Agency is the capacity of an individual to choose and change, a theme that quickly emerges in From a Tilted Pail, Ajay Vishwanathan’s debut collection of short stories. The settings for all seven stories are the villages, shanty towns and interstices of rural India—not, at first, the obvious choice for exemplifying human agency. But, in fact, the stories deal with everyday people, the forgotten ones, the almost forgotten, the maimed, powerless and the despairing. Until, that is, Vishwanathan attends to them with his beautifully crafted prose and coaxes out their voices, narratives, histories and through it all, a sense of agency, in almost poetic form and with an acute appreciation and empathy for lived realities in India. Among these are the young child laborers working at a silk processing factory. The boys are powerless in the face of systemic poverty and indebtedness, a sad family saga that forces the young and the hopeful into drudgery as mere cogs of a society and value system that robs their innocence. One of the boys, “whose right hand, now burning in the naked sunshine, little bubbles breaking out below the knuckles,” dreams of a world beyond the dark confines of the silkworm shed, in the big city where “they can run barefoot, scramble after frightened frogs and catch raindrops in their mouths.” Through deft storytelling, Vishwanathan turns the story of hopelessness into one about the resilience of the human spirit, a theme that lurks just beneath the surface, and unites all the characters in From a Tilted Pail.
From the young boys in the silkworm factory to the bangle seller in “Auras of Glass,” the daughter of a repressive tradition in “Keeper of Lamps” and the dreamer in “The Wind in Your Hair,” Vishwanathan’s lilting and lyrical prose elevates the banal into the sublime. Of the silkworms slithering around mulberry leaves in the wicker baskets, Vishwanathan says, “There are so many and they chomp so loudly that it sounds like a flurry of raindrops.”
“Auras of Glass” is a story about Rajani, a young girl with a cleft lip who shies from attention and hides herself in the frenzy of a marketplace where, “most reflecting surfaces are blurred with dust; where distractions drop anchor in rich splashes of color.” In “Blank,” a young boy visits a former killing field with his grandfather, a place that stirs up the memories and echoes of a war that “made even the old weep.”
In a slim collection of 92 pages and seven stories, Ajay Vishwanathan delivers a powerful tour de force and captures the essence of the human endeavor—hope chasing away despair, and light, darkness.