A Few Thoughts on Aripan and other Stories by Stephen Alter

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These days, my love for world literature, ferries me boldly into clandestine adventures of their own and like an ambitious pirate, I too, confess to marking my stowaway greed by smacking my lips with utter satisfaction, while furtively eyeing the sudden and nothwitstanding, gleaming literary gem from an unlikely source, spotted on the vast universal frame of the worldwide web.

Thanks to the advent of dynamic online booksellers worldwide, I can now happily pounce upon hidden stacks of enthralling tales that await my tender capture measuring my Visa for a sword. This, no matter a book’s publication-date or the shy land in which it magically rests.

I am only too aware that such handsome paperback editions, are unlikely to be seen in the form of imports pertaining especially in my case, to UK bookstores and the European regions.

As a result of a bulging postbox, I am once more reading vigorously and armed with that almost forgotten mysterious air of childlike bliss.

This time round, I was drawn to this aesthetically pleasing 2005  storybook production called Aripan and other Stories (Rs.95) written by Stephen Alter and first published by Rupa & Co. in Delhi, India.  The collection of 12 painstaking short stories sketched with nothing less than a crystalline exactness and owning such cajoling titles as Brain Curry, The Climbing Garden, One Night in Cairo and A Phantom Limb, wait patiently in the vibrant bookseller’s market to the present day.  I purchased my brand-new copy within a few short days,  from Amazon.co.uk.  It is a book designed to look superb on the library shelf; the print production alone is commendable.

At first, I was held beguiled in that deeply personal way, by the illustration of an elegant lady, dressed in a lemony yellow  sari, on the cover. I was betwitched by the design that I would later find, lending itself  to a  fictional character in the first enigmatic story called Aripan.

The plot to Aripan revolves itself around a romance paperback bearing the same title, and the intense thoughts and subsequent actions of three characters, a man, Amal,  a bookstore salesgirl, Kusum who desires an affair with this man and Amal’s wife, Rita. Each one unknown to the other, lays their hands on this  debut novel by its little-known author, Gomti Hashmat. Each one proceeds to read it diligently, from start to finish, roped in by different seasons and personal places.  Each reader silently wonders about the novelist and her life, while reflecting on the melancholic shadows of their own.  The conclusion may be viewed as uplifting if not, a little puzzling.  In this case, the drawing features one of these ladies, who delicately cradles the romance novel behind her back.

Also, my senses were swayed like a ship set-out-to-a-rocking-sea, by the robust aquamarine shade.

Overall, the postcard picture reminded me of how my mother herself  had looked in the sixties and the seventies and of how the more fashionable heavily-earring-ed aunties used to stand out of a crowd at church socials and Christmas parties, among the Indian middle-classes in Malaysia. Then, such were the daring patterns of the carefully-tailored sari blouses and the eternal, pleated folds of colourful silk or cotton fabric, with which to make a presence.  Thus on remembering old scenes, I was drawn into a longer glimpse by the prospect of a sweet childhood nostalgia, even before the tales had begun their genie task of allure and seduction.

Because my reading tastes stay focussed and I am often keen on world cultures that state the plight of fictional but complex human relationships woven  by tradition and too, stories that hide the workings of their intriguing plots in streets and flats, small towns and villages and in the heart of the rural peasantry, I rarely go wrong when guided only by intuition, with my book purchases.  In this case, I had no doubt that Alter’s stories would work for me and I was overjoyed to know that I was right and then of course, there was that double pleasure at the discovery of a new author.

Stephen Alter is an American writer who was born and raised in India.  Alter who has taught creative writing at MIT in the United States and the American University of Cairo, and who has several published works to his name, still lives in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India today.

In this 232-page collection, Alder’s stories field a contemplative study for a fading nostalgia…one  that stays deeply compelling to the spirit.

With a series of visible truths purported to the challenging themes of longing, love and loss, the fictional stories are in my book, essential  for a more humane understanding on the human condition. Aripan and other Stories, hold tales from the North of India, Cairo and the US. All mingle together threading trails of sharp poignancy and that nervous expectation of an unseen tragedy, that a reader is led to believe, may appear from anywhere around the corner at sudden notice, in an unsuspecting character’s everyday life.

Each story also spills startling intimate flavours to a particular region.

For example, in Aripan (Delhi, India)...”The other three men in the compartment were travelling together and their conversation distracted Amal.  They were discussing the cricket match, which had ended in a draw that day and all they talked about were wickets, and runs, as if they spoke a language all their own.” 

And in Villa Ramses with its setting in Cairo, Egypt… “The Greek store closed…the family….went back to Crete although they had lived in Cairo for five generations. It had been taken over by an Egyptian merchant, a cheerful man who changed things around and filled the shelves with imported goods…   I still miss the old Greek store….you had to sniff the butter to make sure it hadn’t gone off but… “ and also in Brain Curry (Delhi, India), “…the second butcher whom we rouse from a nap, also has no brain to offer saying that we should come early in the morning when the animals are slaughtered…”

There are stories of small town gossip from Kashmir to Cairo, that reveal astonishing rumours. Then there are stories of love affairs, powerful family ties and even a gripping one of a ghost.  To each one, Alter offers refreshing conclusions…startling to the imagination but extremely realistic in its possibilities. To say anything more, would be to add on spoilers… To all the stories, there lie reluctant but peaceful closures.  The one that stayed close to my heart was Brain Curry…as Alter splendidly captures the suble and heart-wrenching portrayal of  protaganist, Sharat’s 82- year old retired diplomat father, who now finds himself waking up to the early signs of dementia.  I am reminded of my own ageing father, long-ago neighbours and many uncles who are themselves helplessly caught up with the swift and merciless passing of time.

I shall remember Alter’s stories for each of their their solid structures, to where a tale would lend its strength and where tragedy and sadness were kept well in control by an appealing narrative. Nostalgia wears unseen tears and the past, present and future while sharply reflective are seen in a mostly stout, practical manner  The reader will most possibly be left with a desire for a strong sense of introspection of family, place and history, long after the last page is closed. Each story commanded its own stimulating power and snuggled so well into my spirit, I was not at all disappointed with any.

Further Reading:

Stephen Alter’s Fiction
Stephen Alter’s Non-Fiction
Here in this essay in Outlook India, published on March 20, 2009, Stephen Alter recalls the horror of being violently attacked in his home during a past summer and the aftermath to a shocking incident that never really went away.

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