Author Shreya Sen-Handley recounts stories of ordinary people whose lives have taken a sharp and unusual turn, thus making a case for grey in this deeply divided black-and-white world
As the title of the book suggests, it’s about all things strange and unusual. An ordinary man steals office stationery for no reason, till a dark secret is out. A wife, disgruntled and disenchanted by 25 years of humdrum marriage, gets ready for a one-night stand after her husband “cut her loose”. A mother, troubled by unfamiliar circumstances, finds refuge in a place that may discomfort many.
These are just three of the thirteen “strange” stories on subjects as diverse as horror and romance to desire and disease, but at the centre of each of them is a normal person whose life invariably takes sharp, unusual turns. This is the beauty of the book—to look for extraordinary in things ordinary, to find abnormal amidst normal people and circumstances. In the process, the reader invariably finds himself/herself amidst tension and discomfort. Till the very last paragraph of the book, one is left wondering about the fate of the story and its protagonists.
Every story is a world unto itself, tying all things strange and unusual within a normal, believable world. Also, what works in the book’s favour is the multicultural upbringing of author Shreya Sen-Handley, as her very name suggests. The settings of all 13 stories, no wonder, are diverse, from our own Delhi and Kolkata to Corfu and Bristol, so are the characters.
“Lean on Me”, the first story, sets the tone and the pace of the book, with a wheelchair-bound poet unwittingly unsettling the balance of her carer’s life. The feel is more lyrical; it’s a prose written in a poetic style. So, when the carer is left heartbroken by the wheelchair-bound poet, she is “first livid, then coaxing him to speak” to her, “to explain, in case there was an explanation… to ease the pain”. Finally, she gave up and left to get her son from school. The story ends thus: “Sam and I came home to an empty house. Karan had gone. He had taken all his possessions with him. And some of ours. All except the wheelchair.”
One of my favourite stories here is “The Lust List”, in which Saira is “cut loose” by her husband. “We married as college sweethearts and have been together ever since. How many have you seen other than mine? Let’s enjoy what life has to offer before we are too old,” he tells her. Saira, left wondering about 25 years of her married life, finds herself as a reluctant traveller to a bar. Such is the mood of the story that till the last paragraph, the reader is hooked. Does she? Would she? The tension is aesthetically created, so has been the overall atmosphere.
Equally engrossing is the story of a man who steals office stationery for apparently no reason, till skeletons stumble out of the closet. Here again the story is told with restraint and maturity; the author’s attention to detail is immaculate, and the language effective enough to capture the nuances of the situation. It all adds up to make the reading a profoundly good but unsettling experience.
Another story that stands out is “The Bone of Contention”, more so because it is told from the perspective of a dog. Sarge’s only—and purposeful—objective in his life is to collect bones. “He had dug because the weight of his decade and a half of doggie instincts had instructed him to dig. And digging and digging, he had struck gold. Doggie gold, at any rate. He had found bones. Long bones, stubby bones, muddy bones and fragments of bone. They had been there a while clearly, picked clean of flesh by the elements.” Unfortunately, Sarge excavations dug out a well-guarded family secret!
In an interview recently, the author recalled how growing up, she read voraciously, and short stories were a particular favourite. “I especially enjoyed the ones with cleverly constructed plots that culminated in deliciously disconcerting denouements,” as she recalls how she revelled reading Roald Dahl, O. Henry, Maupassant, among others. One finds subtle influences of these master storytellers in Strange Stories.
This may not be the ideal book if you are looking for a durable literary companion. None of the stories and the characters, except perhaps “The Lust List” and its protagonist Saira, has any considerable shelf life. But Strange Stories does have its moments, and one must not miss them even if they appear fleeting and momentary.