Author: Gouri Dange
Pune, which cannot yet boast of any English-language writer of repute, might just be on the threshold of getting one. Gouri Dange, who many in the city know as a witty columnist and counsellor, makes an assured second splash into the pool of Indian fiction with the launch of her new book, The Counsel Of Strangers. I will admit I was overall underwhelmed with her debut effort, 3 Zakia Mansion - a dark portrait of a Muslim woman and a long-drawn struggle with her nasty in-laws. I found it morose and melodramatic, even though I was blown by the emotional power in the third act of the book. Nevertheless, it clearly established the author's proficiency with her craft and language. And with The Counsel Of Strangers, she opts for a less tricky subject than 3 Zakia Mansion. The Counsel Of Strangers is really a book of short stories (more on that later). But the result is far more promising and overall, this makes for a thoroughly riveting read.
The book is about six distressed strangers, who dawdle away from a wedding that is taking place at a resort, to spend some private moments with themselves.
Each one is going through a transitional phase and looking for solutions. The darkness and the comfort of strangers allows them to talk about their lives. The first story is about a 60 plus retired man, who is spending time with his daughter and son-in-law in California. He's not unhappy, but there is a sense of loneliness creeping in. "You'll know when you get there... that uncomfortable feeling of being treated dutifully, but with little interest," he says. He meets a smart, 50 year old woman with whom he establishes a friendly, warm relationship. She is separated from her husband, he is widowed. When they speak to their respective children about this 'special person' , they are appalled and disgusted. This story, along with almost all the other ones, point towards the 'pigeon-holing' of people into specific roles and expectations.
The second story is about a young boy, Karthik, whose life gets greatly altered after his parents go through a bad experience on account of his elder brother, Vishwas. Karthik is tired of living a censored life, with his paranoid family watching out minutely for any tell-tale signs of 'weirdness' in his behaviour. A bit long-drawn story, but engaging nevertheless.
My absolutely favourite story is Anandi-Mohini. Personal and revelatory, it intimately tracks the journey of a strong-minded woman, as she comes to terms with the breakdown of her 14 year old marriage. That follows another unwittingly funny episode involving a prospective husband. There is plenty of pathos in the story, and it's clear that much of it is very close to the author's heart. But the story also sparkles with charm and ironic wit, because after the initial shock and sadness, the character is able to see her situation with bemused detachment and the ludicrousness of it all.
There's an especially telling part where she describes the aftermath of her divorce. Her friends – well-meaning and otherwise - come up with various reasons on why the marriage failed. For a while, her self-esteem suffers, until she sees the absurdity. “And these are just some of the many theories of friends and passing strangers as they drove gaping, slowly, past the accident site of our marriage. It takes a while for you to gain the wisdom to discount all of this as their projections of their reality, and not your truth at all.”
The other really wonderful story is of a Christian nurse, who wants to give up her profession after serving patients and looking after sick bodies for years. Now a plump, middle-aged woman, she wants to go back to her home-town in Kerala and live with her family. But here too, she is expected to take on the role of the nurturer.
The last story is about a professor mother who finds it embarrassing that her only son should get into Bollywood script-writing after studying at Haward. Her intellectual snobbery, as others call it, prevents her from accepting her son's choice of career.
The stories are all very readable, and even when some of the situations give a sense of deja vu, the author's quirky narration, keeps you engaged. I personally enjoyed the story of the nurse and Anandi-Mohini the most, but Gouri brings her sensitivity and sharp understanding of human nature to every situation and character. The book - through its characters - suggests how life is in a constant state of flux and in spite of its corrosive nature, holds the seeds of regeneration and hope.
There's something to be said about the style and tone of the narrative. The word 'contemporary' is generally bandied around too much. But The Counsel of Strangers is genuinely 'today's book' and talks to 'today's people' - and by that I don't mean the new generation only. The book covers stories of people from various age groups (thank god!), and the scenarios and concerns are all relevant and relatable. The words she uses (free use of all Indian languages, short forms, blog terminologies... ), the clever phrases, the references to films and books - all bring a chuckle and a nod of familiarity. In that sense, the book gains tremendously from having such a receptive writer.
Criticisms? I couldn't buy for a minute people confiding such personal stories before strangers. The author inserts a few sentences about a beer being passed or food being ordered in between each story, so as to keep reminding the reader that there is a common setting, but it appears too forced. Also, earlier there was Chitra Divakaruni's One Amazing Thing, where the characters get stuck in a building after a terrible earthquake and reveal stories about their lives to temporarily forget about their impending fates. I found that setting eked together with as much awkwardness. This template obviously comes from Canterbury Tales, but the vital difference is that in Chaucer's 14th century book of verses, the characters are traveling companions who are asked to tell a story - any story. It could be about their lives, but there's no way to know. Now, that is more plausible situation I would think.
In The Counsel Of Strangers, there characters could well be contemplating about their lives at the airport lounge and it wouldn't have mattered.
The other niggling problem I found is that the authorial voice is quite strong here, in the sense that the author's penchant for irreverence and sharp wit shadows every character and situation, expect maybe that of the Nurse. And this feeling is heightened because every character narrates in first person. While this ensures that the whole book is kept interesting, it hurts the characterisation. Gouri Dange beautifully inhabits the minds of a few characters, but the result is slightly awkward in the case of the old man, where it appears like the author is speaking on his behalf.
Yet, The Counsel Of Strangers works wonderfully enough for what it is. It sparkles with insight and intelligence and makes for a very entertaining read. The book abounds in such original and piquant metaphors, and the writing in general is so adept, it should comfortably establish Gouri Dange among the A-list Indian authors in the country.
PS: The full form for 'OMO books' under which Gouri has published The Counsel Of Strangers, is 'On My Own' The author chose to self-publish after being distressed with the 'step-motherly' treatment accorded to lesser-known authors by major punblishing houses. Hence the wry and clever name - OMO!