This collection of nine short stories was winner of the Pulitzer Prize 2000. It gets my vote. Not that anyone asked me to vote, or even to read the long list or the short list. But if anybody had asked me which was the best of these short stories I would be flummoxed. I’d ask myself if they were all equally good. Janice Galloway, a writer I hold in the highest esteem, in comparison, wrote about the same number of stories in her collection of short stories and I’d have said seven were pretty rubbish, one quite good and one good. Lahari has nine exceptionally good short stories. That’s the kind of batting average that Alice Munro would be proud of.
The first story in the collection, ‘A Temporary Matter,’ takes the European reader into a different Asian culture, near the Muslim butchers, Haymarket, Calcutta, in which Shoba shops. But it is also Shoba who goes out to work as a proof-reader, the breadwinner in the family, leaving the gangly Shukaumar studying to gain academic qualifications, so he could gain tenure, or at least get a foot in the job market. They both have become ‘expert at avoiding each other’. This is classical storytelling, their arrangement is temporary, as is the notice they receive that ‘for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight pm’.
In the darkness of that hour they talk freely for the first time and tell each other stories of the things they would not dare tell in the light. They grow more intimate. When the electricity is fixed there is a pause. The future current could go backwards to the way it had been before, or forwards to a new beginning. And it does seem to be moving in the former direction, but when the denouement comes it is both unexpected and highly plausible as a volte-face typical of Munro at her best.
In ‘When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dinner’ and ‘A Real Durwan’ the narrative follows Bangladesh refugees from the war and split from Pakistani, but on different continents. Boori Ma, ‘sweeper of the stairwell,’ is in Calcutta, Mr. Pirzada is in America studying, as Shukumar also had been. ‘Mrs. Sen’s, husband in one of other stories has an academic position, and in ‘The Third and Final Continent, the first person narrator, leaves India 1964, travels to a job in London and gets a job in the library at MIT, another kind of tenure, but what is common in many of these stories is dissociation, living in one country, but longing to be in another with the family and friends they have left behind. Assimilation is never easy and, in ‘The Treatment of Bibi Haldar’, only occurs after she is raped. There are no chocolate-book answers, but gritty and absorbing narratives that leave you wondering and wanting more.