“If I had lived different lives at different times, how much of me would have stayed the same? Could I have been a million different people in a million parallel universes?” These lines from the short story of Ameta Bal, Static AD, are sure to resonate with readers who have embarked on journeys of reflection and introspection during times of pandemic-enforced isolation. The question “how did I get to be the person I am today” is one that has always been on people’s minds.
While this story is extremely relevant to the present moment, it was written in 2019, before the pandemic, when Punch Magazine has launched a call for entries for its first anthology of short stories. Just released, stories of isolation, unrequited love, college romance, dystopian marriage, family history, and more find their place in this selection of contemporary writing by female authors.
The India-based digital magazine, which aims to chronicle arts, literature and culture in the country and around the world, has always had a vibrant news and poetry section, so it decided to test the waters for an anthology that blended new voices with established ones, reflected on the human condition, and had the potential to surprise with its ingenuity and depth. The response was overwhelming, with writers from the US, UK, Canada, Spain, Russia and India sending in stories. At the start of 2020, however, just as the anthology was being prepared, covid-19 hit and India announced a nationwide lockdown.
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This period forced people to slow down, prompting many to rediscover their love for stories. “In isolation, as we practiced social distancing, we rediscovered reading as a therapeutic form of escape from the terrible reality of the present, from the doldrums of despair…. The stories, the world discovered once again, had the power to connect across divisions; he offered us a way to heal, rebuild, reconfigure and reclaim our lives,” writes Shireen Quadri, the magazine’s founder and editor, in the introduction to the anthology.
She realized that the themes the writers had tackled – of disparity, division, longing and angst – were relatable, so when Niyogi Books came on board in late 2019, they decided to publish the anthology. Released last month, it features 18 stories from journalists, authors and editors such as Geetha Nair G., Jayshree Misra Tripathi, Meena Menon, Humra Quraishi, Latha Anantharaman, Camilla Chester and Rochelle Potkar. The anthology was not intended to be all-female. “Initially, these stories were read by an internal jury, without the names of the authors being revealed. We realized that most submissions were from female writers, the ratio was around 70:30. Women reacted clearly at the time and wrote fiercely. This is how this anthology took the form of contemporary writings by women writers,” says Quadri.
While the stories are rooted in the places the writers are based, they are universal in their themes
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A memorable story is that of Geetha Nair G. Falls, about two people, Sudha and Ravi, who come from remote areas to Delhi to pursue a master’s degree in economics and bond over a shared love for reading. They fall in love but then separate. They find themselves, 30 years later, in very different circumstances, each questioning the misery of the other about the way things have turned out.
Olia’s kitchen, by London-based Helen Harris, talks about the difficult relationship between her mother and her grandmother, Babushka Olya, and the latter’s cooking. It’s easy to understand Harris’ grief at losing a grandparent and his attempt to recreate those lost flavors by starting a food truck featuring Babushka Olya’s signature. pelmeni, blinis and canoe.
Humra Quraishi Kashmir Valley Soofiya Bano is inspired by the fury of the 2014 floods and how the waters see a son return to his mother from custody. Meher Pestonji tells a story full of dark humor in Phantom, about a 10-year-old child, who loves to prank and play the role of a ghost to scare his little sister, unwittingly causing trouble for his family. “Although the stories are rooted in the places where the writers are based, they are universal in their themes. The story of Meher Pestonji could easily be transplanted to a grand family home in the Mediterranean, as Olia’s kitchen could very well have taken place in an Indian house. They are no strangers to readers and are very contemporary in their treatment,” says Quadri.
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The story of Ameta Bal falls within the genre of speculative fiction and emphasizes questions of “who am I?” and “what am I capable of?”. “Being online and always in the know; Always reacting to issues, big and small, on social media, we flaunt our personalities. We constantly define ourselves through our likes, dislikes and opinions. And with opinion comes ego – me versus them,” says Bal, a fashion and English literature graduate who has worked with The Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Marie Claire and She. “When this happens, logic turns into emotion. And I find that anger has become a dominant and addictive emotion in our time. The two central themes of the story are therefore solitary self-speculation and the polarization of society.
Last year saw a series of short story anthologies, a clear measure of the genre’s popularity. Appropriately enough, Quadri quotes Neil Gaiman in his introduction. “(Neil Gaiman) has described a short story as the ‘ultimate close-up magic trick’ that either takes us out into the universe or breaks our hearts in a few thousand words.”
Bal uses a metaphor to explain his fascination with the genre. “A novel would be like opening the door to another house and going in. But short stories, a bit like poems, might be like opening a window in your house and letting in an idea or a emotion. And then you can hang out with that new idea in your own space, roll it around in your brain,” she says.
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