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Creature comfort

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One measure of Dhruba Hazarika’s — an elegant and moving collection of short stories about unlikely encounters between human beings and animals — is that some of its best stories don’t lend themselves to plot-summarising. Not very much seems to “happen” in “The Leopard”, for example (three boys in search of a missing cow fleetingly come face to face with a predatory leopard). Or in “Soul Egret”, a first-person narrative by a clerk whose troubled mind is soothed by a brief physical contact with an egret late one night. Or in “The Hunt”, where a recently bereaved doctor is filled with a powerful grief after participating in a late-night jungle killing.

But what Hazarika does in these three very short pieces — and in the other, longer ones — is suggest an intangible, almost mystical connection between humans and other species; a flickering moment when even the most self-absorbed people, their lives caught up in worldly matters, become aware of the deep relationship between themselves and other denizens of the natural world.

They respond in different ways to this knowledge. They might be humbled, or enlightened, or comforted. It might make them more aware of their own feral natures. (“There was the putrid smell of blood and excreta, and of something else that only the night and sudden death can bring.”) Or it might even bring them luck. One of the most satisfying stories here, “Chicken Fever”, is about a young, melancholy magistrate on a police raid. His mood is altered by the sight of a fat black hen in a haystack and this affects a crucial choice he makes just a few moments later.

Hazarika’s writing is unfussy yet vivid, and when he does reach for a more dramatic style or a change of course he does it judiciously — as in the two stories that are slightly different from the others in tone and effect. There are no animals in “The Gunrunner of Jorabat” (written in the informal, rustic voice of a partly drunken narrator) but there is a man with a distinctly feline quality. And “Asylum” is a nicely playful yarn about a vet-cum-psychiatrist who might be experiencing some very odd hallucinations. These two stories slightly dilute the book’s standing as a thematic collection, but they are fine pieces in their own right.

In a sense, these are all coming-of-age tales. The title story is about a solitary man learning a thing or two about patience and caring in the company of a stubborn pigeon. In “Ghostie”, an unusual, ghostlike dog becomes a test of the limits of human cruelty, and perhaps, a catalyst to understand what growing up really means.

Luck didn’t come with a lot of fanfare — it’s what you’d call a “small book”, not just because of its slimness — but it’s a rewarding read about people discovering something familiar in other creatures at the same time that they discover something unfamiliar in themselves.

[Luck is one of the eight new titles in Penguin India’s “Jewels from the North East” series. Others include Mamang Dai’s Stupid Cupid and Temsula Ao’s Laburnum for My Head.]


LUCK
Author: Dhruba Hazarika
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 156
Price: Rs 199

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