Of Insects Among Other Things

Note: This piece was written for a column sometime early last year, which did not take off. I cannot let it languish somewhere. So here it is.

There is something vaguely disquieting about Kuzhali Manickavel’s fiction. I read her collection of short stories Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings about two years later than it was published.

Her stage is the small town; her protagonists are small town residents, specially the small town resident of Tamil Nadu. She explores their complex inner lives.

The last time I read about such complex inner lives of small town residents, it was in Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s Eunuch Park.

Manickavel’s writing has the immediacy of a journalist with the depth of a poet all the while paring away the inessentials. What you get are the fillets of inner life neatly arranged in short short stories that explore the not-so-neat inner spaces laced with lime-sharp wit. She reminds me of a line in a Leonard Cohen song. (“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”) She fractures a story to let the light in.

She also delights in the sporadic and the unexpected. In Ezekiel Soloman’s Shoe, a shoe appears in the same place in the middle of the road even after several attempts have been made it to dispose it of. It’s the shoe of a village idiot who literally vanished one day. Till the shoe is adopted, it continues to defy its accepted place in things.

Ghosts and spirits live with the humans in a state of uneasy coexistence in Manickavel’s stories. If present, ghosts are as unpredictable as their living counterparts. In Paavai, a widow dreams that her dead husband appears to her as an ectoplasmic entity. He has one posthumous wish is that his wife retrieve the watch that was buried along with him. Though why would ectoplasmic entities bother with watches is another of the inexplicable and unanswered questions that haunt you after the story is over. But this is the universe where ordinary and extra ordinary events jostle for attention like within a surrealist painting.

Underlying each story is a kind of deadpan deconstructionist humour. The sort that is dark and funny only because it’s as outrageous as it’s true. In Welcome to Barium, a doctor called J.J. Shanker “wears his black silk shirt to work because he wants everyone to know that he is a Dancing Machine.” (17) There are exploding women and men with thin hips and uber enthusiastic Americans who don’t let food poisoning, stolen water bottles, uncooperative computers, bad lattes, and dead colleagues get in the way of working in India.

Entwined in to the stories are sudden and unexpected jabs of lyricism. Like in Little Bones a woman woos her lover with rainwater ice cubes. Such a romantic gesture is refused rather gruffly and “he gets up leaving behind a space that hums like angry bees.” (34) She feels fish bones of rejection settle into her skin.

In between stories, sometimes you can find a diagram of an insect, a school textbook diagram, with numbered figures and neatly labelled parts. Look closely and you can see a visual map of Manickavel’s eccentric fictional universe.

Reading Manickavel is like stepping off at the alternate universe stop en route to your own. She tells stories of characters otherwise ignored in a funny, true, alarmingly accurate manner. She is definitely not a one-time read.