"A story," said Jean-Luc Godard, "should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order." Author Kiran Manral follows that bit of advice to the hilt. Her ‘All Those Who Wander’ is awash with beginnings, middles and ends, so entwined they could be a plate of noodles. It is not ‘once upon a time’ any more. It’s ‘once upon many times’ and all of them together. The book’s protagonist is sometimes Anna, sometimes Nayana, sometimes neither and sometimes Sue aka Sukanya. It’s as if time has been dropped carelessly into an egg-whisk until you can’t tell today’s happenings from yesterday’s memories. All this could have been maddeningly perplex but it is par for the course. Manral immerses you in multiple stories so completely that you feverishly turn page after page to find out what happens at the end – the real end.
This book carries Manral’s trademark enthralment, her ability to dally deliciously, dangerously with unconventional ways of telling a story and her infectious infatuation with the paranormal. And when you, like Anna or Nayana, begin to wander, you are rooted by the mesmeric quality of her prose. It covers a wide arc. She can be taking you into mysterious realms of the unknowable one minute. The next minute, you are brought down to earth with the acuity of observations of a middle class housing complex with solicitous but unabashedly inquisitive neighbours. She even gets the maidservant’s vernacular right who fears that some ‘galat kaam’ was afoot.
In the sunless world that the characters inhabit, happy times must necessarily be fleeting because the past – with all its ‘galat kaam’ - is waiting to catch up. Death and dismay stalk the pages. Sometimes people die, and they are the lucky ones. Else, they will live and remember, and memories can be more terrifying than nightmares. They last longer and waking up is no longer an option.
As in many of Manral’s books, the central characters are women, etched in fine, almost obsessive detail. They are vulnerable and fragile, but they seem to know their own minds until the burden of knowledge becomes unbearable. They make for normal housewives with the standard baggage of infuriating toddlers, frumpy husbands and occasionally ardent lovers. When they are not fighting losing battles with their private demons, they are engaged in everyday domestic concerns. There is neither the time nor space for gracious romance. Lust is sheathed but seems to be waiting for opportunity. When the time does come, it is uninhibited. So the quiet and reserved Anna whips herself into frenzied sex even before she asks the man his name. Sue has a mother who sends her out on an errand to get samosas while she herself consumes a youth who is – who else but – Sue’s girlhood crush.
Writers for whom telling a story comes easy tend to get self-indulgent, spinning riveting yarns because – what the heck - they do it so well. Manral sometimes teeters on the brink but never trips over. The story is propelled forward all the time, with eerie echoes of contemporary events to give it immediacy.
Is this time travel on steroids, is this horror? I am still undecided but it is certainly a gripping read. It is hard enough to walk this tightrope between past and present. But Manral has chosen to pirouette, and the spectacle is well worth a watch.
Title: All Those Who Wander
Author: Kiran Manral
Price: Rs 399