glad. Dr Anand was back and that meant that he could go over. The bank branch shut at two and the afternoons hung heavy on Rao. Sometimes he would go for a long walk to the monastery and back, to tire himself. But all of last week, the fierce afternoon wind had discouraged him. He had stayed in, reading disinterestedly and writing letters to people halfway across the world whom he hadnt seen in ten years.
So he felt good when the doctor was back. He tied a woollen scarf around his neck, folding the ends into his coat, raised his coat collar, pulled on his leather gloves and picked up a short, rounded stick. Ready, he stepped out into the cold.
It would be a long winter, and, inevitably, he looked up to the pass where the snow glistened in the night. Already the snow had been there for two months, cutting off the valley from the rest of the world. It would stay there at least another month, and then, if they were lucky, it would begin to melt.
The bank was crazy, sending him here. Baptism by blood, he had been told! He had been a sucker to accept the offer. As if anybody cared what he did to disburse miserly loans to the handful of farmers here. It wouldnt make any difference. At least not in the winter and not if they couldnt keep that wretched pass open. His face flushed against the cold and his teeth set, he knocked on Dr Anands door and quickly stepped inside.
Come along, come along, called out the doctor.
Always cold, unless the sun is out.
When is the sun ever out
Actually you are right, havent seen it this week.
Rao loosened his scarf and sat down, extending both hands towards the bukhari. He took out his pipe, and turning it around, tapped it vigorously on the palm of his hand. Dr Anand watched him do it but restrained himself from saying anything. He couldnt stand the sweet smell of tobacco that would hang in the room long after Rao left. He would have to open the window again at night.
Rao knew that the doctor would soon ask him what he would like to drink though he knew that the doctor only had whisky in the house, and that the doctor also knew that Rao preferred his whisky neat.
What will you drink
Whisky, neat, please.
The doctor went to the little closet and took out the bottle of whisky. He had bought six glasses when he had gone down in the summer. Two had cracked during the journey but he still had four. Will never need more than two, thought Dr Anand as he fixed the drinks. Theres nobody in this village except Rao, blast him, that I can have a drink with.
But when he turned back, he was smiling.
Rao took a small sip of his whisky and a few quick puffs from his pipe. Dr Anand pointedly moved his chair away before sitting down and then threw himself into it.
What news asked Rao.
The doctor ran his fingers through his hair.
A woman nearly died today.
Allergy to anaesthesia. But she came out finally.
Good luck, rather. How about you
Dull day today.
And usually, thought the doctor, your hole of a bank is a veritable hub of activity.
But aloud, he said: How come
No mail, no work. Not one potential borrower.
They are all frozen, or sick. We really need that new hospital.
Back to the new hospital, thought Rao, cant we ever talk of anything else
And aloud: Hows the work going
The contractor says another four months, four months after the road opens, that is.
Ill be gone by then.
Youll get a good posting after this, you deserve it. The doctors smile was very pleasant, very friendly. But he was wondering what this city slicker had done to deserve anything.
Rao knew that the doctor would reach for the pack of cards secretly, mysteriously, as if he was going to come up with a great surprise, some marvellous Christmas present.
Dr Anand bent down and picked up the cards, hiding them in his cupped hands and then revealing them suddenly, in the manner of an oriental magician. Rao could have screamed.
Rummy asked the doctor.
You dont know any other game, in any case, thought Rao.
Rao placed his pipe on the table. The smoke curled up gently to the doctors nostrils and into his head.
Throw away that wretched pipe, he wanted to say.
The cards were dealt and the game began. The room had warmed up with the fire and a comfortable glow had spread gradually over the room. Each of them was alone with his glass, his ten cards and his thoughts.
A few weeks more of this, thought Rao. Then he would have better company in the evenings than a stuffy, small-town, self-centred doctor. He would be back in the thick of things, back in circulation. It was a pleasant thought. He took a large sip of the whisky. It seared his throat and he coughed.
My resident film star, thought Dr Anand. He must smoke a pipe and drink neat whisky even though he cant take it. Suffer him for a couple of months more and lets hope his replacement will be a more intelligent chap. Someone genuine and not an upstart.
Lost in thought, the doctor got up and put a small log in the bukhari. Then he blew at the dying flames and saw the blue licks rise again. He came back to the table and threw down a king of spades. Almost instantly, he realized that he had made a mistake. What a fool he was. He picked up the card quickly.
Sorry, that was a mistake.
Rao had seen this before. Tonight he would not let it pass. In his agitation he puffed at his pipe quickly and sent the smoke straight into the doctors face.
You cant pick it up, I say.
Its only a friendly game.
Friendly, my foot, Rao was shouting now. Its cheating.
You call me a cheat, youyou pipe-smoking bank clerk.
Im not a clerk. Im the manager, you village doc, you vet!
Dr Anand wouldnt be called a vet by anybody. With a short swift movement of his forearm, he slapped Rao across the face. Smarting from the blow, Rao slapped him back. Then he got up and walked out, leaving the door open to the chilly wind.
Dr Anand sat quietly for a long time. Then, slowly, he got up and put another log in the bukhari. When he washed the glasses and put them near the drinks closet, he was already hoping that he would need to use them the next evening.
Rao walked home and the chilly wind quickly blew away his anger. Perhaps he had been hasty to walk away like that. Perhaps he should go back and apologize, or at least he must do it tomorrow. He looked involuntarily at the snow on the pass. It looked so heavy, so permanent.