Kaani contributor Prashila Naik’s short story ‘Hope that he hears’ published in The Bombay Literary Magazine is reviewed by Rituparna Roy.
“Hope that he hears” by Prashila Naik took me back to my childhood and adolescence. To the skeletons in my family’s cupboard. Everyone I know knows someone who was in love with a cousin. So do I. Brought up in a Bengali Hindu household (never mind the atheist father and the non-ritualistic Tagore-worshipping mother), with (now as I look back) primarily Bengali Hindu relatives and friends, I was given to understand quite early in life that first cousins were not supposed to be in love. But I also knew that a paternal uncle and aunt of mine were first cousins. Their unlikely union made possible in the 70’s by the intervention of my mother who – going courageously against the tide of relatives’ opinions – managed to persuade her widowed mother-in-law to accept that an open social marriage was much better for her eldest son than a lifelong clandestine relationship.
Given this proven open-mindedness, I was appalled in my teens to sense my mother’s unease about my fondness for an elder cousin of mine, who had always been indulgent towards me (all ears for my stupid school stories, carefully-clicked photographs of me on his new camera, etc). Since my days and nights were given to dreaming only about Imran Khan, I was very sure even as a mere 13/14-year old that I had no romantic inclinations towards this cousin; that I really looked upon him as a favourite elder brother. Nothing else. I had a loving sister; but I longed for an elder brother… and he came closest to my idea of one such. Hence one day I confronted my mother – irritated beyond measure by her irrational fears. She said, she did fear, given my genes: my paternal family, she told me, had witnessed many such romances apart from the uncles’ I knew of. Now that was news!
Naik’s story is the exact opposite of my own experience: the protagonist is in love with her cousin here, and her mother doesn’t fear. But the reader is left in no doubt of the protagonist’s emotions right from the first arresting paragraph:
You are secretly in love with your cousin. Every vacation, in your grandmother’s house, you watch him grow a few more inches, and of late display a few more sprouts of hair. You marvel at how his voice is better than that of any boy you have heard. You also marvel at how he can sing English songs you have never heard before. Every time he touches your palm, in an attempt to teach you the right way to strike on the carrom board, you struggle to control your smile, and struggle to control the spreading of a warm, fuzzy feeling that honestly leaves you baffled.
One of the most difficult points-of-view to assume and sustain in any narrative is that of the second person, which is probably why they are rare in literature. “Hope that he hears” scores high on this point, successfully drawing in the reader as an active participant in the story.
Another noteworthy aspect of the story is that while it has a taut narrative, it still manages to be nuanced in its depiction of relationships — not only in the central one of the seemingly unrequited love of a young girl for her cousin, but also among members of the larger family that forms the backdrop to this relationship. Thus when the girl doesn’t go for the mandatory family picnic to be able to spend time alone with her cousin, feigning an upset stomach, we are told: Your mother is understandably concerned for your health, but she has waited too long for this quiet evening with her siblings. You have no trouble convincing her. There is a hidden (though maybe not uncommon) story in that “waited too long for this quiet evening with her siblings”. We realize that the “wait” for the annual vacation is as much the mother’s as the daughters’. In fact, it is the mother’s anticipation of and willed participation in the annual vacations that make the cousins’ incipient romance possible.
As adults, it is easy to look back on doomed teenage romances with wistfulness. While reading the first part of the story, one is almost confident that that’s where it is leading; and one almost gears oneself for that response after a failed romantic moment between the cousins (reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins’ & Emma Thompson’s characters in a key moment in Remains of the Day):
You can feel your cousin’s eyes on your face, and the next instant you are certain, he will pull you close and hug you, or probably like the more adventurous movie heroes, plant a kiss on your cheek. But, your cousin only stares at you, even as you build a city of tiny, harmless dreams where your cousin and you can do more than just look at each other.
But no – there is no room for wistfulness. There is a twist in the tale, and one is not sufficiently prepared for it. The cousin had grown to be an outsider – but his inability to fit in family outings didn’t suggest any dark portents, didn’t in fact seem to have anything in it beyond the routine defiance of a teenage rebel. But whatever the plausibility of the cousin’s fate, the wait – now indefinite – for the girl is real. As is the hope to which she clings on.
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About the reviewer: Rituparna Roy is an academic and creative writer. She is currently Assistant Professor of English at Sister Nivedita University, Kolkata.
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(The story should be published in English in any online journal. Pick one or more short story. The story should be available online and published between 2012-2018. Preferably Asian journal/ writer. Within 800 words.)