‘Deerskin’ by Mr. Sashikanta Mishra: Reviewed By Dr. Saroj K Padhi
‘Deerskin’ by Mr. Sashikanta Mishra: Reviewed By Dr. Saroj K Padhi
‘‘Deerskin’ marks Mr. Sashikanta Mishra’s debut in English fiction after the success of his two excellent Odia short story anthologies (Bula Kukura and Mati Mahaka). My bibliophile uncle, who happened to read all the 22 stories of ‘Deerskin’ before I did, remarked - ‘the book establishes the author’s intimate understanding of human psyche which explains why his characters and their stories are so memorable even though everything about them is told in roughly a couple of thousand words.” To my mind, however, the stories of the book testify of something much more than the author’s grasp over human psychology. The book is sort of a bible of man’s life and its mottled shades - goodness, victories, failings, travails, not to mention the layers of his moral edifice. ‘Deerskin’ compiles heartfelt accounts of all of the above and more. Much of this book’s deserved distinction can be sourced to the author’s immaculate minimalism and brevity in conveying the message of his tales across, an art which many of us grapple to perfect but often fall short of.
The protagonist in ‘Brush with Nature’ encounters facets of nature and providence that harrow him and enlighten him in equal parts. How befittingly the author has chosen the ordeals of dealing with an orphaned to bring forth the dual shades of man's character. One heartless enough to instigate abandonment of bonds despite the strongest of reasons not to and the other kind enough to embrace the path of empathy and care regardless of absence any reason to do so. The story, in a few pages, makes a profound argument that in caring for a stranger, we sometimes discover the true purport of humanity. ‘A Dog's Tale’ is nothing like one has ever before heard or read about dogs. The tale tenderly binds the reader to its thoughtful portrayal of the journey the narrator makes from a state of inner turmoil to one of peace and contentment, which he unexpectedly attains by his interactions with a stray dog. A heartfelt rendition of feelings existing even in beings that are perceived to be without any and a climax that swells the soul like 'the huge waves' of the Bay of Bengal in whose shore the events unfold, reserve a special place in our hearts for this story.
The ubiquitous penchant for having a male child is portrayed with compassion in ‘A Remedy for Son’. Everyone, who has in some point of his life nurtured that desire, hung around it, pursued it with some amount of resolve, is bound to love this story. But Mr. Mishra’s protagonist is somewhat different in responding to the peer pressure of having a son. For a change, the man appears to have not bothered much about it. He is content with having a daughter as his only child, till such a choice returns to trouble him in old age. The story carefully moves through familiar territory known to exist in the lives of couples who long or have longed to have a son, holding one’s attention with raptness as it does so. Its minute portrayal of time's play with bonds of blood is likely to leave a dent in your resolve to pursue the birth of a son, if you are still holding on to one. ‘Fight or Flight’ presents the universal dilemma between choosing the easy - compromised path and the principled – tough path in the line of duty, one guaranteeing material comforts and the other, a salvager of conscience but harbinger of immeasurable hardship. The protagonist of the story is relatable, his predicaments inspire empathy and his resolve to get over the obstacles leaves the reader with a very useful life advice. The story does remind us in its own unique way that sometimes the remedy to a deeply distressing situation lies in facing it with grit and smartness instead of staying broken and letting it run over us.
‘Godsend’ revolves around the guilt of its central character, who, hopping from one failure in life to another brings upon himself the disgrace of witnessing the possible auction of his ancestral house. The regret and the ignominy attached with his guilt are narrated with such flawless accuracy that unbeknownst to the reader, he is put in the protagonist’s shoes and made to share his humiliation and anguish. By the time the reader reaches the climax, he finds himself feeling and saying exactly what the protagonist does. The story works its way beautifully into the mind of the reader because it depicts a very identifiable sense of dejection, something which many of us are likely to have faced while trying to make something out of our lives in our formative years. ‘Letting go’ will bring a feeling of deja vu for anyone who has faced the terrible conflict of choosing between life and death for a loved one. The agonizing dilemma of a son, who is asked to make such a choice, has been brought out by the author with utmost sensibility in this story. The narrative is taut, has enough moments to stop the rocking of your reading chair, enlighten you with a meaningful portrayal of reasons that make the bonds between us and our loved ones what they are, also ensuring at the same time that you are transported to the shoes of the characters. The predicament of choosing a morose life over liberating death, the strength required for holding ground in the gradual process of losing someone to that death and the friction between rationale of mind and hope of heart are depicted by Mr. Mishra with great skill in this story. A piece of fiction that speaks abounds of his maturity as a writer and control over the craft of storytelling. One of the better stories of the book, hands down.
How I loved ‘My Own Weatherman’ because of its resemblance with so many 'sons of soil' of my own village. They have an explanation and a theory to solve every problem. And, as in the story, those theories, far removed from principles of science and pragmatism, seem to have a way of working wonders everytime. Again, a story that draws analogies from a familiar walk of life and delivers a pleasantly surprising climax. ‘Shame’ has layers that show but do not preach, exemplify but do not take sides. It tells the story of an old couple’s day in the hospital, in the process learning all there is to learn about coming to terms with things that have changed and things that need a change in their relationship. I particularly loved the husband who tries to ape another couple’s visible affections while sincerely endeavouring to please his wife, doing simple things in the process only to discover in the end how terribly deceptive appearances can be. This climactic punch is delivered in the author’s trademark style. The story is also a reassuring read for those couples who might be looking to discover meaning in their bond with all those mundane years behind them. This one certainly makes a reader wiser about the truths and lies forming the bedrock of every marriage.
‘Renunciation’ talks of the differences between a monk - apparently devoted to the path of reaching God and a beggar whose sole devotion seems to hover around collecting petty alms. The former declaring his claim to enlightenment, the latter making no such claims rather his only concerns seems to be to ensure a good collection at the end of the day. One is a repository of faith and admiration of the community and the other, an aberration of mankind. Despised by the monk, the beggar prods on as a burden on earth much to the former's chagrin. Their lives, thoughts and aims are so divested from each other that one practically begins to feel the weight of the beggar’s existence as the monk wants the readers to. But all of this is only a veiled preparation which Mr. Mishra devises to present a shocking climax for his readers. So well schemed is this distraction that it is near impossible to foresee the ending which he has all along planned. An ending that not only leaves the reader with a lump in his throat but also conveys a profound moral to be mulled over long after the story has ended. This story stands out in the anthology for its brazen portrayal of spirituality and character as much as for its deep philosophical implications.
In an unbelievably simple narrative, 'Sorrow' achieves its purport with clinching finality. The setting of wild sea side weather and the abandoned boulevard are shown as metaphors for the inner chaos and loneliness of a man who has chosen to brave the weather instead of staying indoors. But why does he do so? Narrated in a few passages, the story wields an inescapable force on the reader to draw him deep into the depths of the characters' conflicts, before a numbing climax is unleashed on him like a powerful wave, making it too late to summon any pretence of equanimity under the force of its emotional impact. Drawing similarity between losses suffered by hearts irrespective of age and circumstances, the story is likely to move one to tears even though it is so brief and crisp.
The author is at his humorous best when he narrates in first person the mundane tragedies that befall the protagonist in 'The Bad Omen'. You are bound to feel guilty for the sheer frequency of laughter that you break into upon reading about the narrator’s predicaments. But in his usual style, the author allows the real purport of the story and of the whole experience of the narrator’s travails to unravel in the end in one signature punch. How circumstances cause a change in the hate filled heart of a student antagonized by his teacher has been depicted with sheer brilliance in 'The Best Student'. There are a couple of 'lump in the throat' moments in the story and they define the basis of a student teacher relationship in a memorable way.
‘The Letter’ took me back to my days of yore when college romance was everything and re-scattered the delicate colours of unadulterated love that once existed in the hearts of young men and women. It was a sense of déjà vu and trust and a wave of feelings that the characters inspired in me. Yet, their tale culminated in such a way that I was practically left speechless for a very long time. While one may find himself lauding the author for so skilfully demonstrating fate’s proclivity to be deceptive, he may also find it difficult to climb out of the feeling of devastating loss suffered by its two blameless lead characters. ‘The Letter’ goes down as my personal favourite in the anthology, more so because it actually came back to haunt me for quite a while.
All the twenty two tales that Mr Mishra's has anthologized in ‘Deerskin’ are racy and lucid. Their depiction is not lost within the mesh of an unnecessarily complex narrative. Most of these tales deliver to the reader profound life wisdoms. The protagonists of these tales are particularly remarkable because of the way they deal with their tiny and big struggles. But what is truly overwhelming about Mr. Mishra’s writings is his O’ Henry like endings that sweep a reader off his feet, like a kiss in the dark. He draws you innocuously into the personal spaces of his characters, convinces you to accompany them in their voyage only to overwhelm you with a near crushing conclusion of their journey. In writing his stories, Mr Mishra picks up the most relatable life circumstances and weaves a rather eventful account around them with extraordinary precision. He often calls out his characters to display nerve in the face of day to day conflicts and setbacks. It is in spinning tales around the cause and consequences of such conflicts that he actually peels off the layers of man’s moral making. In doing so, he employs a voice that is authentic, clear and which suffers neither from hallucinations nor confusion. It strikes the reader as the most outstanding aspect of his storytelling. In my opinion, one of the compelling reasons as to why Mr. Mishra’s stories are so readable is the settings he chooses to tell them in. Each of these backdrops draws its inspiration from the Indian milieu. One may somewhat credit the author’s experiences as a lawyer and then as a Judge which he has garnered over the years to have enriched his familiarity with real places, people and how they tend to behave under a variety of circumstances, a crucial trait for writing the kind of stories that he has written. In my humble view, the tone of his stories, the choice of their characters, the flow of events and the portrayal of moral crisis in his stories put the author in the category of masters such as O.Henry, Maupassant, late R. K. Narayan and Shri Manoj Das. Through his quick witted tales told in a quintessential colloquial flavour, Mr. Mishra is all set to revive a dimming chapter of English literature in the subcontinent. A lover of creative writing may choose to ignore him at his own peril.
About the Author
Sashikanta Mishra was born on 17th January, 1967 at Bhubaneswar. After completing his Master’s degree in Economics from Ravenshaw College of Cuttack and LLB, he practised as a lawyer in Orissa High Court for 13 years before being directly recruited as a District Judge. Writing in both English and Odia (his mother-tongue) is his hobby. His first book The Great Masters of Kriyayoga published in 2003 is a collection of biographies. He has authored two Odia short story anthologies – Bula Kukura (2015) and Mati Mahaka (2017). His short stories have appeared in online literary magazines Out of Print and Muse India. He has contributed some columns/articles to Indian Express. He is also a blogger. He lives with his family at Cuttack, Odisha, India.
About the Reviewer
Dr. Saroj K. Padhi, an Associate Professor of English in the Govt. of Odisha, is at present working at J K B K Govt. College, Cuttack. Born in 1962, he has been writing poems in English and Odia since his school days. Till date he has published innumerable poems in most of the leading magazines of the country and abroad. He has published two books of criticism: 1. Jayanta Mahapatra’s Relationship: A Critical Study 2. English Essayists: A Critical Study and about 12 research articles in different journals and eight anthologies of poetry in English namely Pearls of Dew, Shattered I Sing, Rhyming Ripples, Petals in Prayer, Silent Sight, Moon Moments , A Slice of Silence and Elusive Spring.