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Dreaming Alone, in the City: Review of Parvati Sharma's Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love

There is always a point in a collection of short stories where its poetic threads reveal themselves, where the silences in each narrative slowly disentangle, where the reader’s patient quest to seek a broken thematic bridge across the various chapters, peaks. What is it, after all, about these Stories of Love that binds them together, that makes sense for the meticulous file-organizers and genre-classifiers of the day? Is it the nature of conversations — between characters, within characters — themselves, or the absurd, beaten, mocked, loved thing called Love that sleeps restlessly in every story? With some careless, misplaced interest then, I venture to seek some semblance of the weft and warp weaving through each love note in Parvati Sharma’s The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love.

Sharma’s stories, published in 2010, echo a startling understanding of what it means for characters to be completely incomplete in their motivations, actions, and desires, and to leave things as they are, so to speak. What launches one’s relationship with her satisfyingly curious and satisfyingly calming, patient prose is her first short story in the series, “Re: Elections, 2004”. Here, Sharma treats the memory of the unnamed protagonist’s past love with haunting care and a sense of incompletion that characterizes most of her characters, as much as it does this electorally apathetic yet politically self-conscious one. As she hesitantly reveals to the reader her distant electronic communication with her ex-partner Fatima, she navigates her relationship with Monica, her current romantic partner, her affectionate neighbours longing to parent her in their kids’ absence, and strangely, by extension, the 2004 Delhi elections. The protagonist, here, is unable to vote because she hasn’t registered for her ID. There is something about Sharma not allowing her characters access to larger spaces of national belonging, not because of any structural disadvantage they may suffer from — they are after all all middle to upper middle-class urban actors — but a warm carelessness and hesitance that seems to hang, heavily like the smell of urban trash, in the city and its bodies. So it is that not being able to vote sparks an onslaught of traumatic dreams and painfully self-conscious pauses in the protagonist’s speech. Here, the unnamed protagonist invites the reader into a mind formally invested in silencing her views for the sake of superficial stability in her relationships.

While electronic communication between Fatima and the narrator reflects the urban resident’s longing, specifically, for lost love, it also comments on the regimes of modernity — voting, citizenship, political evils, genocidal language, emails — that somehow create her practiced yet visceral reluctance to communicate. There is something to be said then about Sharma’s protagonists’ fractured love lives and their morbid, absurdly cathartic dreams that eventually transform the relationship a queer body arguably shares with the urban space and its political life. Parvati writes in dream-tongue, “ …the war is almost over; only Fatima and I remain… She turns and draws a two-finger gun, we shoot simultaneously. The war is over. Almost.” (16) The unending, non-existent war between former lovers codes the protagonist’s simultaneous guilt and sense of betrayal in her “one and only recurring dream” (16), as well as her interactions with bodies of nation and modernity i.e. elections, and the bloody vote.

The recurring dream then, is a trope that slyly masks the everyday of several stories. “The Dead Camel”, the second story of the series, becomes the rare image of animal death that first haunts the protagonist but later seems to aid her spiritually in self-knowledge and disappointment, in foreseeing and healing heartbreak. In this instance, She wants to confess to her lover, who’s just cheated on her: “It’s funny but I always imagined you, everytime you wanted to save some injured cat or bird, I always imagined you lugging the great big yellow truckload (the dead camel) in your arms to the nearest vet… And I loved you for it.” (34) Yet, all that comes out of Sharma’s silently hurting protagonist is “You”. The unsaid has so much power — a resting, immobile kind — in Sharma’s characters’ interiority, their act of dreaming, and their resultant lack of communication, especially with their lovers.

The Dead Camel, by Parvati Sharma
The Dead Camel, by Parvati Sharma

This thematic thread punctuates the urban space as well as the sexual proclivities of characters in certain stories. Often, the reader is thrown into a second-person point of view in stories like “Words Strung Out To Dry, Flapping Wetly In the Dark”, where the mightier narrative of incompletion, with lovers not quite “severing ties till the last minute”, is interlaced with an air of dread: the reader is made to enact the character’s role among trees, “crowned with vultures”, scattered “charred remains of phooljaris”, and “dead trails of rockets” (35). Diwali is immediately alluded to something close to death, and the dying. The body that is reading this text is now carefully placed “at the far end”, with an industrial  “air nipping” at the arms, “trying to remember” something (35). Much of Sharma’s storytelling reads like the body’s struggle to retain memory, to recall, to recollect and when convenient, ultimately, to forget. What does it mean then, to witness death imagery — Sharma’s description at this point being somewhat reminiscent of Anita Desai’s deathly portrayal of child’s play in “Games at Twilight” — in a text filled with the tension between keeping memory alive and covering its tracks with quiet footsteps? How do we finally reconcile her remarkable feat of written prose, at once languid, indulging and graceful, that also at times manages to read like spoken word with beats for musical punctuations (“Now: you are thirty-nine, thirty-two, leaving the Diwali debris unswept behind”)? Often, it seems, the text succeeds in negotiating the character’s spoken voice with the writer’s written one, a space, perhaps, more commonly referred to as “thought”.

In the heartbreak and loss suffered quietly and unremarkably by each character, these narratives casually queer our understandings of tenderness, desire and Love (with a big L). In more than a few stories, characters navigate the urban space and their sexual proclivities through dreams, visions and almost mythical sights. What emerges as a beautiful anomaly among all these narratives — coloured by notes on queer intimacy, affection and intergenerational conflict — is the character Mrs. Ghosh’s feverish reflections on her life now, and life then. Sharma writes “Mrs. Ghosh Goes to Goa” with a particularly ironic, fabulistic tone, about a homemaker who we see passingly, on the regular, yet don’t quite know. Mrs. Ghosh keeps things to herself, and it often seems that her constantly questioning mind informs her quiet, removed and observant exterior. There are no tears, no joys, no proclamations and no confessions in Mrs. Ghosh’s story. Just a desire to reach out, outside her sphere and seek — though this would seem to her vulgar — conversations and connections with strangers, be it her taxi driver in Goa or her new neighbours, whose love-making presence by the window both scandalizes and repulses her.

It is then the secret sighs, giggles, joys produced by one’s own body that Sharma — with her inclination to familial, spousal, and generational domesticity — is interested in. What can only be termed as a memorable moment in her collection is her penultimate story, “The Quilt”, which features two unnamed women making love as they laughingly quarrel about the meaning, intentionality and significance of Ismat Chugtai’s Lihaaf as foundational queer literature, and by extension, a queer cultural phenomenon. Ending this tale of sincere laughter and Love, Sharma concludes their quasi-intellectual feud: “She pulled the razai back on us. We giggled in the close darkness. The quilt’s light cotton cover settled gently on our naked skin. It pressed out the cold air”. It is then with playful desire, tongue-in-cheek jibes at Chugtai’s queered celebrity and for the sincere love of giving female intimacy “time” and “space” on ink, that she both manages to destabilize dominant discourses on female desire as well as pay a lighthearted, intertextual, and rather profound tribute to The Quilt, forever a foundational presence in South Asian queer aesthetic.

Sharma’s preoccupations with the intimate seek to question broader structures of the urban community, modernity, family, and legend. In many ways, her several characters’ shameless sexual life and their shameful dreamscapes are politicized with a grief, an incompletion and a hilarity so charming that it settles and absorbs quickly, crisply, like her fiery prose on paper.

Aaditya Aggarwal

Parvati Sharma's book, 'The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love', is available for purchase here.

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