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Deft Vignettes

G.J.V. Prasad

By Anu Kumar
Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 2006, pp. 202, Rs. 295.00


Every now and then one comes across a first novel that makes one sit up and wonder why you had not heard about the writer before--this is one such wonderful debut. Letters for Paul, which despite its title is not an epistolatory novel, is so convincing a novel that one does wonder where Anu Kumar grew up, whether her father was in the government service etc.! But how does that matter? It is not everyone that can turn even lived experiences into a crackling good read, or people she knows into interesting characters, and Anu Kumar in Letters for Paul gets even the young adolescent protagonist-narrator's point of view so well as to let us put down any slack in the narrative to the character's lack of understanding.   Set in Orissa, in early nineteen eighties (1981 to be precise), the novel is about the events in the life of a small town (Cuttack), of Aditi, the narrator, her family, and the state itself. Even though we get a prismatic picture of the events that change lives all around, of the history that frames the events, we are convinced completely of the accuracy of observation and the truth value of the narrative, and this even though Aditi fantasizes at the drop of a pin and is quite willing to make up characters and personal histories, besides being a kleptomaniac.   Aditi Chatterji is the daughter of a decorated police offer, who is posted to Cuttack and moves in with his family at the beginning of the novel. Soon, it transpires that there are old tensions in the town, and Chatterji is aware of both the tensions and the people involved in them. The book opens with the stench of the river Mahanadi and almost immediately we are told of an acid attack on a girl--the resultant stink is to change the Chatterji family's life forever. There is something rotten in the state of Orissa, as in every other state in India, and there are skeletons in everybody's cupboards, as there usually are, and they seem to tumble out fairly quickly when confronted by a growing girl's gaze and the tension of living in an ever simmering volatile society.   The Naxalite years are not too far in the past (or the future, come to it), Aditi's Mehta uncle, her father's colleague, is obsessed with the idea of their menace to society, and is convinced ...

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