Neelesh Misra, through his hit radio programmes Yaadon ka Idiot Box and Kahaani Express or the recently remodelled The Neelesh Misra Show , has become synonymous with the art of storytelling. Since his sabbatical from journalism, Misra has purportedly sought to find new voices that tell smaller stories — ruminations from provincial life and its intersection with modernity, a blind spot in English language publishing, which predominantly restricts its voices to Delhi and Mumbai. Handpicked by Misra, Storywallah is a collection of 20 stories written by his mandali , a group of writers he began mentoring in 2011. The collection attempts to tie narratives to overlooked places with the help of characters who, though unremarkable by definition, do some fairly remarkable things.

Storytelling has been a significant aspect of India’s cultural fabric. From oral religious traditions like the Harikatha in Andhra Pradesh to performative ones like the dastangoi to those that extend over generations such as the qissas of Punjab, the art of storytelling has taken many forms. The nukkad natak used to be an event second to none, but with the arrival of television, even eternal formats such as the Ram Leela have suffered. Though traditional storytelling has largely focused on folklore, superstition and mysticism, Misra’s Mandali, which has writers from diverse backgrounds, brings realism to the fore, discussing modern relationships and familial problems in provincial India. While the focus is solid and the subject promising, the execution isn’t as convincing as it could have been.

Storywallah is not so much a collection of stories as it is of reconciliations. The first story, ‘Wildflower’, sees a young daughter come to terms with her mother’s lover, a man equipped with sayings like “there are some flowers that don’t want to grow in gardens” and “that’s what your mother was: a wildflower. The universe’s favourite creation”. Most stories are lean, straightforward, making sudden, jarring attempts at worldly maxims. ‘Yellow Roses’, for example, believes “there is no noise in love, there is deepness” while ‘A Bird in Flight’ proposes that “Children who grow up in the noise of city don’t know how to read the silence of the villages”.

The collection’s strength lies in its subjects — people dealing with issues that are either arcane or plain subversive. From a husband’s capacity to talk to his wife about a relationship he had as a teenager, to a man’s ability to reconcile his love for a sex worker — there are stories that try to wriggle free of generality. There is, however, a reluctance to address hard issues such as caste, gender and poverty. In this respect, this collection is eager to play the role of the window rather than the mirror, in that it is about the resolution of conflict rather than the conflict itself.

The idea of provincial life also feels like a bit of a smokescreen. Very few stories in the collection actually transport you to the places they are written about or from. The tone of the writing about places seems to identify itself with a touristy approach. For example, the three stories that are set in the hill-stations of Shimla, Manali and Mussoorie occur at their hearts — the Mall Road in Shimla, Solang in Manali and the bustling market centres of Mussoorie — places a tourist would visit. It’s almost as though the writers were inspired by travel blogs and hotel booking websites that reduce these places to a handful of spots and activities.

Secondly, though there are references to provincial paraphernalia such as litti-chokha , gatte ki sabzi and cow-dung cakes, there is precious little in terms of the prejudices, conflicts and mannerisms that are associated with small-town life. This absence of authentic detail is especially strange, considering the writers aren’t exactly amateurs — most of them are experienced journalists, professors and even writers — they are, in some way, associated with the storytelling business itself. Perhaps this may also be down to the fact that some of these stories are translated, but the book does not notify which ones are and which were originally in English. I expected to at least be transported to these places, if not bowled over by the writing.

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StorywallahNeelesh Misra’s MandaliPenguin IndiaFictionRs 250


Further, in its quest to assert its modernism, particularly its ability to accommodate adultery and forbidden relationships, Storywallah often feels like a city problem in a town setting, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless it overdoes the format.

Mention must be made of Misra’s brave attempt to carve this unique plateau of storytelling. I say plateau because the collection is brimming with home-town heroes, doing minor to major heroic things, almost always surrounded by an environment keen to conform. And I say brave because it takes heart to offer an open platform to new writers. Storywallah is a decent read, pleasant yet forgettable, undermined largely by the writers who intend it to be an advertisement of small-town India’s modern calculus. But while all that is fine, there should be room for decadence and tragedy, a couple of thorns alongside this book of roses.

Manik Sharma writes on arts and culture