Life’s like that

Jonaki Ray | Updated on November 30, 2020

Begin again: A yoga teacher who’d tried different occupations risks a fresh start in the story Pros and Cons   -  ISTOCK.COM

Jenny Bhatt knits together different voices, sweeping the reader into her characters’ world, in her debut collection of short stories

* The author describes the 15 stories in Each of Us Killers as tales “woven at the intersection of labor and our emotional lives”

* In the rich details of immigrant lives, her stories remind us of the writing of Jhumpa Lahiri


The dichotomy between possibility and loss that life throws up runs through Jenny Bhatt’s short story collection Each of Us Killers. Take the case of Dhanesh Patel or Dan, the victim of a hate crime in the US. From that pivotal moment, the story — Return to India — leads us back into Dan’s life, piecing together the narrative through the varied voices of his colleagues, ex-wife, and the man who committed the act. Balancing diverse threads as the characters remember Dan through the lenses of their backgrounds and interactions with him, the story comes together to show how, much before the violent end, there were numerous, seemingly innocuous, acts of aggression, unfairness and casual racism that Dan faced throughout his life. As one of his colleagues says: “...(He) Never really became one of us”. Yet, Dan stayed on in the US, never fully at home in the world there, nor able to return to India.

Each of Us Killers/ Jenny Bhatt / 7.13 Books / Non-fiction / ₹ 1,805


Bhatt describes the 15 stories in the collection as tales “woven at the intersection of labor and our emotional lives”. Indeed, the Texas-based writer is unusual in the detailed descriptions of the work-life of her characters. Pros and Cons, for instance, is the story of a yoga teacher who has tried different occupations, and finally decides to take the risk of a new beginning; The God of Wind deals with an autorickshaw driver’s encounter with a small girl and a bundled baby during the course of his workday.

In an interview, Bhatt had earlier spoken about the lack of stories that focus on work, especially that of immigrants, and how she wanted to address this gap. In this, her personal journey and search for an identity as a writer after leaving the corporate world has undoubtedly played a part. While this is Bhatt’s debut collection, her expertise in the short story form — through her years of experience as a writer, translator, reviewer and critic — is evident.

In the rich details of immigrant lives, her stories remind us of the writing of Jhumpa Lahiri, whom Bhatt has mentioned as an influence. The epiphanies of the characters also bring to mind the self-realisation of characters in Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. The story Neeru’s New World, for instance — about a live-in maid who realises the vast gulf in status between her and the mistress of the house — reminds us of Mansfield’s The Garden Party, where the main protagonist recognises the difference between her comfortable life and that of her neighbour’s down the street.

Bhatt — whose other book (published this year) is Ratna Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, where she has translated a selection of the Gujarati writer’s short stories into English — shows her skill in the craft of writing through her deft knitting together of different points of view and voices, and sweeping us along into each character’s world.

In Mango Season, Rafi, a salesman in a shop, dreams of a better life, represented by the billboards he sees while commuting daily in a crowded bus. A story that describes his life while living in a slum, where buying two mangoes for dinner is a treat, could easily have slipped into an exotic cliché, but is saved by the matter-of-fact, almost surgical description of Rafi’s acceptance of his lack of choices: “He repeated the word lucky to himself and the sensation in his mouth was as if he had bitten, unexpectedly, into the bitter, hard core of a sweet, soft fruit.”

Bhatt also uses mythology, traditional story-telling methods and investigative journalism to bring out the cycles of gender and caste-based inequities and violence and their effects on everyday lives in urban India. In Journey to a Stepwell, a mother narrates an old story to her daughter while they are travelling to a holy stepwell. The story about four beautiful, unmarried sisters and their struggle to find a husband resonates with the daughter, Vidya, who is herself trying to decide between ambition and tradition. “Why must our entire lives depend on fathers, brothers, husbands, and son?” Vidya asks. She experiences a moment of epiphany as she resolves her future, and learns from the new ending that her mother and she add to the old story.

Not all the stories of the collection are equally detailed or powerful, but, overall, this is a collection that is as important in the telling as in remembering the times we live in and the times to come. For it is when we refuse to remember or remain silent that we are in danger, as a group of village men realise in the title story, Each of Us Killers: “…we are still dumb, unable to speak of this corrosion burning away within each of us killers” .

Jonaki Ray is a poet, writer, and editor based in New Delhi.

Published on November 30, 2020

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