Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan reviews Oindrila Mukherjee’s ‘Once Again Next Year‘ published in Jaggery.
Oindrila Mukherjee’s Once Again Next Year has a mellow tone despite the bittersweet background it is set against. Reading it was akin to listening to a melody in Ahiri, a raga meant to express grief, but so haunting in its beauty that it enthralls the rasika. Mukherjee’s protagonist Monica sits in the middle of a house party in Michigan, contemplating fall in all its glory, a riot of red, orange, and yellow hues against maple and oak. As the afternoon slowly melts into dusk, she reminisces autumn back home in Calcutta, and the ghost of a Durga Puja celebration resurfaces from some forgotten corners of the past.
James, Monica’s African American boyfriend, is playing with their host’s little brother, Jake. As he lifts Jake, the child squeals in surprise, startling Monica. She tersely asks James to stop fooling around; it has reminded her of the Durga Puja incident, and yet, he does not ask about it, he does not understand her. This lack of curiosity about her culture, her roots, herself, suddenly begins to disappoint her.
Sitting under an elm tree, she remembers the smoke of incense arising from dhunuchi pots. She imagines the frenzied ecstasy of the dhunuchi dancers, swirling the smoke around dangerously, dancing away to oblivion. She recollects the sound of the dhaks, pounding on walls and merging with the screaming and clapping of happy devotees. Amidst the blowing of conch shells and ululation, as the idols are brought down from the pandal, she hears the chants – Once again, next year. An assurance that the Goddess would visit again next year, a promise that joys and happiness would continue next year, even if it means that the current year is slowly coming to an end.
The events from that fateful Durga Puja slowly unfurl in her mind. Sitting on the bonnet of a Maruti in a deserted parking lot, she first hears them – snippets of drunken laughter, thick Bihari accents betraying their identities. She crouches behind the car, but she needn’t be afraid – they have not come for her. They drag in the neighborhood idiot, Boltu – a servant boy whose faculties of mind are not quite there, and begin to abuse him. Boltu whimpers in pain, unable to defend himself, his animal cries of distress drowned by the roar of the dhaks. Monica watches in horror, but is paralyzed with fear and does not do anything. Boltu vanishes overnight; and nobody hears of him ever again, it was as if he never existed on the face of this earth.
When the memory visits Monica again, she realizes how the past always has a way of catching up with the present, even if one wishes that it could be discarded and forgotten. Mukherjee uses a deeply vivid metaphor here – ‘Memories couldn’t be separated from one another. They would always be woven together in a garland that was both beautiful and withered.’
While reading this story, I was reminded of Amir and Hassan in Khaled Hosseini’s magnum opus The Kite Runner. Amir’s inability (or was it unwillingness?) to defend Hassan while he was being bullied by Asef and his cronies in a deserted Kabul street is something that comes to haunt him for the rest of his life, chasing him all the way to adulthood on the other side of the planet. Similarly, as the past makes an unsolicited visit that autumn day, we wonder if Monica feels a twinge of regret, a shred of guilt for not having spoken up that day. It is a question that lingers on the reader’s mind, reminding us of all the times we could have done something, but chose not to. The cost of silence is sometimes too heavy a burden to bear.
I liked reading about the hypocrisy and inherent prejudice of Indians, especially in the context of dating an African American. Monica can sense the kind of comments passing through the rounds of Chinese Whisper in the tiny Indian students’ community, and she dreads what her mother would say if she discovered her relationship with James. There is a deep sense of nostalgia etched in Mukherjee’s words – her mother’s white cotton sari with a crimson border, slokas chanted in Sanskrit, flowers offered as anjali – they all symbolize a yearning for simpler times from the past, a past to which we cannot return.
Mukherjee paints a picturesque image of fall in Michigan. The description of Puja celebrations transports the reader to the raucous devotion of pandal hoppers – one can almost hear the conch shell signaling the end of the celebration, the air pierced with cries of “Once Again Next Year!” Fall, autumn, sharat – whatever name one chooses to call it, the season reminds us of a year rushing into yet another winter, reminding us of skeletons in the cupboard.
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About the reviewer: Born in Delhi, and raised in the Nilgiri Hills of southern India, and the Middle East, Krishna Sruthi Srivalsan graduated with an honors’ degree in accounting from the National University of Singapore. She is a chartered accountant by profession and is passionate about books, writing, history, travel, and dogs. She firmly believes that filter kaapi is the solution to all problems in the world.
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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.)
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