The stories are powerful and yet the manner in which the message has been conveyed is subtle.
Colonel Ajay Singh is a man of multiple talents. After shedding his uniform he plunged into his passion of writing. Having written numerous articles and books pertaining to India’s military history and security issues, he also wrote a best-selling novel; ‘Through Orphaned Eyes’. His latest offering ‘The Final Draft’, a book of twelve short stories each interspersed with a poem can undoubtedly be counted amongst his best. The stories are powerful and yet the manner in which the message has been conveyed is subtle. The last line in each, ‘is a ring of solid gold’ that takes the reader by surprise and forces them to reflect before turning over the page.
Short stories are a piece of prose fiction that typically can be read in one sitting and focus on one incident or series of linked incidents, with the intent of evoking a single effect or mood. Defining a short story is not easy. Somerset Maugham thought a short story “must have a definite design”, or, it must have a plot. Anton Chekov thought that it should just be a “slice of life”, presented suggestively. Whereas William Boyd, the British author felt “short stories seem to answer something very deep in our nature” – that is, they evoke a profound emotion. These stories meet each of these criteria; they have powerful (and often unexpected) plots, memorable characters, and evoke deep feeling.
Each of the stories have different themes.The title story, ‘The Final Draft’ is a powerful story of a dying writer who is focused on producing his best work, while battling cancer with the support of his wife a Professor of Indian Literature whose classes were the most sought after. The interplay of these two main characters and how they pursue their own desires with the shadow of death looming over them, ends in both triumph and loss. She continues to critically examine his writings while he remains wrapped up in the same looking for perfection. And the ending hits like a hammer stroke.
‘Night Vigil’ is a sensitive story based on a true incident, a dying father and a son keeping vigil over him. The father – a proud old Army officer waits for his son, an officer in his own battalion. The old man having suffered a stroke was critical “lying silent and unmoving had asked for his son twice and waited.” The son who arrives from his unit in the valley could not “stop his tears as they flowed down his cheeks and mingled with the old hands that he pressed to his face”. He was playing a masquerade that unfolds only later. The question is what caused the light to go out of his father’s eyes.
In ‘The Well’, the author takes us deep into insurgency hit Kashmir. In the rugged and inhospitable terrain near the Line of Control in Tral, a terrorist rapes a young school teacher who is now carrying his child. What are the feelings that go through the mind of an expectant mother dealt such a cruel hand and what are her means of getting her revenge? The horrors of insurgency and the collateral damage it creates on the local population exposes the reader to tragedies of their lives.
The ‘Cloistered City’ reminds one of the George Orwell describing totalitarian and authoritarian social practices. Only now the setting is akin to what the world has witnessed while confronting a pandemic. The issue is how society deals with “an exhilarating feeling of freedom in an eighteen year old.” Is it “a perfected well-ordered society” designed to protect its citizens or preserve itself and what is the illness that is being incinerated?
The creative impulse forms the backdrop for quite a few of the stories. ‘The Completed Canvas’ tells the story of Nayantara, a successful artist who is now going through a creative drought, having had an extremely successful exhibition a year ago she is now confronted with blank canvases as the images no longer leap from her mind onto the canvases in a seamless manner. “The paint did not flow freely and the brushes no longer moved on their own accord”. She then goes to a remote resort in the Garhwal Himalayas and there meets an old lover who helps her to produce her masterpiece. As Leonard Cohen stated “there’s a crack, a crack in everything and that’s where the light comes in.” The light does come in, but what is it that comes with the darkness? Is the ‘Completed Canvas’ really hers?
‘The Patrol’ exposes the reader to Second Lieutenant Anil Palta leading his first patrol across no man’s land, “carefully placing his feet on the boot marks” of a battle-hardened soldier as they crossed a mine field. The patrol unexpectedly bumps into the enemy “a hair’s breadth on his sten’s trigger, away from him.” The fears of the young officer and his reactions is a story of both war and humanity. Both set of soldiers, facing a similar predicament on the cold desert night. Human traits emerge around a tree that is a symbol of life in a desert. However, can humanity transcend the barriers created due to war or is it only momentary?
In “Flight 640 is delayed…,” – a story with strong autobiographical overtones – two people, Aparna and Varun, meet in an airport lounge. A delay of a flight from Mumbai to Delhi gets two people talking. Aparna was in a rush to get back to Delhi after a successful day of conducting her first Professional Grooming Session. Varun ’initially oblivious’ to her presence wrapped up in preparing for his presentation for an important business presentation. However, as only intimate friends or total strangers can, they confide deeply in each other, and in doing so discover a part of themselves. This chance encounter bring to the fore something that is deeper in their sub conscious mind, but how does it affect their lives? “Would their trajectories carry them higher and further still to a common destination they had glimpsed in the waiting room of the night”?
The last two stories of this exquisite collection, ‘Moksha’ and ‘The New Calling’ are centered on the same characters. Nivedita an artist, and Kartik, a writer working on his crime story. The reader is then introduced to Burjor Jamshedji; the Director of an Art Gallery and the craft of Majid Bhai who could open any lock. Which locks are opened and which hidden character traits unravel, gradually unfolds as the author takes us to an art heist that doesn’t go quite as it was planned.
The supernatural comes out in ‘The Ring’ – a harrowing story of a beautiful young woman who awaits her dead lover by the seashore – till the trademark shock ending. And, a child’s world is illuminated in ‘Rainbows in the Night’ a light hearted bedtime story told by a father to his daughter. The complex relationship between Nandina, a model and Salim, an Art Director – are explored in ‘The Happiest Day in Her Life.’ How does their Special Day unfold for them? Only the last line of the story reveals it.
Ajay’s prose is simple but powerful, his characters are a mix of artists, writers, lovers, soldiers, and also include terrorists and their victims. They are stories how ordinary people confront extraordinary situations. Of course there is both birth and death, the two extremes covered almost in one story. More importantly it’s the manner in which the characters choose to confront their circumstances.
The characters are both seen and unseen and words are said and left unsaid, but at the end of the rainbow there is ‘a big pot of gold’ and a ‘sense of fulfillment’. There are lots of questions but you need to search for your answer. Finally, it is left to the reader as to how they perceive these short stories. But to paraphrase Jeffrey Archer; “There is a twist in every tale”.