A review by Lise Watson
It’s not easy to write a great short story, but when done well, we are carried off by the storyteller to a special place as if by magic. A writer must move swiftly to develop characters, settings and conflicts, and resolve them in suitable fashion.
Without a doubt, Vinita Kinra has done the genre proud with these eleven extraordinary short stories in Pavitra in Paris.
Kinra was born to Punjabi parents in Milton, Ontario. Two years later, the family returned to India where Kinra connected with her roots in a big way. After completing university, she accepted teaching positions in France, and eventually returned to Canada, first to Vancouver, and now she calls Toronto home. All of these experiences have informed Kinra’s writing in the most wonderful ways, and she is certainly delighted to share. Sink your teeth into these tales and you will want to savour every morsel. How lucky we are.
With the exception of the first story, The Curse of a Nightingale, which is set in Afghanistan, our journey starts and ends in India where tradition mingles with modernity, and our characters struggle to find clarity. Several of the protagonists make brave attempts at mediating the intersections between their home cultures and those they find in Paris, Vancouver and New York. To others, this is only an unfulfilled dream.
The situations may be specific to the South Asian experience, but Kinra’s key themes are largely universal: love and marriage, fading passions and compromise, lusting after the forbidden, bridging the generation gap, domestic abuse and violence against women, and inequities in class, gender and race. The range of characters and their circumstances is fascinating. There are arranged marriages and mixed marriages, snake charmers and camel traders, beautiful nature-loving young girls, evil in-laws, studious and ambitious young women and men, an urban engagement party and a faked death in a village, strolls through parks, a fateful meeting on a train and a perilous desert voyage, call-centre workers and shop attendants, a British suitor and a Canadian photographer, housewives, widows and a former Bollywood actress.
While each story is unique, there is an underlying melancholia that runs through them all. For instance, in the poignant Groom Bazaar, a personal favourite, in which the widow Sita and her son Rohan are enjoying the rambunctious celebration of Rohan’s engagement to his non-Indian girlfriend near Central Park in New York City until Sita is coerced into revealing the details of her own love story. She tells the tale of an arranged marriage with a twist, and discloses a long-hidden family secret to her son, with tear-filled eyes.
Kinra’s power of description is remarkable; we can almost smell the roti’s being prepared, taste the grilling hotdogs and fried onions, hear the songs of the birds and the congestion caused by too many auto rickshaws, feel the thirst of the desert traveller and the fear of the Afghan girl. And she is an expert in shocking surprise endings. We are lulled into a false sense of serenity and then smacked in the face in a heartbeat, time and time again. Be forewarned, there is some astonishing brutality in a few of these narratives, but this lends a necessary authenticity and respect for those who suffer thusly.
The collection aptly closes with fable-like, The Camel Trader, another personal favourite. In this story we follow Makhan Singh as he travels the vast Thar Desert in Rajasthan with his trusty camel, Veeru, to confront his missing camel supplier. He makes the dangerous journey despite the warnings he gets along the way, but what he finds when he reaches the supplier’s home is not at all what he expects. We close with Makhan reading a tragic letter left behind by the home’s former inhabitants, and left wondering how on earth he makes it back to the Pushkar bazaar, from whence he came.
As the end draws near, we find ourselves wanting more, much more. Thankfully the talented wordsmith has her first novel in the works. We will need to be very, very patient until it makes its entrance next year.