Delhi’s Subterranean Truths

Sudhirendar Sharma
It is not the distance but the approach that creates a connection of convenience between shades of insecurities and vulnerabilities.
Hold it tight. The rickshaw ride could turn unruly as it meanders through the underbelly of an unalike city that undervalues the compulsive human-driven commuting that crisscrosses its bye lanes. Ipshita Nath’s debut of dozen stories of rickshaw rides is an act of poignant meditation amidst searing crowds who are oblivious of the realities simmering at the bottom of the city’s shaky foundations. The mute rickshaw is the inanimate character that ferries the stories of embedded frustrations, guttural aspirations, and discreet reflections. Are these the lived experiences of subterranean existence that help theorize situations of the mind as it grapples with the bizarre and mundane?
That is, until one reads to find that the rickshaw is a mute witness to situations and characters that are in constant conflict with each other. The twelve short stories in the book are interesting in terms of imagination and reach on the study of being, and about nothingness. While Balram’s jerking of carnal lust provoked animal instinct that weighed brutally upon him, Jugal’s desire for justice ruthlessly dismembers those who evade the hands of law. The stories of Balram and Jugal emanate out of irresistible desires, with strength and vulnerability negotiable within the realm of human thought and action. The rickshaw only helps connect the dots between the extreme realities.

The Rickshaw Reveries

Nath’s rickshaw pullers are ordinary people pursuing the extraordinary within the make-shift world of possibilities. For them, the forbidden Khan Market and luxurious Dubai are only few peddles away. It is not the distance but the approach that creates a connection of convenience between shades of insecurities and vulnerabilities present at different levels in the society. ‘It was all pervasive; an omniscient scent of rot sitting over a narrative of deterioration so great that it seemed larger than life, like a miasma of some eternal putrefaction.’
Imaginative and unusually enticing, this collection of short stories place the unknown rickshaw pullers, their feelings and minds at the centre. Through that the stories peep into what goes on in those minds: surge of mistaken adventures, provocative wrong choices, and multiple shades of love and desire. The Rickshaw Reveries is bold and adventurous, a collection that represents a strange case of rickshaw pullers’ as an agency without a distinct social identity. Within the stories, life exists on the edge of a precipice but throbbing with life nonetheless as if there is no tomorrow. Flowing in the cesspool of love and desire, the bittersweet experiences reflect a sociology of their own.
For existence that is practical and somewhat hard-hearted, the trade-off in rickshaw pullers’ life is often at the cost of life itself. Could it be any other way? Nath captures the undercurrents of the trade-off that lunges hubby Mounir full hog to procure a colour television that breaks into Shabana’s conditional frigidity. A television set did the trick but at the cost of him losing vision to acute sleep apnea, but Shabana seemed strangely at peace. Strange are the ways of love, which is sometimes unrequited and at other time returned for a heavy price.
With stories that are disturbing and discomforting, The Rickshaw Reveries unearths shades of truths lying at the cross section of an informal economy. Their survival goes unnoticed, so is their death. Pushed to die at the landfill of civilizational footprints, the lifeless lived becomes feed for vermin who scavenge a feast out of them as flying eagles keep an eye on it. There are sub-stories within stories that smack of our collective insensitivities. The stories are not about understanding the rickshaw-wallahs but to live and breathe along their dreadful existence.
Engaging with the metropolis is a genre that is gaining literary currency, and Ipshita Nath has demonstrated her ability at getting inside the bewildering realities of urban spaces. She has a narrative skill that is engaging and engrossing, the stories linger longer after reading them. The ubiquitous rickshaw connects these stories of madness, but there is indeed a method in the madness. Packed with real life anecdotes that play along the stories, a flavour of authenticity is lent to the narrative. Without doubt, the author would have wandered the bye lanes on a rickshaw to piece together realities that enhance the value of imagination.
If attention to language, strong imagination, and formal inventiveness are essential indicators of good fiction, Nath ticks all the boxes with reasonable competence. To me, storyteller Ipshita Nath has arrived riding on a rickshaw!
The Rickshaw Reveries
by Ipshita Nath
Simon&Schuster, New Delhi
Extent: 286, Price: Rs.350.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)
First published in The Book Review, issue dated July 2020.