A short story is believed to be harder to write than most other forms of prose mainly because it is supposed to carry the impact of a whole tale despite its brevity. It has to have the story in totality, leaving enough to imagination and ample to retrospection. It may make you laugh, cry or just smile and turn the page. Baker’s Dozen is a collection that does just that and a bit more perhaps.
Traditionally, as the back cover of the book explains, bakers threw in the thirteenth loaf to make sure that their customers do not feel short-changed. Baker’s Dozen is a collection of thirteen short stories by eleven writers, of whom have won the Elle Fiction Awards and seven from the Tranquebar repertoire.
The first section has six stories, Greed and the Gandhi Quartet (Sharanya Manivannan), The Tent (Ruchika Chanana), Salted Cashews (Divya Sreedharan), Baani (Payal Mukherjee), Happenstance (Kim Kanagaki) and In Praise of Straight Lines (Sanjay Sipahimalani). While The Tent haunts you in a way with a child’s eternal search for the mother who goes missing, Salted Cashews takes a look up-close to child molestation that makes you shudder a little. Happenstance leaves you with a smirk and is rather perfectly written. Both Greed and the Gandhi Quartet and In Praise of Straight Lines seems a little contrived and misses the mark but Baani is the one story that will steal you away and do not be surprised if your eyes feel a little wet once you are done reading it – ‘The family of three would be by the phone, and Baani’s eyes would shine when her father spoke to her, but didn’t ever speak back, and only when she heard her father would be joining them, something resembling a smile seemed to cross her face.’
The second section comprising of seven stories seem to work better than the first with some very powerful narratives. In Lieu of Gold (Nighat M. Gandhi), The Delicate Predicament of Eunice De Silva (Tishani Doshi), Next Year at the Taj (Sheba Karim), St George and the Dragon (Madhulika Liddle), The Howling Waves of Tranquebar (Madhulika Liddle), The Good Mother (Mridula Koshy) and The Large Girl (Mridula Koshy) are put together to form the Stories from Tranquebar.
In Lieu of Gold leaves you with a pleasant ache as an old man keeps planting trees with the hope of seeing his dead wife again; St George and the Dragon is a lovely tongue-in-cheek story of a government employee getting even with his corrupt boss; Next Year at the Taj is all about one night of passionate infidelity by a man whose wife seems to have moved miles away from him; The Delicate Predicament of Eunice De Silva is about the practised restraint of a middle-aged woman; The Howling Waves of Tranquebar is a delightful story of a man who steals a historical artifact; The Large Girl takes a look at closet lesbianism and The Good Mother is a rather touching account of a woman on a ‘pilgrimage’ with her sons.
Going in to details about the stories would take their magic away, but from the second half – The Good Mother, The Large Girl and St George and the Dragon are the ones that stand out specifically. The Good Mother tugs at your heart strings more than Baani does at times, simply because the story is distinctly personal, ‘The year before, when they pleaded for their sewn-leaf boats to float if not to Delhi then to Agra, she promised her boys she would take them there someday…having failed them, she prays, the words stumbling from her, ‘Please, take them to see the Taj.’’
The Large Girl explores the pitfalls of being a lesbian (or perhaps bisexual) and then having to be trapped in a regular heterosexual marriage, forced to make socially acceptable choices. Koshy ends her story with – ‘I will begin soon to live all the days ahead of me. In the afternoons, I will think: Do you miss me? Do you miss me? A thousand and one chances will come and go in this small city, in this small world. I will never see you again.’ She does speak for so many of us.
All the stories in this collection will not arrest you – but there are a good few that will.