(Carried in Outlook, June 2006)

The Women in Cages: Collected Stories
Vilas Sarang
Penguin India
Rs 275, 283 pages

Imagine that contemporary Indian writing is situated on an over-active seismic zone, where regular eruptions of frenetic energy occur on a barren plain crisscrossed by faultlines.

One of these faultlines is amnesia; we forget our best writers for decades at a stretch. Like G V Desani, they slip into oblivion for a generation, only to be “rediscovered” by the next. Another faultline is language: the “authentic” writer working in an Indian language is ceaselessly pitted against the impostor working in English, a language fit only for export. A third is form: the novel rules, with poetry and the short story relegated to the rear.

Vilas Sarang’s work is built across all three faultlines. This intense, blackly comic and subversive writer has been “discovered” for his poetry, criticism and his short fiction on average once a decade from the 1970s onwards. The respect for his work remains constant, even as his books shuttle in and out of print.

Sarang was 16 before he read his first full-length book in English. He wrote his first “mature” story in English, and has shifted easily between Marathi and English ever since. To him, bilingualism is natural, and necessary: “My conscious mind may function in English, but my unconscious is rooted in Marathi… To write first in Marathi, then re-do the text in English, is thus a means of reconciling the two halves of my divided psyche.” Arvind Krishna Mehrotra comments, “Sham Lal asked if one can write in ‘two separate languages without developing a split personality’, and Sarang shows not only that one can, but that the condition of being ‘split’ is what keeps literature in good shape.”

Nothing illustrates Sarang’s devotion to the idea that the short story is the “guerrilla warrior” of fiction better than the work collected for the first time in The Women in Cages.

In ‘The City by the Sea’, Bombay’s people beg, shit, fornicate, suffer and find tenuous redemption, with the ghosts of Camus and Cortazar standing guard over Sarang’s prose. A man desecrates a funeral pyre by warming his hands over it in an attempt to ward off the winter chill; during the Ganesha festival, the clay statues of the god come to life and run away, returning to immerse themselves in the sea only when the crowds have gone.

In ‘Libido Zones’, the women (and men) in cages find different ways to live behind the bars of prostitution; one woman sprouts vaginas like peacock eyes all over her body, briefly increasing her worth to customers. In a haunting story in ‘The Shadow of the Gulag’, after a series of coups, the final coup is carried out by the people of the slum who have naturally evolved after years of deprivation into “skeletons without undergoing death”. Skeletons require nothing, which makes them incorruptible rulers: “the Regime of the Skeletons”, the state astrologer predicts, will last forever.

Not every story is perfect, especially the ones that skate close to science fiction—Sarang’s vision of the everyday has such a touch of strange that it needs no assistance from futuristic worlds. It’s the stories where human lives stray plausibly, but irrevocably, into surrealist territory, while remaining touchingly human, where Sarang is at his most powerful. The Women in Cages is long overdue. Perhaps we can now acknowledge the genius of this unjustly neglected writer, a man who shares the same space as Kolatkar and Nagarkar while invoking the spirits of Rabelais, Celine and Kafka.