When a widely travelled person with a wealth of experience behind him, chooses to wield the pen, the result is an engaging collection of fourteen short stories titled The People Tree by Mr Beetashok Chatterjee. True to its title, this anthology is, indeed, all about people – people belonging to different parts of the country or the globe, having varied backgrounds, sporting diverse idiosyncrasies – and how they choose to live their lives. The Foreword is simple but offers an inviting sneak peek into the contents that follow.
The USP of this anthology is the brilliant combination of gripping storylines and credible characters. The very first offering here – The Little Oxford Dictionary – drew me right in from the word go. The story is set in a defence establishment in Ambala Cantonment, a place where I have spent several memorable years and hence, could relate to every scene mentioned. But the winner, here, was the inconsequential mini dictionary that admirably turned the story on its head and made me sit up and take note!
Mr Chatterjee has handpicked characters and plots we are familiar with and can relate to, but has vested them with such endearing traits and unusual twists that we are left with racing hearts, a quickening breath or misty eyes. Be it the steely New York cop with a heart of gold in Ground Zero, an innocuous, elderly gentleman with a dubious past in The Good Neighbour, a traveller caught in the temporary throes of lust in Up in the Air, or three friends and their heart-warming friendship spanning decades, continents and generations in The Holy Trinity – all these characters and their experiential journeys inspire us, exhilarate us, and leave us craving for more!
The author is a master in the art of world-building. Through his skilful blend of fact and fiction, authentic descriptions and fanciful imagination, he has transported us to the faraway lands of Ambala, Aruba, Calcutta, New York, Pune and Paithan. The stories are all headlined by intriguing titles – subtle yet suggestive – which spur us to dive right in! An undercurrent of humour runs through each of these stories – wry, self-deprecating, often dark, and sometimes warm, endearing and affectionate.
Another highlight of this collection is the bold, unapologetic tone of the writer that permeates almost every number. Hence, we have a grief-stricken Rekha fighting a losing battle with the establishment to earn justice for Nadeem; the elderly Narayana Rao and his fetish for the races; middle-aged Bina and Ivana cocking a snook at societal sanctions to celebrate their same-sex relationship; young Tara owning up her flawed, imperfect self; or 25-year-old Aruna demanding her space and freedom from her over-protective parents. The writer gives a voice to the issues relegated to the fringes of society, like the growing climate of communal hate, religious militancy, or adolescent heartbreak . It is a voice of logic and reason – non-judgemental, inclusive, passionate and firm – and leaves enough room for the reader to draw his own inference.
Beetashok Chatterjee’s vocabulary and story-telling skills are par excellence. He generally engages in a no-fuss narration where the sentences are terse, on-point, and often staccato, but fully loaded and carrying a wealth of implications (eg. Course Correction, The Good Neighbour, Do You Want to Know a Secret). But whenever the story demands, we find the use of metaphor and imagery – quite detailed, lovingly crafted, and left like literary breadcrumbs for the reader to pick up and relish. Leaves that are Green and Come Home would find a special mention here – the superlative language and masterly narration leave us feeling warm, fuzzy and loved.
The People Tree bears fruit that is a luscious blend of tangy, briny, honeyed, spicy and bittersweet flavours.
Readers, go savour this delectable fruit punch right away!
Published earlier on Penmancy, Amazon and Goodreads