Writing about love must take a lot of courage. For one, love stories are ubiquitous. They are everywhere we look. Also, the emotional journey of love — and this might be an uncomfortable truth — is stunningly uniform. The adrenalin rush at first flush, the sweet pain of anxiety, the ecstasy of fulfilment, the deep ache of loss, and the slow grate of disillusion is a cosmic pattern imprinted on the most primal part of ourselves.
Love truly is a drug, poets and scientists concur, and when life doesn’t give us the required hit, we need stories and expressions to pick up the slack. So the challenge before the writer of love stories is not to search for the truth of the matter, for we are all so intimately privy to it, but to emulate the effect of love. It’s a daunting task, but one that Annie Zaidi in her compendium of short love stories accomplishes with aplomb.
Love Stories #1 to 14 deals mainly with romantic love of the most common kind. The success of her endeavour depends completely on her ability to make us empathise with her characters and without any pretences Zaidi rolls up her sleeves and digs in to the emotional core of her protagonists, with nary a nod to their externalities. Dialogues are rare things in this book, and when they do appear they’re mere links in the train of emotional introspection.
Writers are often told to show not tell, tell is pretty much all Zaidi does. There’s no excavation that the reader needs to perform to get to the emotional core of the characters, they’re stripped of flesh and laid bare for all to see. But in this book it works wonderfully, because Zaidi tells us such wonderful things.
She has an eye for detail that would make a falcon blush.
And she turns the full force of her observational powers to the emotional dissection of her characters. Her protagonists are mainly pensive and mostly female. They seem to experience love constantly at the cross-section of memory, feeling and imagination. In most stories she sets up love as the antidote to loneliness, belied by the fact that there is not much else going on in the characters’ lives apart from their wallowing in love or the lack of it.
So whether it’s the ageing office secretary who falls in love with a disembodied railway announcer’s voice or the woman who unable to bear the consequences of her break-up turns into a stagnant puddle of existence, looking out from her balcony at the other people’s lives to fill her own void; the stories that work best in this collection are the ones that take place in physical lull that often accompanies emotional distress.
Zaidi is able to fill out this emptiness with beautiful prose and rending emotional resonance. “I have been in houses where the glass slides smooth as knife through April butter, where windows fit the panes perfectly so that there is no room even for a millimetre of discontent,” she writes at one point drawing gasps of admiration from this reviewer.
Though there are quite a few such peaks of high skill, unfortunately Zaidi often tends to lapse into the pedestrian. But that’s hardly a source of great discontent because once she has you by those heartstrings, she rarely lets go. And any narrative shortcomings are drowned by the emotional reaction she is able to extract from her reader at will. It’s a book by the emotional, for the emotional. A quick read that won’t make you labour over pages, but ultimately will leave you with an emotional aftershock that will linger for a good while.
Love Stories #1 to 14
By Annie Zaidi
Published by HarperCollins India