Familiar ghosts

Arathy Asok | Updated on February 28, 2020

Deep in thought: The children in the stories of E Santhosh Kumar are seers   -  ISTOCK.COM

E Santhosh Kumar’s collection of stories explores how everyday acts of resistance go a long way in changing power structures

“You make the fire

and I’ll show you something wonderful:

A big ball of snow!”

The above lines from Matsuo Basho reverberated in my head as I read A Fistful of Mustard Seeds, a collection of short stories by the Malayalam writer E Santhosh Kumar, translated into English by PN Venugopal. The 17th-century Japanese poet Basho’s work seemed to describe the fictional world that was unravelling before me through Kumar’s stories — a world that hides another world, one that is primal, caught in a muted anger by the seemingly innocent entrapments of language. A novelist and short story writer, Kumar is a two-time recipient of the Kerala Sahithya Academy Award. He won the award for his story collection Chaavukali and later for his novel Andhakaaranazhi.

A Fistful of Mustard Seeds; E Santhosh Kumar; Niyogi Books; Fiction; ₹350


The 12 stories in A Fistful of Mustard Seeds, brought out by Niyogi Books, were written across a span of two decades. Though the stories are varied in their tone and content, the writer notes that they have “a few undercurrents that connect them like a blood stream”. There is an eternity that pervades them which we wait to catch, but which evades us, because it is connected to the mystery of what we call living. The questions raised in them are almost rhetorical and therefore do not wait for answers, but pass on without lingering.

The tales in the collection focus on journeys. They are the necessary movements that the story imposes on the characters, so that meaning is forced out of the plot. The geography of the stories, unlike that in many others tales from Kerala, is a landscape that does not fix itself to the state. The characters move into locations such as town B, or unnamed locations that resemble small cities. The narrative played out is the story of humankind, sweaty like men and women, breathing perplexities. The characters are often ordinary people breaking out of stereotypes through small thoughts or actions.

E Santhosh Kumar


Kumar’s characters reside in spaces of resistance that are rooted in everyday living. Notions of privilege based on class and gender, wielded by some characters who occupy the centre stage, are called out, often by the characters who inhabit the fringes. For instance, the young student who goes to interview three blind men in Three Blind Men Describe an Elephant, comes back unsettled. The disabled men reveal to him a different world of sensory perception and deeper comprehension, which he had not noticed before. In Light Years, a woman crushes to dust the masculine notions of a photographer and thus overhauls his settled world of masculine certainty. There is also a subtle reversal of power equations between the man and the woman when she suddenly acts in an unexpected manner. This idea is also followed in Another Summer, where the sex worker becomes the saviour of the man who is out to rape her.

In the collection, there is another world not visible to the rational eye. All the incidents in The Perch are brought to a neat focus in the eyes of a pigeon that witnesses the trauma in a child, woman and man. The Crying Buddha also brings all that is eccentric and bizarre to our doorstep. The pieces of a broken statue of the Buddha howl eerily, straining the atmosphere in the household. In Three Fingers, the narrator is left in a state of terror and daze when he listens to the story told by an artist who he later realises is a killer. There is a sense of the endless in all these stories, the darker ravines that we only conjure in our mind’s eye.

The world of children in Kumar’s tales is unlike that in The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, where the children play out larger games of savagery and civilisation. The children in A Fistful of Mustard are seers; they have a sensitive mind. The boy in Hills, Stars opens the world of the father and an old man to us. We see the woman in the background who comes to us with eyes blazing in hate, years of stifled living suddenly bursting out of her mouth. Through the child’s eye we see the helplessness of the old man, the slow descent of all the powers he thought he was capable of. The little boy in My Father was a Thief retells the dark night in which his father comes home. It is the darkness in the life of his mother, the darkness of the ordinary in the marginal lives around him.

Finally, when we reach the title story, we are again caught in the uncertainty of a mother who thinks she hears the sound of her son, whom she thought she had lost. When we decide to join her in the journey towards her son we are as uncertain as she is.

The stories, then, are about how ordinary people live their lives extraordinarily, for we know that often it is in everyday life that resistance makes itself felt, thus making life special. This resistance is described clearly by the author, where victims no longer remain victims, but show possibilities of a life beyond, by appropriating the power structures which strive to hold them captive.

Arathy Asok is a Kerala-based bilingual writer who writes poems in English and stories in Malayalam

Published on February 28, 2020

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