Sucharita Dutta-Asane is an upcoming talent in the Indian short-story circle and it’s easy to see why. With her lyrical writing style and empathetic approach to social flaws and topics that are taboo, she creates stories from seemingly everyday occurrences that still make the reader pause and reflect.
Dutta-Asane is an independent editor and short-story writer and her stories have been published in anthologies across the world, earning her several awards. Cast Out and Other Stories is the second anthology of her short stories. I had the misfortune of missing her book’s launch in my city, but nevertheless, managed to acquire the book. Having never read her work before, I had no idea what I was getting into when I began reading but I’m glad that I did because her stories are refreshingly original. In a world of kitschy, predictable writing, Dutta-Asane surprises by bringing common human emotions wrapped up in brutally honest and relatable stories that deal with some contemporary social issue at their core.
Cast Out and Other Stories is all about being on the fringe. The stories revolve around people who live on the fringes of the society or experiences of common folk that make them the odd one out. This anthology is a collection of sixteen stories, each engineered around a contemporary social issue. Dark, contemplative and moody, this anthology isn’t something you can pick up when you want to unwind with a cup of tea on a lazy Sunday. The stories may have a few light moments but there is nothing funny about them. They put you in a deep, introspective trance because they often discuss character flaws and social inequities that we’re all aware of but shrug away because we can’t do anything about them, or won’t. Through her stories, these deep-seated insecurities about our behavioural issues and social mores become monsters scarier than any conventional supernatural beings.
The characters are ordinary people but well developed, so that even in a short story you will feel like you already know someone like the character. That’s because Dutta-Asane populates her work with ordinary people and leaves it to her storytelling to make them appear extraordinary. Her writing style plays a pivotal role in this because it not only sets the mood but also imbues her characters with flaws and strengths, making them come alive. I have become an admirer of her writing style which is fluid, poetic yet uncomplicated, crisp, to the point and respects the intelligence of the readers by leaving them enough to help them read between the lines. Even though the stories revolve around social issues, often dabbling in the supernatural, there are no preachy paragraphs to fill pages, no prudish discourses on the rights or wrongs of social practices, no sudden twists or jump scares, no flowery or sentimental dialogues to embellish the story. Even though the stories have been culled from uncommon human experiences, they are hauntingly familiar because they are coming from the perspective of characters who we all have met either in person or know through someone else.
For example, the main themes in the first story in the anthology – Half A Story – which is also my favourite in the book, happen to be guilt and its corollary – cowardice. Dutta-Asane is sensitive in how she handles the issue relating to the plight of the children of prostitutes, yet she is brutal in dissecting the protagonist’s (a social worker) qualms about having a prostitute’s child as her relative. How many times have you come across ‘charitable people’ who dither at the prospect of embracing the destitute in the real sense of the word? This quality of her work, where characters and their situations seem familiar, is what makes her stories relatable and hence, readable.
Some of the stories dapple in the supernatural but Dutta-Asane does not resort to cheap thrills and jump scares to make them haunting. She instead relies on controlling how much she reveals to the reader which builds up suspense that culminates into a satisfying climax. Like in the story Fireflies, which deftly misleads the reader into anticipating a certain ending before the real one leaves the reader stunned.
The one weakness I found in this collection of well-written stories is that it’s not for everyone. The language, while befitting the mood of the stories (and while I personally am a fan of such a writing style), is a little too polished for the irregular and light reader. Like I mentioned above, those who want a light read, or a quick one, should not read this book because the stories within aren’t meant to excite or titillate, even if some of them revolve around supernatural themes. Since most of the stories are about complex social and personal issues, the reader has to often meditate on the prose. Which explains why, even after being a slim volume, I could finish reading this anthology only after several days. These stories demand to be chewed slowly and digested at leisure. Honestly, I was mildly disturbed after I read Half A Story because of the gut-wrenching end, but this is the real strength of the writer – that you become invested in the characters, while the outcome of the story compels you to draw parallels with your own lives and experiences.
I found that while Dutta-Asane appeals to a certain ‘type’ of reader, I would certainly recommend this collection to everyone because reading her work is like a lesson in empathy. Stories that aren’t just about the characters but about the source of those characters – society, nations within nations, class, language, gender, colour, the rural-urban dvide… her stories force you to rethink your preconceived notions about social constructs, which is a grave and difficult task and Dutta-Asane proves adept at handling such emotionally charged issues, which is why I will not only recommend this book to every conscientious reader but will also urge them to watch out for this talented writer’s next work.
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