Title: Ladders Against the Sky
Author: Murli Melwani
Publisher: Kaziranga Books, 2018
When we look at the Brahmaputra River, we see not only its beautiful surface but also become aware of the strong undercurrent. This is the comparison my mind made when I read Murli Melwani's collection of short stories. On the surface, Murli Melwani's stories hold our attention because of the series of events, the strokes delineating character, the touches of description and the dialogue. The undercurrent is formed by the social concerns, political issues, the contrast of traditions and the ethos of the settings, all of which are suggested rather than stated.
Stories like Gift for the Goddess and The Divine Light, set in Rajasthan, bring out the clash between traditional thinking and the scientific temper of the space age. Shiva's Winds and Teesta Holiday, embedded in the rugged beauty of the Rothang Pass and the North Bengal Hills respectively, pit the forces of nature against the indomitable human spirit. The Village with Gandhi's Statue, with the background of the tobacco growing areas of Andhra Pradesh, exposes the moral heartlessness of the influential.
It's understandable that a large number of stories should be set in the Northeast since the author grew up and was educated in Shillong. The Guerilla's Daughter is a story about the insurgency in Nagaland and the syncretic nature of religion. The picturesque beauty of Shillong and the Khasi Hills are an apt backdrop for some of the stories. Sunday on a Green Lawn is a touching love story. Those Season of Contentment is about the heartbreak of loss and growing up. Requital records how irony plays out in life. The Shrine presents a Khasi folktale as a re-mix (the current fashion in music and the arts).
Humor and satire move the narrative forward in some of the stories. Good examples are Hawana of the East, which records the relaxed manner in which officialdom functions in the remote border areas, and The Bhorwani Marriage, which focuses on the maneuvering that takes place when expatriates fly into India to find partners for their children
Sunday with Mary, set in urban Mumbai, is a picture of the sort of life led by expatriates who return to India.
There is a group of stories about Indians, particularly Sindhis, who have decided to settle overseas. The backgrounds of these stories extend from Chile to Thailand and a few countries in between. Water on a Hot Plate shows an NRI and an Indian-Chinese restaurateur sharing their memories of India. The Head of a Chicken, moving between Hong Kong and Taiwan, is the story of unscrupulous businessman who will do anything to further his ends. Writing a Fairy Tale talks of the attraction between an Indian exporter and a beautiful woman trapped in an unhappy marriage with the exporter's client. A hostess in a Thai bar, in A Bar Girl, helps an elderly businessman to restore his severed links with his family. Hong Kong, Here I Come and The Mexican Girlfriend are portraits of two insensitive individuals who destroy themselves and their families by their actions.
The variety of backgrounds and strong characterization form the two banks through which this mini Brahmaputra of stories runs.
Most of these stories were first published in journals and anthologies in the U.S., U.K. India and Hong Kong. Some of them were nominated for a number of awards.
The Foreword, by Victor Banerjee, a distinguished son of the Northeast, is highly perspective. Mention must be made of designer Aditi Phukan's unusual, eye-catching and pleasing layout.
I highly recommend Ladders Against the Sky by Murli Melwani.