Nijhawan’s impressive debut, a collection of loosely interlinked stories, explores the plight of India’s working poor. The highly segmented structure of work in Indian society, often determined by caste and class, means that specific vocations are often handed down from one generation to the next. Although the working poor’s lives mostly unfold parallel to the upper classes’, these stories show them intersecting in interesting ways.
In the story “Shavewala,” Hari the barber attends to Vinay’s grooming needs by visiting the home his client shares with his wife, Kaveri; the barber is called upon to perform a necessary service when his client is near death. In “Safaiwali,” cleaning lady Shanti keeps up an apartment for a young, single woman, Mandira, who’s trying to carve out a new life for herself in the city, far from her small hometown; Shanti serves a critical function when Mandira has a love affair that doesn’t end well.
A dash of noir style (“The gathering darkness, the subtle drop in temperature, and the salty-sweet whiffs of ocean breeze created the illusion of cleanliness in a place where there was little to be found”) adds spice to many of these stories, and fellow Indian writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s influence can be seen in the abrupt, twist endings.
Nijhawan shows her outsider perspective in how she paints these working “waalas” and “waalis” in a strictly positive light. Each underclass character, some of whom appear in more than one story, is relentlessly virtuous and of strong moral fiber; as a result, the very people that the author sets out to showcase occasionally seem one-dimensional. Nevertheless, these stories, which are supplemented by an extensive glossary, show a remarkable degree of empathy for people who go largely unnoticed.
An often incisive story collection that manages to show just how closely interconnected people truly are.
"The stories are full of insights into human nature, written with compassion and a strong feel for character."
Ruskin Bond, award-winning author of
Room on the Roof