Some authors have a knack for humour. Not only will their words leave you in splits, but they’ll also handle even the most pensive topics with a side of sarcastic humour. I’m reviewing a book by one such author that I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for a couple of years – Mohua Maulik.
Maulik is possessed of an excellent grasp of the English language as also the little things in life that make up memorable moments. Because she is able to appreciate the fact that life is more than just the sum total of our years, she comes out with stories that are centered around ordinary people having a moment in life. Her current book, ‘Breaking Free, A Novella and Other Stories’, is all about such juicy, sweet and sour slices of life that either teach the characters something or leave the reader with a lesson.
The book contains one novella and thirty-nine short stories ranging from a100-4000 words.
I’ll start with the novella first, ‘Breaking Free’. This is a story about a young girl and boy pushed by their families to meet each other in an arranged marriage meeting. Opposites attract but in an unexpected way and they begrudgingly find themselves getting drawn to each other. But just when you expect the story to turn for the better, things get worse for the couple. Will they be able to overcome their misgivings? Leave a painful past behind? Will love help them sail through choppy waters?
This story is about hope, female empowerment, and the importance of taking every opportunity to move on from a traumatic experience. Maulik skilfully manages to keep the reader engaged using entertaining back and forth between the characters. It’s a battle of wits between the two main characters and just when you think Maulik can’t outdo herself with another comeback, bam! She does it again. I admit, the acerbic tongue on the female MC initially put me off completely. I wasn’t ready to endorse the fact that she was merciless to the male MC just because she was too much of a feminist to subscribe to the traditional notions of womanhood in India. But as the story darkens, you know why she grows up to be the woman she is and you, just like the male MC, are filled with anger at the larger issue raised by Maulik through this story. That’s where the story changes for me from a simple love story about opposites attract, to a jab aimed at present-day society that treats trauma as a matter best handled by either not acknowledging it at all or sweeping it under the rug.
Because the storytelling is straightforward, the prose is quick that doesn’t waste time on meaningless scenes. Poppadum like crisp dialogue ensures that the eyes dart across the text. The characters, apart from the two main ones, belong to a typical Indian, patriarchal family, and considering that this is a novella, Maulik doesn’t spend time giving them skin and sinew. I like Maulik’s economy of words in that respect, but my one grouse is that because of the format of the story and I suspect because Maulik relies more on the storyline and the dialogue to hold the reader’s attention, the two main characters are not too well-defined. There were times when I wished there was less chatter and more description or introspection so I could understand the minds of the two main characters. The thing I like most about the story is that the author doesn’t give the two main characters a definitive future, but leaves it to the reader to mull over what matters more in a story like this – a happy fairy-tale ending or a definite step towards healing a broken life.
Moving on to the shorter stories, all of the stories in the collection can be categorized as Slice of Life. Maulik is a pro at this genre. She knows how to extract vignettes from everyday mundane occurrences and turn them into ‘experiences’. Her favourite technique is to use a twist towards the end especially in her micro-fiction, often within a line. But after reading some twenty-odd stories using that same technique, the surprise loses its bang. Most of the stories use humour even though the topic they handle is grave, like in Breaking Free. But there are also darker stories dealing with death (The Murderer), dementia (A Messy Tangle), suicide (One Fine Evening), murder (The Guilty Conscience), adultery (Its Complicated, Patience Pays).
While there is a good mix of funny and dark in the book, I just wish there were more variety in the treatment and tone. This is why among the thirty-nine short-stories, the one that stands out the most for me is, ‘A Village Romance Trilogy’. It’s about falling in and out of love. This is a minimalist love story that doesn’t mince words, is not encumbered by the aggressive back and forth characteristic of Maulik’s dialogues. It has just enough meat to pull at your heartstrings without wasting time on the chaos of words.
‘Checkmate’ is another good story about a couple with a skewed relationship. It offers an insight into narcissistic relationships where one party gives too much while the other takes too much. Even if the ending is not satisfactory, the lesson lies in the stuff that relationships ought to be made of.
The last story, ‘The Scent of Love’, is the perfect end to this collection of short stories. It’s about the pain of unrequited love and missed chances. Though the end was a little confusing for me, I liked how Maulik gave the characters room to grow. The prose is refreshingly introspective, relying more on description, having fewer dialogues thus allowing the reader to delve into the characters’ psyche. I like this story better than the novella in fact and hope we get to see Maulik use this technique more often.
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes the Slice of Life genre because Maulik knows this is her forte and excels at it. This book is a light read that you can finish either in a day or keep coming back to, reading a few stories at a time, when you want to read but don’t have the time to invest into reading.
Rating – 4/5
You can order your copies on Amazon – Breaking Free: A Novella & Other Stories, Kindle Edition
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*****This is a paid review*****