Anushna Biswas Reviews “The Elixir Maker and Other stories written by Ajanta Paul”



The Elixir Maker by Ajanta Paul is a compendium of twelve short stories. Each short story is written with contemporary sensibilities. The author leaves a nice caveat for the readers to note. Though art, in all its wealth, variety and boundlessness is grounded in life, in reality, the author considers art a part of that reality, as an embodiment of its essence by the human mind and thus is a certain sense actuality rising above reality.

Storm is a metaphoric digesis. Satyen, a man of Jadavpur, now living in New York. He is a geologist and teaches at the University there. He has recently visited the dense Peruvian jungle researching his latest project. He is a product of migration. In his recollection Satyen remembers crumbling arched-windows of his grandmother’s musty old house in East Pakistan by the side of Kirtan Khola river. .He and his youngest cousin sister Jhuma always accompanied their Grandma Shanti Devi. He has two aunts Lila and Khuku. One day women of the family were enjoying their afternoon. Suddenly a big gale lashed the house violently. Lashes of heavy rains and howling storms blew everything with its tooth and claw. Shanti Devi and others strove to save the crumbling house but instead lost one of her sisters, she being washed away by the dashing flood, never to be found again. This pathetic episode reached Satyen and with it came the bad news of separation with his wife and daughter. This pitiful state of his mind merges into the pathetic story of his defeated grandma.  In parallel, his tale smacks of his grandma’s fall and Satyen crumbles like that of their ancestral house in East Pakistan. The author shows the nature’s fury, remaining out of reach of man. The storm stands out as metaphor here.

Author Ajanta Paul in her story Glass deals with the ambivalence of marriage. In the story the author examines whether in reality marriage means equality, liberty and freedom between the sexes. The “Second Wave feminist literature” in the West has opposed marriage in their writings panning the discrepancy of the sexes that exist in marriage. The story has Sulogna and Indra who are happily married couple with a son. They are a upper middle class urban family living in luxuries. including holding occasional parties at home. The narrative displays “complete foundation of each self” and how much Indra and Sulogna’s marital life is cosy. Angana, Sulogna’s sister, a fashionable woman, lives life in her own terms. Incidentally, a party is arranged drawing a flock of people of various hues. Sulogna is face to face with the guests. When Manish offers drink to Sulogna, Indra’s faith on Sulogna falters.
However, for the first time one realizes women’s freedom of choice and integrity is questioned. Incidentally, feminist Critics argue that “marriage continues to remain “an institution which contributes to the maintaining of traditional gender roles, thus preventing women from achieving social equality, and reinforcing the idea that women exist to serve men, which in turn increases the abuse of women”.

The Silenced Bell is another engaging story explored with logical trains. The story narrates the tale of a Bell in an old temple in a village. Sasanka Babu  is the feudal lord of the old village. Nirmala is his wife who bears many children most of them girls. But Sasanka kills her girl children by thrusting “guava” into the children’s mouth which is caught by Nirmala. She protests against this brutality; since Sasanka Babu is a patriarch and feudal lord, he in a flare up throttles Nirmala. Following this ghastly event, the Bell of the old Temple stops ringing to the surprise of the villagers. The author takes a stand against “patriarchy” and notes the protest of time and Nature against the feudal lord making the Bell silent for ever. One gets a hint of a parable of sort, strong and ruthless.

In the story Fat Mamma, the author Ajanta Paul addresses the serious problem of “gendering” or gender bias in corporate sector with a touch of wit and humour. The story is a pointer to the fact that in Indian subcontinent gender discrimination is practiced not just in the family or the micro level of our society but such differentiation is also carried out in the society at large or to be evident at the macro level. The narrative of Fat Mamma not only fulminates tenebrous social parameters regarding women’s ability to compete on equal basis in social ambience but also considers it to be found in male bastion. In Fat Mamma’s office various male employees try and accommodate themselves mutually. Here the author reflects “boys will be boys”, despite the comfort and the fruit of their work that they enjoy. Manik is a catalyst out of the three main characters along with Mohan and Ashwin who can ballast topical reality in the narrative and make Fat Mamma look more humane and a person with empathy. The reader has a feeling that Ajanta Paul is writer with accurate insight and resilience and this makes her stories illuminating.

The next story Lawsuit brings us face to face to a crumbling of small family headed by Rana.  Rana works in a multinational Company and his financial position keeps his three daughters and wife Deepu in upper-middle class luxury, But this state of smooth sailing gets disturbed due to Lawsuit brought against Rana by the cartel of big Barons of the company as he refuses to side with the big bosses in their corrupt deeds. He does not capitulate to threats. Under legal pressure, Rana loses his job; at the same time his wife Deepu gets  alarmingly sick due to fluid in the heart. In the meantime, Rinki, Chumki and Mimi grow up and Chumki in particular graduates into lawyer and vows to help the poor being trapped in false court cases. Chumki in remembrance of her father Rana, takes up defense council to intricate the poor and helpless people trapped in false cases. Ajanta Paul as always stands by the defeatist and Chumki represents the author with ethics and legal insight that makes the Lawsuit a humanitarian tale of generation.

Author Ajanta Paul in her story Freedom upholds the tragic fate of people in partition between India and Pakistan and its cruel aftermath.  But when it comes to India the freedom came with lot of bloodshed. During British imperialism, freedom achieved at the cost of communal loss and gory bloodshed. However, when in 1947 India gained freedom from the British empire, little did people know that post independent India would have to see many other divisions, intercultural and inter-caste conflicts. This partition could be said to be the greatest political upheaval in the political history of India. The critic and author Butalia recounts her experience; “thus memories of Partition, the horror and brutality of the time, the harkening back to an—often mythical—past where Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs lived together in relative peace and harmony”.  Priti’s story falls in the same category. A quiet peaceful life suddenly succumbed to the evil forces of partition in the name of freedom and Priti’s personal loss of her son and brother-in-law while escaping from Pakistan to Delhi as refugees. Priti and her husband and daughters here confront a bizarre situation: In the ocean of milling crowd Priti lost her brother-in-law and her son Ravi. She is uncertain whether they could at all get off the train. She has strong surmise that mishap is in view and is tormenting, She happens to believe her accepted current life: “We settled in Delhi, made it our home..The girls grew up, married and now settled in the US”. The author traces the partition and its trauma with authentic tenacity.      

In the Wayfarers the author follows a quaint narrative with a theme of journey in a bus full of passengers headed to Nityanandapur..In a crowded bus seats are filled. Samar by fluke gets a seat by the side of a co-passenger. Suddenly Samar starts spinning out tales of absurd nature acting a a rich baron. He fabricates absurd snippets of possessing wealth, money, big business and factories etc. While listening the phantasmagoric tales, the bus suddenly faces break down in the dusk. The passengers get frightened and disperse for shelter. Samar gets down and the co-passenger being jolted seeks help from Samar. He follows Samar for a night stay.. Being convinced Samar takes him and ambles a zig-zag stretch in the dark and reaches his oldish, broken hut. The co-passenger now realizes what Samar has narrated is only a fictive reality and gets disillusioned. The author presents a cacotopian mental state of the protagonist that not only engages the readers but also reveals how a penniless man could manufacture illusory tales to amaze us in a ruthless reality.

The story Escape narrates  the life of Binu, a young boy. He assists his uncle Nandu in a tea stall on regular basis. It is by the side of Rly station at gate Seven.Trains arrive and leave as natural going of each day. The passengers arrive and many of them drop at the tea stall to sip, read newspaper and then drop out as always. Binu dislikes the job and often runs aways to travel in trains that arrive and leave. His uncle is not happy. One day Sarita, a teacher, arrives at the stall and she is requested by Nandu to give her nephew a fresh life. Sarita agrees and picks Binu for  a new abode, a school. Binu who enjoys journey to explore people, nature and sights of wonder suddenly feels caged and his freedom to journey is cut off. Binu's life freezes into still. The writer quaintly explores the green mind of a boy for wonders in journey, arrival and departure of trains, is shown finally chokes and his desires stifled. It hints at our poor social system where desire to fly or ride on a journey gets stymied.

In Elixir Maker we get for the first time a tinge of “magic realism” from the author  Ajanta Paul.  Alok, painter by profession, discovers in the market how multiple kinds of scented juices allure people and affluent. On picking scented juice of bizarre kind, Alok feels wafted to the old mythic era in a flight of fancy, an era of rich Zamindars. He is enthralled by the sights, sounds and smells and changes to a queer person. The painter as an artist provides to a chieftain’s daughter scented potion/juice to relieve her father. To the contrary, Alok often receives sweet and cold water that slakes his thirst and puts him on different terrain. As a famous painter his works decorate many quarters in social platforms. In an illusion Alok visualizes Era, his wife, to offer him water in his exhausted state of wandering, tired, distraught, clapped out, and breathless.
The story in its meandering blends physical and fictive realties making it true in form. The author subtly has used her intellect and artistic resilience to make Elixir Maker, a work of “stream of consciousness” to provoke her readers to get the drift of meaning as hidden in the structure.

In her story Misunderstanding, Sheena takes the centre of focus for her undue misunderstanding of her husband Ravi. She grows skeptic about Ravi as he is often found talking over phone secretly that Sheena deems a rupture in relationship. Her doubt triggers separation in marriage. Days go by. In such manky doubt lies a greater truth unknown to Sheena. One day, Sheena comes to know that their baby is alive with “Musculoskeletal” abnormalities known as Crouzon syndrome. Such baby normally lives short. But in her case, Ravi clandestinely handed over the baby to a hospital for care and medical remedy. The baby is still alive and the truth is brought into light through a search of medical reports kept hidden in Sheena’s almirah. Both Sheena and Ravi curiously turn alive to the big revelation and the couple gets united due to “misunderstanding”. The way the story is sketched, it heightens the suspense and finally a great relief. The author has used her sharp insight to reveal a strange truth, very topical and alive.

The story Shifting narrates a little complex life of Mallika who is fed up with her seedy, musty house that belongs to her late father. Being Claustrophobic for a long space of time, She decides to shift from the very old house as she is sick of rusty memories of the past that makes her nearly frozen. Mallika seeks a new vista in her life and hence gets determined to purchase a new flat which she does.

Shifting involves a lot of labour and toil in the shape of loading unloading old furniture, junk domestic uses and sundry other things making it heavy for Mallika. In the Shifting Sanwar, the painter friend, introduces his artistic eye, colouring Mallika's flat with absolute mastery.  Because of Sanwar, a painter of walls from village, makes the rooms look, vibrant, live and have a shade of chiaroscuro. All rooms breathe a fresh air and rhythm into Mallika's life. She is much enthused that she is able to accommodate Mahdi’s curlicued furniture made by him before he makes his departure for Middle East. Sharmistha and Mahdi friends of Mallika, separates after co-habitation for some time... While.Sharmistha goes to US to complete her PhD, Mahdi leaves for the middle East.
In a jumble of kicks, now Mallika re-discovers the meaning of life once she lost out of boredom and sticky anguish.

Chair is tale of multiple illuminating memories and nostalgic events, good bad and lustrous that hold the eminent academic institution ie the Women’s College its students of past and present are proud of. Incidentally, Chair represents the author herself, insightful, dynamic, innovative, creative marked by a halo of high, useful pedagogy; the process is that of teaching and learning. Nisha in her capacity sits in the Chair and navigates all official, educational activities, and governmental directives checking papers, documents, notices, letters of complaints and sundry other matters related to the College, Nisha presides over.

It may be mentioned here that this Chair has nothing to do with The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco, the famous French absurd playwright.

In the centre of focus stands out the Principal who is also required to guide the students to hold festivals galore: these are of various interests and being pursued till they pass out.  Women’s College may not have glossy peels or gorgeous surface yet its eminence out-tops many in the field. Chair made of teak wood and Mahogany accommodates Nisha and inspires her to confront all challenges including bouquets and brickbats with equal ease.
The structure is set in a nifty reflection of the author through whose eyes the readers feel a kind of identity and wisdom of enlightenment never to fade out. A powerful short story that harks little but suggests much.