Exactly three years after her debut novella, Barefoot and Pregnant, we find author Shinie Antony pretty much where we left her last: balanced on the cusp of ordered chaos, taking in all of life’s madness with a wry eye, putting it down on paper even more wryly.
Weaving narrative threads
Shinie Antony’s recent releases both deal with bold subjects, vulnerability being the leitmotif in one of them.
In virtual back-to-back releases, she has two new books out: another collection of short stories called Planet Polygamous (Indialog) and her first novel, Kardamom Kisses (Rupa). Shinie continues to be master chronicler of the churnings of the heart, specially in relation to womankind. Kardamom Kisses is all about disintegration— of family, of love, of truth, of happiness, of marriages; disintegration of sanity, and of life itself. Despair weaves a just-about-glimpsed but very much felt thread, all through the story of sisters Disha and Drupa, products of an unwise Punjabi-Malayali marriage.
The girls first live in the north, then are moved to the south as their parents separate; then it’s back to the north for these eternally displaced if not dispossessed daughters. The uncles and the aunt who came in bringing the cold, are finely drawn characters, as are the girls themselves.
The north and south India are shown to epitomise Kipling’s pessimistic premise, with the north coming off the worse. Shinie uses a tightly controlled, at times controlling style, in Kardamom Kisses and all the leavening by her characteristically savage wit— the episode concerning the girls’ stepmother on the wedding night of her first marriage is hilarious— does not conceal just what a collective long marriage it all is.
We don’t move too far from long marriages in the other book, either. The 36 stories in Planet Polygamous deal with betrayal, misguided loyalty, pain, heartbreak, murders most passionate, obsession, vulnerability. Indeed, the last emotion seems to be the leitmotif of the book.
The women portrayed are almost without exception an exposed lot, open to and duly experiencing pain. They are mostly the done to; in the rare cases where they do, it is invariably in reaction to what has been done to them earlier. ‘Angels with armpits’ is, in my opinion, the best story of the collection. It dips deep into despair with lyrical urgency— and cliché or not, you will read it with a lump in your throat.
One wouldn’t credit it but the author is at counterpoint to her characters, to the jaded attitude to life as expressed by those very characters. “I do like to be without intensity,” she says. “Ever since I remember, I have wanted to be less intense, less earnest, to take things less seriously.”
Shinie, a naval wife and mother to two girls, is a cheerful woman who ideally, would like to do nothing better than read Asterix comics, watch ‘Will and Grace’ and talk on the phone all day. A career in journalism, nomadic moves every few years, becoming a single mother every time her husband is posted overseas— she’s taken it all in her stride, not missing a beat. And you realise that whatever she sees and experiences becomes grist to the mill, in other words, finds its way into her stories.
For all that, she is wont to dismiss herself as a writer of mundane stories, someone who writes because the urge to write “is a sharpness that digs into you”, Shinie is an accomplished wordsmith. “I am attracted to the inarticulate areas in anyone’s life, man, woman or eunuch,” she says.
Her masterly descriptions will strike a resonant chord with most female readers; the wordplay will have them smiling in empathy, identification. Husbands are subject to ‘extempore evaporation’. Taking on a lover is like taking an apartment, what with factoring in comfort, luxury, status and privacy; babies appear deeply unhappy with the potential for deeper unhappiness. The circus of life moves on, churning up everything in its path.
Both the books go into bold territory but not entirely uncharted waters. The passionate women, the heartless men, the feisty children, you know them, have known them, will come across them again and again, in your life. Is marital discord, angst in the homestead a bottomless pit, you ask. Shinie Antony shrugs. Maybe you’ll have to wait for her next book to find out.