BASS 2015: Shobha Rao, “Kavitha and Mustafa” from Nimrod, #36

The train stopped abruptly, at 3:36 p.m., between stations, twenty kilometers from the Indian border, on the Pakistani side. Kavitha looked out the window, in the heat of the afternoon, and saw only scrubland, and endless yellow plane of dust and stunted trees, as far as the eye could see. She knew what this meant. One of the men in the berth, the tall one Kavitha had been eyeing, calmly told the women to take off all their jewels of valuables and put them in their shoes. They’ll search everything, he said with meaning, which made the young woman in the corner blush. Two or three of the women gasped. The old lady started crying.… The boy was not more than eight or nine years old but, of all of them, he seemed to remain the calmest, even more so than his father. He serenely took two thin pebbles, a curled length of twine, and a chit of paper, maybe a photograph, from his pockets and put them in his shoe.

Rao had, according to her Contributor Note, a very clear idea of what she wanted to write about here: serious conflict, a woman and a boy, “I was widowed long ago”, all set in the violence of the partition of India and the Pakistans. It’s a suspenseful story, yet because of writing’s zoom lens that allows a focus shift from the panoramic to the close-up, a very intimate one. As Rao says, “Violence, all after all, is not difficult. Humanizing that violence is what is difficult.”

We recognize the woman in the loveless, sterile marriage, and we understand her simultaneous acceptance of her lot, and her hunger for something more. That the conflict between those contrasting poles is brought out by a crisis situation is not unusual, but it’s her mysterious and tenuous connection to the boy in the train that ramps up the natural suspense from “Will she survive” to “What will she choose?” Or perhaps more accurately, “Did she make the wise choice?”

Again, nothing was quite clear in her mind, but never had two rocks and a piece of twine seemed to hold so much promise. The contents of her shoes – a necklace, some rings, and a set of matching bracelets – held none.

I had a lot of trouble visualizing what was happening in the story, and that’s a shame, since I think a great deal was going on in the mise-en-scene. That’s an important part of reading fiction, however: expanding our ability to see, beyond what we see every day, and it’s always good to stretch that capacity a little.

I find the ending quite interesting. It seems highly positive to me, for the rare happy ending to a work of literary fiction. On further reflection, however, I considered that it might be possible that it indicates something other than what I first thought, a darker view. More of a bittersweet than happy ending. In fact, I think the last line can be read many ways. I like that. I’m very interested in how a story “projects into the future” as I’ve called it from time to time, what a literary analysis course I took called portability: how characters take on lives of their own that last beyond the final page. I could imagine several futures for Kavitha and Mustafa, all of them better than had they remained on the train – even had the robbery not happened.

3 responses to “BASS 2015: Shobha Rao, “Kavitha and Mustafa” from Nimrod, #36

  1. I share your difficulty in being able to picture what was happening, beginning from the moment she decides to resist. I especially didn’t understand what happened after they went up on the roof of the train–they saw a distant road, but only one of them can make it to the road, but then there is a car, and then they both made it to the car, and somehow the boy threw the rock to attract the attention of the driver, and the driver picked them up, but wouldn’t help them get the authorities to save the train, and then they just decided to keep going to India? Huh?

    I could probably read it again to clear it up, but I didn’t like the story nearly enough to do that. She gave up everything that she liked, even having likes. The crisis gives her a chance to claim something for herself. “You’re mine,” she says, although for some reason the story eschews quotation marks. So now she has reclaimed having things of her own. Fine, whatever. I don’t really even need to know what happened to get her there.

    • I very much like your take on “you’re mine.” (Cormac McCarthy got everyone started on not using quotation marks, didn’t he? I don’t even notice it any more, I can see the point of not stabbing the page over and over).

      i was terribly confused about the kerosene. Since the Contrib Note specifies the train burned to the ground, I’m assuming the robbers brought it with them and used it after K & M escaped, but as I read, I had no idea if Mustafa had brought some with him, if it was his to begin with (and he was part of the robbery, which for some reason I still think is a possibility – he, too, made a decision to change his life), or what. That’s the visual I was most missing. The whole “on top of the train throwing rocks to get the attention of a passing lorry” well, no, I have no idea what that’s about either, but since the implications (escape) were evident, it didn’t seem as significant as the kerosene, which had unseen implications.

      Have a great Christmas!

  2. In grad school writing workshops I was in 15 years ago, some students rebelled against using quote marks. I was one of them in an off-and-on fashion. On the one hand, they help the reader by saying “somebody is talking here.” On the other hand, they kind of serve to break the narrative spell, because they are a visual reminder that you’re reading a story that has rules. Generally, I now think that the benefits outweigh the negatives. In this story, I was more distracted by their absence than I would have been oppressed by their presence.

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