Alas,â writes Manjula Padmanabhan in her introduction, âthe ideas that arrive at my desktop are all rude, unsightly wretches who belch and pick their noses and expose themselves in public.â Thatâs something of an exaggeration, but Padmanabhanâs writing does have a refreshingly uninhibited quality. This mostly reprinted, some-new collection of short stories flexes her many writing muscles from straight-up realism to spoofy role reversal in speculative fiction to outright fantasy and sci-fi. If there is one common thread, it is the interesting women in all of them.
âTeaserâ features a young man that women are all too familiar with: the innocuously- named âeve-teaserâ, more accurately sexual harasser or assaulter. Climbing on to a bus this day, on the prowl for suitable targets in which to inspire reverence for his âincandescenceâ, he meets his match.
In âA Government of India Undertakingâ, someone takes an astonishing metaphysical journey, thanks to the Bureau of Reincarnation and Transmigration of Souls, a building whose insides are larger than the outsides. Padmanabhan captures all the manifestations of GOI bureaucracy with savage accuracy. The narrator bribes any number of clerks to find the mysterious seventh floor and jump the queue to change her life. The result is written with minute observation as well as daring imagination.
Two of the best stories in this collection are inspired by the Ramayana. âThe Other Womanâ is the story of Mandodari (Mandy), the wife of Ravan, who is usually represented as âa snivelling nag or noble not-quite-cuckoldeeâ. In this story, Ravan has headsets on all his heads, and works on a tablet, and her co-wives all have televisions, and Mandodari decides to pay a visit to the mortal dimension to tell her tale. Choosing to blend in as best as she can â in the guise of a seven-foot tall blonde âLady GooGooâ, she approaches a famous journalist and explains herself in inimitable style (âPooh! I am just told to you: we is not die.â). Itâs a fantastic take on the Ayodhya controversy â I will spare you the spoilers.
The other Ramayana-inspired story is âExileâ, in which the princess Rashmi is banished to The Surface â a tangle of technology â for 14 years, along with her husband Siddhangshu and her younger sister Laxmi, after a spat between her parents over inheritance. Subvert an old tale by reversing genders and adding technology, and you get, literally, a new, and in many ways, better tale. Itâs not just that women have equal importance in Padmanabhanâs narrative; it is that women change the narrative.
A story about a journalist reporting on an unusual sati in âHot Death, Cold Soupâ lays bare the many hypocrisies of love and family life. It manages to compress a sweep of character and story into a piece that feels at once like a chapter from a novel as well as a complete work.
There is much to be celebrated in this collection: the tribulations of a vampire being sucked dry by his victims for a change; the coming of age of a young woman and her relationship with sexuality and art through her life in the title story, âThree Virginsâ; the story of a prisoner in âThe Strength of Small Thingsâ. Almost every story takes a fresh, outsiderâs view on some manner of familiar âinsideâ story. Gender, crime, mythology, sexuality, culture, nationality â all these are busted in some way through an authorial act of imagination or subversion. Padmanabhan does whacky, serious, funny, outrageous, deadpan and wry with felicity. Her language is sparkly, her imagery original and her ideas steely. You might quibble with a few stretches that are a tad heavy-handed, but then humour is one of the hardest things to get right.
Read Three Virgins and Other Stories for a tangy, refreshing look at this world â and mirrors of this world â that takes on familiar socio-political complexities and reimagines them in entertaining, thought-provoking ways.