Book Review: Kismetwali and Other Stories
Kismetwali is a collection of short stories, woven around the –walas and –walis that we are so used to in India. Just to set the context right, we are not talking about the Parsis such as Shenaz Treasurywala, or my good friend Perseus Patrawala or his wife Pinaaz Pagdiwaala. We are talking more about the chaiwala, taxiwala, malishwali, kaamwali, phoolwali and the likes – people living almost at the fringes of the society specializing in delivering a particular product or service to us so well that their personal identity merges with their professional identity. That they are known only by what they do, and not by who they are. They are everywhere. They are, usually, no one.
We all have a story, or so it seems. In Kismetwali, Reetika successfully weaves her personal life experiences into the lives of the walas and walis. From the shavewala, who services an ex-merchant navy official, to the kismetwali who reminds his wife of her real wish, to the taxiwala who dutifully serves the flight attendant madam, to the non-resident Indian who rediscovers his Indian mithaiwala identity, having moved thousands of miles away from his small town life. Through the stories, connections are made and crossroads are navigated. Reetika deftly interweaves the various protagonists into a common thread of everyday living and different stories.
I think I have a thing for short stories. But even if my biases are to be adjusted for, Kismetwali is not only beautiful in prose, but also very poignant in its moments. It successfully takes a bird’s eye view of a city full of people, and narrows it to a few independent yet dependent people going on about their mundane yet fantastical lives. It takes their stories together, and carves them out into separate short stories. Rendered with great sensitivity and good command over the language, it allows you to take in the various sounds and smells of the city(ies), appreciate the nothingness, and more importantly, appreciate these people who are almost always present in our lives without us being present in their lives as much.
It was difficult to single out any specific story as my favourite, but maalishwali’s and taxiwala’s ending touch you in a very sad way, while kismetwali leaves you with a lot of after-thoughts. Reetika’s stories are not a rich man’s view of the poor man’s world. It is, in fact, a meeting of the two worlds at the crossroads.
Gyan, the taxiwala, is the dependable person that everyone turns to, and who turns to everyone in his moment of crisis. Most of his rich customers who trust him, but some who’s vagrant ways bring the curtains down on his sense of morality. Radha maalishwali navigates through life holding secrets and mending relationships the way she knows. Shyam kebabwala protects Radha, but his skewers scar the phoolwali, who ends up healing the scars of an uptown Vinati. This, when Shyam moves from Doon to Mumbai because Doon Mithais displaces his kebab shop. Shanti Safaiwali saves her memsahib, but fails to save her relationship with his own brother Shyam. Doon Mithai’s heir mithaiwala abandons it all to find a new identity in a different country in the meantime. Hari, shavewala, helps his brotherly saaheb move on, as memsahib’s wishes are granted by Mannat Kismetwali. Even Mannat, however, cannot do much about the price to be paid for Rhea’s and Karuna’s wishes.
It’s a beautifully interwoven world. The shortness of stories keeps them tight. The stories, at the same time, are not so short that the details are missed. Reetika’s flowery and detailed prose occasionally takes over. Yet, the details are important for the world that these individuals inhabit. The sense of time and timelines is taken away, and instead you are jumping from one vignette to another. The language is fluid. And the characters extremely relatable. Their problems too.
One hopes that a lot of people read these stories and reflect on the various walas and walis in our respective lives. Go ahead, and enjoy the read.
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