Long Day’s Journey

How small-town India negotiates life after dusk.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Published: June 14, 2014 5:09:01 am

Book: Day’s End Stories: Life After Sundown In Small-Town India

Edited by: Subuhi Jiwani

Publishers: Tranquebar

Pages: 206

Price: Rs. 350

As a young girl growing up in a small town, nights were mystical, mysterious creatures which needed to be negotiated only through sleep. A martinet of a grandfather enforced the lights out rule very strictly. By 8.30 pm, I was expected to be in bed, by 9 pm everyone was sleep.

Only much later, having moved to a big town college-and-hostel, I learnt how to own the night, with its promise of illicit reefers and loud Pink Floyd and jumping curfew for forbidden dates. My early years as a rookie journalist led to my living on my own, and realising how 2 am in the newsroom could be a most liberating time, where friendship and passion could, and often did, blossom.

I’ve always wondered whether my fascination with the night is universal, or do I just have a thing for this diurnal switch because I’m one of those, due to early conditioning, who inhabit the day more fully. Which is why I leapt at Day’s End Stories, edited by Subuhi Jiwani, tagged ‘life after sundown in small town India’, hoping it would provide some insight on what freedom at night really means.

Of course it is a question I see through the prism of gender and class: if I were not able to sleep comfortably at night and were forced into something terrible to be able to put food on the table, I would have very different expectations from the night. Do all girls, and later women, experience the night in a similar manner wherever in the world they happen to be? And do all boys who turn into men, presumably, do the same?

The bunch of stories in the slim collection address the questions, not all of them, and not all together, that come tumbling out of this day-night divide. The result is uneven —  not all the pieces spoke to me  — but it is very interesting. Because it positions the writers, most of them male, educated, and English speaking (only three stories are by women), as people who can afford to be out at night because they wish to, not because they need to. And that they have had the luxury to look at their small-town nights with hindsight and perspective because they’ve had the chance to experience nights, and nightlife, in the big city.

Amitava Kumar talks of Bettiah in Bihar and how its nights are constantly bathed in darkness because of the long power-cuts. Tabish Khair makes the profound observation that small towns can be cosmopolitan in their own way. Vinod K Jose recalls the nights in Mananthavady (Kerala) which changed his life because that’s where he got to see the films of “Akio Kussova” (Akira Kurosawa).

Siliguri-based Sumana Roy spends nights with a feisty group of women, “carriers” of contraband goods on their persons, as they criss-cross the Indo-Nepal border. The lesser-known tracks of Bikaner are outlined by Akshay Pathak who talks of its abundance of street dogs and doctors and sweet-shops, and the visible absence of women at dusk. And an Ahmedabad (not really a small-town), traversed by Zahir Janmohamed, which brings out its hidden stash of alcohol, conversations about sex, and communal divides, in nocturnal gatherings of groups formed through social networks.

My favourite is the one from Aligarh, by Taran N Khan, which talks of life divided by time of day : “we girls” would sit out with mugs of tea in the “long twilight of the north Indian summer”, and go inside when (we) heard the evening azan, and how everything would change when the numaish (lovely word, now rarely heard, a mix of village fair and mela) would bring girls and boys together, in a place  alive with the thrill of flirtation.

The piece brings together, simply and evocatively, the themes that Jiwani brings up in her introduction. A Bombay girl who “wanted to be in mosh-pits, to head-bang, to be in strobe-lit nightclubs”, from images on early satellite TV programmes, Jiwani discovers how nights can be differently textured in small-town and big city America, and then returns home to seek “the voices that speak of the night in places other than the metropolis”. In other words, the small town in India.

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