On the not-small list of books coming out this autumn that I’m looking forward to, Vandana Singh’s The Woman who Thought she was a Planet and Other Stories is near the top. It will be published by Zubaan Books sometime before the end of the year; I know this, despite the fact that I can’t find any information about it on Zubaan’s website, because it’s been mentioned in a couple of interviews (for instance this one at the Aqueduct blog), and because Singh’s entry in Interfictions, “Hunger”, is jointly credited as appearing in that anthology and in the forthcoming collection. And I’m looking forward to the collection despite the fact that I haven’t actually read that much of Singh’s work, or perhaps because of that fact, because everything I’ve read has impressed me — the past and future visions in “Delhi”; the intensity of “Thirst”; the feeling of escape at the end of “The Tetrahedron”. The only reason I haven’t read more already is that the stories have been published in such diverse venues that tracking them all down becomes unrealistic.
But all the ones I’ve read have been science fiction. “Hunger”, as mentioned, appeared first in Interfictions, which might lead you to expect it’s a departure. It is and it isn’t. It is lower-key, not science fiction, and barely fantastical (if that); but it is also, ultimately, an argument for the empathic power of sf that is almost embarrassing in its uncomplicated sincerity. It starts with a woman waking up:
She woke up early as usual. The apartment, with its plump sofas like sleeping walruses, the pictures on the walls slightly and mysteriously askew, pale light from the windows glinting off yesterday’s glasses she’d forgotten on the coffee table — the apartment seemed as though it had been traveling through alien universes all night and had only now landed in this universe, cautiously letting in air.
That long second sentence is perhaps trying a little too hard (“walruses” sticks out to my ear, though it’s undeniably a vivid image; and the repetition of “the apartment” feels just a bit too self-conscious), but it does its job. The suggestion of alienation it sets up is elaborated through the first few pages of the story: she (Divya) gradually realises she’s “lying in a strange bed next to a strange beast that she slowly recognised as her very dear husband, Vikas”; she stands in the doorway of her daughter’s (Charu’s) room, thinking about alien universes; she steps cautiously into the kitchen because at night it belongs “to the denizens of another world”, cockroaches and other insects; and most explicitly, when warily looking ahead to the day to come, she thinks “she wasn’t made for such things — she was from another planet, where you danced with trees and ate parathas and read trashy science fiction novels.” The mix of domesticity with a more distanced perspective echoes, in places, Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe“, although not in structure, and Singh’s story is not so feverishly intense.
Only gradually does the setting and do the other characters come into focus around Divya. But like Sarah Boyle, Divya is preparing for a birthday party: her daughter Charu’s twelfth. The shadow hanging over her preparations is one of expectation; Vikas has been promoted, and is now expected to socialise with VPs and CEOs and other abbreviations, all of whom have (Divya knows) homes far more spacious, and in far better neighbourhoods. Divya is nervous to the point of resenting the promotion in the first place. But the preparations run on schedule, with the help of a cook and a cleaner, and in spite of Charu (who would rather talk to the old man who lives upstairs) and Vikas (who is more concerned with putting out poison for the mouse he just spotted in their bedroom). Just before the guests arrive, we get another sfnal nudge, when Divya thinks of the book she’s reading, which has a body-snatchers plot: “she stared wistfully at the lurid cover … the plot had to do with Viraa discovering aliens disguised as humans, living in the town of Malgudi. They were from some planet light-years away. Divya wondered how she was going to survive.” The ambiguity of “she” in that last sentence is, I assume, entirely deliberate.
So with all of that in mind, when the guests have arrived and the party is in full swing, it’s somehow not a surprise that the story’s tone shifts slightly. But it doesn’t become sf; the body-snatching is only a metaphor. What we get are a series of sketches that are broader, a bit more cartoonish than what has come before if not outright farcical; portraits of guests who are larger-than-life if not outright grotesques. It matches how Divya feels about the events whirling around her. If the style of “Hunger” is less dense than that of “Delhi” or “Thirst”, it is no less careful or effective; and it can and does absorb a sudden shift, as when the old man upstairs is discovered to have died. The description of the body is quite sober, if not dignified — “What Divya saw was the old man curled up in a nest of rags, clutching his throat with both hands, quite dead. His hooked nose, protruding from his too-thin face, gave him the appearance of a strange bird; his heavy-lidded eyes were open and staring at some alien vista she could not imagine” — and in this context, the reference to an “alien vista” has an extra resonance. But the guests and their reactions remain buffoons and bluster, respectively:
[Divya] turned to face the Lambas. Mrs Lamba gave a high-pitched cry and fell against her husband, who, not being built to handled the weight, tottered against the wall. Mrs Bhosle took over, muttering words of comfort and calling for brandy, giving Divya an unexpectedly sympathetic look. Mr Lamba drew himself up to his full height. Divya noticed that the tip of his nose was quite pale.
“What is the meaning of this! Who is this fellow?”
“The father-in-law of my neighbour’s servant,” Divya said. “They don’t feed him–“
“I don’t care who he is,” Mr Lamba said. “How can you tolerate having riffraff living in your building? The man could be dangerous! Or have a disease! Like AIDS!”
Mr Lamba’s pronouncements are absurd — AIDS is pretty much the most ridiculous disease he could have chosen, in the circumstances — but reading this passage, what struck me is how neatly those pronouncements are prefigured by one word, earlier in the scene: “tottered”. The one we might have expected to totter, stereotypically, is Mrs Lamba; but no, she solidly falls, and it is her much less large husband who totters. His full height, we suspect, is unimpressive; the shrillness of his complaints, when we reach them, is already half-anticipated. (Although it is Mrs Lamba who, when she has recovered her composure, insists she has never been so insulted in all her life; because obviously, the old man’s death is only important insofar as it affects her.)
As the party breaks up the tone shifts yet again, this time undergoing a more wrenching transition into a harsher realism. The reason for the old man’s death becomes clear, but the police have no appetite for an investigation: “If we launched an investigation each time some old fellow dies of starvation, we would be overwhelmed”, says one, bluntly. (But if it had been Mrs Lambas’ father, we think …) Time skips on. Vikas leaves his job, unhappily, and a silence grows between him and Divya. Charu carries a new sadness within her — “after the incident she could no longer bear any kind of cruelty, nor could she, as a consequence, watch the news without tears” — and a silence grows there, too, although the daughter occasionally tries to bridge it: “There were times when the girl would come upon her mother and give her a fierce, deep hug for no reason at all, and Divya felt Charu was trying to tell her something in some other language, and that she was able to comprehend it in that other language as well.” All of this is building up to the change in Divya, which is the story’s fantastic element, which is that she has become sensitised:
When she looked upon the faces of strangers they appeared to her like aliens, like the open mouths of birds, crying their need. But most clearly she could sense those who were hungry, whether they were schoolchildren who had forgotten their lunch or beggars under the bridge, or the boot-boy at the corner, or the emaciated girl sweeping the dusty street in front of the municipal building.
Two things to note here. The first is that the sfnal imagery has become pervasive, the references coming thicker and faster than they have through the rest of the story — this mention of strangers-as-aliens is immediately after Chura’s attempts to communicate in a different language. The second thing is that the world beyond Divya’s family is a darker, more claustrophobic, less welcoming place: Singh writes of “the hungry and forgotten, great masses of them, living like cockroaches in the cracks and interstices of the new old city”; the contrast with the rest of the story is almost too much to bear, even as we remember the cockroaches that owned Divya’s kitchen when she wasn’t there at night.
And then there’s the ending. We return for a final time to the science fiction stories that Divya reads. There is the sense that now more than before she is finding consolation in them, and that though in part that may be a consequence of her trauma it is, on some level, not wrong. Quite the opposite. It is, as I said, almost embarrassingly sincere (or if you can swallow it, a rallying cry), and it works only because of Singh’s absolute control of tone in this story, the nuanced shifts which I hope I’ve mapped at least a little, enough that to leave you with this last quote won’t seem entirely facile. But it is, when you come down to it, a big reason why I want to read Singh’s collection:
Slowly the understanding came to her that these stories were trying to tell her a great truth in a very convoluted way, that they were all in some kind of code, designed to deceive the literary snob and waylay the careless reader. And that this great truth, which she would spend her life unraveling, was centered around the notion that you did not have to go to the stars to find aliens or to measure distances between people in light-years.