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Gaurav  Deka

A Happy Place and Other Stories Vineetha Mokkil Chatto & Windus 2014 English Fiction/Paperback oo 208/INR 275

A Happy Place and Other Stories

Vineetha Mokkil

Chatto & Windus 2014

English Fiction/Paperback

oo 208/INR 275

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.

Vineetha Mokkil

Vineetha Mokkil

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.


Gaurav DekaGaurav Deka is a writer from Guwahati, Assam. His fictions, poetry and essays have been published in The Open Road Review, The Tenement Block Review, Café Dissensus, The Four Quarter Magazine, The Thumb Print Magazine, and The Solstice Initiative, among others.

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Vineetha Mokkil

© Divya Adusumilli

© Divya Adusumilli

Dear Ama,

The villa I live in has glass walls. Not brick or solid stone like the houses we know. The walls are a special kind of skin – thin enough to let the light in, tough enough to keep the world out. All the houses in Orange County are built this way. Their reflections shimmer in the waters of a giant, egg-shaped pool (in which only the residents of Orange County are allowed to swim) on sunny days. Security is tight. The guards are always on the lookout for trespassers. If they catch anyone trying to sneak in, I’m sure they draw their guns and shoot the intruders dead. Orange County is a fortress – nobody gets in or out without permission, not even the wind and the rain.

Does this sound like a make-believe place to you? A picture I painted in brooding shades of grey? I wish … I wish this place would crumble to dust and let me come back home where the mountains loom and the breeze carries the hum of monks’ chants towards snow-capped peaks. In my dreams, I see the two of us walking down Dharamsala’s narrow, winding streets. Prayer flags flutter over our heads like rainbow-hued birds. The sun glides out from behind the clouds. The mist lifts. We head to the market, past the gates of the Dalai Lama’s temple where tourists and devotees line up, past a row of cafes teeming with the Sunday evening crowd. We take our time, stopping to chat with friends and neighbours on the way. There’s no rush. The market will stay open. After our weekly vegetable shopping is done, we drift towards old man Tsering’s momo cart. He has set up shop in a corner of the market. ‘Eat, Tashi,’ he says, giving me a toothless smile. ‘Fill your tummy, child. You’re all skin and bone.’

Was that just a dream? Then why does it feel more real to me than the life I live at the Dhawans’ glass house in Gurgaon?

This house has too many rooms. There are empty bedrooms on all three floors, high-ceilinged halls and lounges nobody bothers to step into. Babaji has the ground floor to himself. His room has a four-poster bed and a couch angled close to it for his nurse to sleep on. A stroke has left Babaji paralyzed. His right arm and leg are of no use to him. He can’t sit up straight or feed himself. His nurse helps him get around and bathes Babaji and feeds him and wheels him to the park in the evenings when the weather is fine. I’ve been to the park with them a couple of times. Babaji gave me a crooked smile when we got there. I think he likes my company – must be a change from spending all his time with Rana, the morose nurse.

The floor above Babaji’s is home to his eldest son and daughter-in-law. They have a gym up there, a den to screen movies, a bar, a billiard room with a pool table and a dining room that can seat more than a dozen guests. The floors are white marble, the walls the same dazzling white. The furniture is all silver and white. On the walls hang silver-framed mirrors. Marble statues, crystal swans, candelabras, silver salvers and silver centrepieces are scattered all over. I step on the first floor and sink to the bottom of a sea of white. Madam bosses me around when I polish the silver. Nothing escapes her – dust bunnies, a stain on a tabletop, a wrapper hidden under a corner of the carpet, a flimsy cobweb. I have to work hard to please Madam. When she is satisfied, she thanks me for a job well done and lets me climb up another flight of stairs to get to the second floor where the youngest member of the Dhawan family lives.

This floor is always empty. There are dustsheets on the furniture and the blinds stay drawn. Nobody has cooked in the kitchen for months. A ghostly silence hangs in the air when I go up there to mop the floor and make the beds. The floor belongs to Rohit Saab. But Saab has been home for only a fortnight since I got here. I saw him walk into the house late one night with a dazed look on his face, the expression of a traveller who had lost his way and was too stubborn to ask for directions. He went to bed straightaway and lived out of his suitcase for the next fortnight as if he were a guest at a hotel. Madam says her brother-in-law is too busy to feel at home anywhere. He is a man who hops across the world on jet planes. His home is up in the air. Rome, Paris, New York, Berlin, Dubai, Beijing – work takes him everywhere.

We should have travelled the world, you and I. Caught a flight from Dharamsala and gone for a spin. Seen the blue oceans. Seen the sprawl of cities and bald-headed skyscrapers buried in the clouds. Circled over craggy peaks and jungles and rivers in spate … We should have tasted the freedom of flight. We should have grown wings and travelled the world.

I clean and polish and run errands. Grocery shopping is my job too. The head chef and queen bee of the kitchen, Satyadi, hands me a shopping list every day. Two assistants scurry around, doing her bidding all day. They snivel when she pulls them up for putting too much salt in a dish or overcooking the meat. I am not like them. I can take on Satyadi when she throws a tantrum. We argue a lot and slug it out like a couple of prizefighters in the ring. Afterwards, I turn around and apologize to her. The thrill of winning an argument is nothing compared to the taste of the dishes Satyadi whips up, so I have learnt to say I am sorry even if she was the one who started the fight.

Satyadi is always at work. When she is done serving breakfast, she starts planning for lunch and dinner. Madam gives her special instructions when she is entertaining guests. Even the whiners who keep complaining about the weather and the overcrowded streets of Delhi cheer up when they taste Satyadi’s cooking. They ask for second helpings, polish off all the food and walk away from the table with a smile on their lips.

Satyadi is the first person to wake up in the house. She starts work at sunrise and goes to bed at midnight. Her room is tucked behind the kitchen, like a sparrow’s nest. The only piece of furniture there is a bed – no tables and chairs or cupboards, no photographs on the walls, except for the pictures of gods and goddesses she has cut out from calendars. Most of those pictures show snatches from Lord Krishna’s life – an infant Krishna with his mother, a toddler Krishna in the company of friends, a handsome young Krishna dancing with Radha in the rain. Satyadi shoos me out of her room when she catches me staring at the pictures. ‘Go to bed, Tashi,’ she orders, pointing towards the staircase.

My room is up on the terrace. Of all the people under this roof, I live closest to the clouds. My room is an island adrift in an ocean of green. The terrace is filled with flowering plants and creepers. Roses and lilies and marigolds sway in the breeze. Vines of jasmine cling to the walls. Potted bonsai figs and lemons shoot up next to a bower of fragrant herbs. Flowers bloom in every season. The air smells sweet. Bhagvan Kaka cares for the garden like a mother hen fusses over her chicks. He has been the Dhawans’ gardener for decades. Working for the Dhawans is the only profession his family aspired to – his father and grandfather also used to work for Babaji. I stick close to Kaka when he waters the plants. If he is in a good mood, he lets me plant new saplings and spray pesticides on the older ones.

Kaka is an encyclopaedia about the Dhawan family. He remembers every wedding and birthday, every fight and reconciliation, every ripple that crossed the Dhawans’ lives. Kaka told me that Madam’s father forced her to get married to Saab. She was in love with a classmate – a boy her family disapproved of. So her father fixed an arranged marriage to solve the problem. The wedding was a grand affair, with a celebrity filled guest list and a venue modelled after the Sun Temple in Konark. Madam’s father had hired a crew to recreate the famous temple in the heart of Bombay. Madam cried throughout the ceremony and the guests sympathized, thinking that the bride was upset about saying goodbye to her family and moving to Delhi. Nobody guessed that she was mourning the death of a dream.

‘Such idle chatter, Tashi,’ you say, knitting your eyebrows. ‘Gossip is for ghouls. Keep away from it.’ I haven’t forgotten your allergy to gossip. But Kaka is not a ghoul. He is a good soul who likes to keep me entertained. Also, he gives me useful information. Like what? He tells me things about the neighbours I should know – who does what, who lives in which villa, who are the friendly souls and who the worst snobs … Orange County is home to people with masked faces and veiled eyes, a crowd dressed up for a stage on which the spotlight shines all the time. This is a tribe I’ve never met before. We don’t speak the same language. We are not from the same planet. Kaka understands my confusion. His stories make me feel a little less lost, a little less like a fish thrashing around on land.

Thanks to him, I know that my next-door neighbour Leela’s father is a famous politician. A red light blinks on the roof of his car – like a one-eyed monster – when it zooms in and out of Orange County. The light tells the people that a Very Important Person is passing by. A second car filled with guards trails after Leela’s father’s vehicle. The guards follow him like a brood of puppies – they drive when he drives and follow him on foot when he goes for a run in the mornings and after-dinner walks in the park.

Leela has her own set of armed shadows. She hates them. I’ve seen her shooing them away. She yells at them when she is out on the lawn or at the poolside and doesn’t care if the neighbours hear her. ‘Leave me alone,’ she screams at the men, her heart-shaped face contorted with disgust. ‘Go away,’ she says, balling up her fists and punching the air like it’s her worst enemy.

Leela does not act like a Very Important Person’s daughter. She doesn’t dress up or wear make-up. Her shorts are frayed at the edges and she wears faded tops which look like they have never seen the inside of a washing machine. Her hair tumbles down to her waist, uncombed. Unruly curls spring up like dancers when she moves her head. Leela likes to walk around the lawn barefoot. She looks happy when her feet sink into the soft carpet of grass. She paces up and down furiously and then slows down to take a deep breath. The light shifts and a smile flits across her lips. I’ve seen her stare at the setting sun with something close to contentment on her face.

I am going to paint a picture of her standing at the edge of the lawn with her face angled to the light. Her shoulders won’t be hunched up with tension on my canvas. Her fists won’t be balled up in frustration. Orange County will loom behind her, scooping up the last rays of the sun like a mirror. Leela will stand there, scanning the horizon in search of something – a lost planet, a shooting star, a comet blazing a trail in the darkening sky. But a flicker of hope will light up her eyes. This is how I will paint her, standing there at the edge of night and day, suspended between dream and reality. When I’m done, I’ll sign the picture with my initials. My signature will float forever like a speck of dust in the periphery of her gaze.

More later.




Vineetha Mokkil

Vineetha Mokkil

Vineetha Mokkil is a writer and reviewer based in New Delhi, India. Her stories have appeared in The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal; The Missing Slate; Ginosko Literary Journal; Cha: an Asian Literary Journal and the anthology of contemporary writing Why We Don’t Talk. This short story is extracted from her collection A Happy Place, published by Harper Collins in February 2014. Her first novel is in the pipeline.


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