‘Vratabhanga’: Breaking Vows and ConventionsLB Chhetri’s latest collection of short stories, with its use of vivid imagery, terse prose and memorable characters, packs a powerful punch.
All stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s the ancient axiom, dating back to Aristotle. The French filmmaker, Godard, twisted it, questioning the order of events. At any rate, all well-written stories follow a certain structure. The 26 stories in LB Chhetri’s recent collection, Vratabhanga, have structures of their own. With every other paragraph, the plot quickens, revealing the characters’ fate and will and ultimately reach a smooth denouement.
What fascinates the readers more than the structure of the stories is their length. Typically, short stories fall somewhere between 2,000 to 5,000 words. These 26 stories, with a slight exception of the last story, follow the aesthetics of microfiction. They thrive off vivid imagery, punchy and terse prose, and an epiphanic revelation at the end. The last line of every story rings with closure, leaving a lasting impression on the readers’ minds.
Take, for instance, the titular story, Vratabhanga, which depicts a dysfunctional marital life. The husband is having an affair, and the wife—meek and mousy initially—does something rebellious. The premise is simple, almost akin to what we find in every other short story collection. What makes this story particularly striking is how Chhetri unfolds the narrative. The story begins in medias res and with extreme brevity, so much that every other sentence adds to the rising action. The ending comes as a full circle, giving the story a resounding closure.
Many of the stories deal with the issues of failing marriage, dysfunctional families, and an individual’s position in society. The second story, Fatah Subash, is a tale of a callow boy’s defiance against societal norms, but it is also tinged with lies and deception. The third one, Jagdish Bhai, is a story of one-sided attraction and coming-of-age, yet there is still an unpredictable twist toward the end. This twist is what the author calls “LB Style” in the preface. The style fondly reminds the readers of master storytellers like O Henry, Chekhov, and Maupassant.
Rather than focusing more on plot or characters, the stories focus on the movement—the slow progression and unfolding of events. Every word is vital to the fluidity, the steady cadence of the narrative. And the sum of all the events—that is the story in totality—inarguably creates a powerful punch. This is self-evident in the sixth story, Garibi, which tells the story of a beggar, but concurrently questions and mocks the conventional definition of poverty. The ending is as beautiful as it could be: a long broom that stands upright beside a gate’s pillar, quietly looking at the narrator, introducing itself and redefining poverty. The last line echoes in the readers’ minds for days.
Although there isn’t much room to play with the plot, an immense possibility of change lingers beneath every sentence. The protagonists, who are round characters, grow and change. By the end of the story, they are altogether distinctive people. Character development is pivotal for any flash fiction piece to thrive and achieve its coveted effect. That is to say, the characters even in the shortest stories like Hami Sanchai Chhau, Tespachi?, Prem Vasana Hoina, Pilla, Attitude, and Bodyguard do change, every so often only implicitly. What is more affecting is readers will love to go over these short bits often, and each reading will be enjoyable and fulfilling.
Issues of women often take an important place in many of the stories. As explicitly mentioned by the author in the preface, he gives priority to women’s issues and supports their cause. Many of the female characters are much unlike the stereotypical portrayal in the traditional Nepali stories. These women—rather than succumbing to their fate—fight back, both verbally and otherwise. They are domestic rebels. Fighting, as one expects, has repercussions. But even when at a loss, the women here seem resigned yet complacent.
Readers might blame these characters for being ‘author surrogate’ insomuch as the author voices his concerns through them. They express the author’s beliefs, addressing the imposed authority. For instance, in the story, Vratabhanga, the wife’s dialogue is loaded with words like “male egotism” and “deplorable thoughts,” but later she acknowledges her lack of formal education. She also mentions reading feministic writings, but not being able to grasp their entire ideas due to her educational background. This blurring of lines between the author and the character’s voices feels a bit contrived from time to time.
Writing believable dialogues is tough, even for accomplished writers. If not done with care, it will end up being too artificial or heavy-handed. Also, when characters speak, the exchanges should do two things: either move the story forward or deepen the readers’ understanding of the characters. In the eighth story, Farak, the man, overcome by his burning lust, visits his former wife. What follows then are exchanges in almost academic Nepali. Readers yield to two assumptions—maybe they both are university graduates, or maybe the author is trying to project his feelings onto the characters.
Also, in the tenth story, Prem Vasana Hoina, the dialogues begin with a simple exchange of questions and answers. That is all too credible, but then again the wife differentiates between love and lust, rejecting the husband’s idea of watching porn in the middle of the night. There, she says something epigrammatic: love is not lust. Again, in the sixteenth story, Dipesh Raja, the natural dialogues metamorphose into issues of gender and sex, followed by some philosophical musings on the effect of alcohol on sexual desires. Then comes the classic heart vs. mind dichotomy. Point is, natural conversation becomes didactic in the blink of an eye. Readers are left with a taste of reading academic writing.
Shorter fiction is unquestionably enigmatic—they demand readers to do some work. Synonymous with solving a jigsaw puzzle, flash fiction, however short it may be, needs a bit of contemplating and head-scratching. Being mysterious is one thing, but being too ambiguous or too overt hampers the palpable joy of reading. The shortest fiction, as in Pilla and Attitude, are more of anecdotes. They are too open—readers are free to close the stories in any way they like. Investment in the characters’ arc for these microfictions would have made the stories stronger.
All things considered, Vratabhanga packs a powerful punch with its taut writing. Readers will surely relish the nuanced sentences, the layers and layers of dialogues, and the memorable (female) characters. If only the anthology eschewed the pitfalls of being too pedantic at times, it would have been a perfect read. All the same, the author deserves applause for penning such engaging stories, and that “LB Style” is a crowning achievement for Nepali fiction.