There is more to what happiness can mean as a ‘collective expression’ to define a state of goodness: that which soothes the heart with a desired finality. Vineetha Mokkil’s collection of short stories, A Happy Place and Other Stories is a perfect extension to what F. Scott Fitzgerald had once said – Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know to find your short story. She does it well and without the coercing need of differentiating them, or specifying which emotion is being played at in a particular story, leaving the reader in a state of open conjectures: where exactly it hit the nerve, what did it take to demarcate happiness from despair, and when did one cross the other? To the many curious minds who may have a look at the title and quite instantly may think of it as another commodification of happiness in the form of a cosy-warm read, a la vie en rose – that which crescendoes on a romantic tilt and hits the finale with an ever-happy ending, Mokkil’s collection stands out as a stark disapproval to such stereotypical assumptions.
From desperate fathers to harassing sexual-exploiters, infidel partners, men struggling through the hierarchical war, some drunk in their hubris to bored housewives seeking identity, widows seeking revenge, women pining for love, mothers for their daughters and daughters writing nostalgic letters to their mothers; Mokkil, through her characters, brings out the absolute disparity in the gender-voices across cultures and norms. The writer is well versed with the idea of the perfect balance between hope and misery that one must constantly strive for even through the quotidian, everyday life. With characters as real as her stories she brings out their experiences in the form of small but significant snapshots of their lives.
In most of the stories, Delhi remains the backdrop both as a cultural as well as a geo-psychological entity. Sometimes, the city itself merges with the characters – with its nagging monsoons, dry scorching summers, the flooded streets, the cosmopolitan-chaos, wild night-parties, upper-class mansions, and everything that adds to its urbane grime and glamour, at the same time. However there are a few stories which do find variation to time and space and act as pleasing interludes with an equally strong sense of place. ‘A Quiet Day’, for instance is a story set in Kashmir. On what Ameena decides to be her last day, she reflects upon her once happy life, with her husband and her child, who are now dead. The winter and the snow act as metaphors to her melancholia. She is shown to be indifferent to the very day as she treats it like any other day and goes about the daily household chores, till she stops at the door of her bathroom and contemplates on taking a shower, before embarking on her final task.
“Her success does not hinge on personal cleanliness. Or the lack of it. If she were a believer, she would have comforted herself with the thought that the blood on her hands would be cleansed by Allah, and that her actions would transport her closer to him, ensconce her in heaven for eternity. But she has no such illusions. She had lost faith the day the bullet pierced Bilal’s heart.”
She then walks out into the falling snow, without bidding a final goodbye to her sleeping mother. The end is ofcourse left to interpretations. The story comes out as an exceptionally bold shot as it questions faith and justice, both metaphysically as well as politically.
In ‘Other Lives’ the writer delves into the many lives of women strapped to their upper-class responsibilities, their voiceless self and boredom. Priya, in a private conversation with a lady police officer reveals of her rich yet mundane life, her husband and of her past when she worked and had a normal life. In the end she is faced with a challenge to find out who she is and what she wants out of life, and ends up choosing her identity over everything else that her life had already offered.
“I stand and stare at the tree-lines avenue like a tourist. It takes me just a minute to turn around and take a different route. I’m not sure where I’m headed or how far I’ll go. But I know I have to keep walking till I find my own road.”
In each of the stories the need for a finite conclusion is subtly replaced with expansive and differential inferences. The characters do not seek resolution but a moment of epiphany towards the end. For instance, in ‘Red’ commitment phobic Vikram Mehra overcomes his fears only when he alone faces an adversity after being stranded in the middle of the sea. In ‘The Perfect Poem’ the narrator comes to realise the conflicting emotions of her poet friend, Pablo and fails to decipher it as the story finds a startling twist in its last pages. In ‘A Song for the President’ a young girl, living in near poverty with her widowed mother thinks of her meeting with the President and is extremely sure of what she would answer to his question: ‘Who do you want to be when you grow up?’ But changes her answer at the last moment.
Mokkil’s prose is delicate, taut and lyrical. Though she does not experiment much with her plots, yet her narrative is clearly nuanced. The voice emerging out of every story is deeply personal. In the last story of the collection, ‘Nirvana’, the prose is crafty and poetic. It is a re-telling of Gautam Buddha’s renunciation of his princely life through the eyes of his wife, Yashodhara. It bespeaks of her longing for him and her sorrow of having left behind. The starting paragraph itself emerges out as the clincher even before the story begins:
“She was the sinner, he was the saint. She was ignorant, he had risen beyond desire’s demands. Her life, a litany of petty concerns: Her body’s clamorous wants, her heart’s song. The future of the human race hung on his princely shoulders. What reprieve for a burdened saint?”
While going back in time, Mokkil doesn’t forget the present, changing social scenario and the liberalisation of sexuality and gender. Two of the stories, through their narrators (both female), do subtly indicate towards the acceptance of homosexuality atleast in the minds of the people who are sensible. In ‘The Girl Next Door’ Sonia spends her time with a gay couple who happen to be her closest friends and later discovers her door to freedom from a controlling relationship. Similarly, in ‘USP’ an editor goes against her senior in disapproving a novel written by a gay writer. She visits him to tell that the book is good regardless of any rejection. In the process she befriends both the writer and his partner and the three make a getaway-trip to Kufri.
All the sixteen stories have their own pace and rhythm. Tinged with an acute sense of sorrow each story is liveable and real. They traverse through the uncertainties of life, hurtle into the sea of everyday and internal strife, and row back to the world of wisdom through infinite possibilities of an ending. Happiness – as Mokkil finely draws up to the surface – after all is all about living those tales, never knowing where it ends.