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.