Kunwar Narain, renowned Indian poet, critic, thinker, essayist and translator, once described his short fiction as a romance with reality. The stories in The Play of Dolls are just that: rich with nuanced observations on modern life presented from multiple perspectives, opening up engaging dialogues with the reader. They cover a range of themes, with elements of fable, folktale, mythology, history and metaphysics woven seamlessly into them.
The titular story, one of my favourites in the collection, zooms into a significant moment of human connection in the narrators life. Questions about love, fate, god and individual choice abound, but without weighing down the narrative. Most of the stories strike this delicate balance, focusing on individual lives while revealing the universal.
In A Fight between Two Men, Narain inverts the familiar device of anthropomorphising animals, used in, say, the Panchatantra and Aesops Fables. Human beings provide amusement and enlightenment to animals in this mesmerising story. Dialogues with animals, with the wind and the sky, or with inanimate objects like a watch, are all par for the course in Narains stories. Human beings end up being caged, chained, or trapped in stacks of files and office cabinets, posing the question: how does one survive in an inhuman world? Questions about the overreach of institutions and systems the law, bureaucracy, government, codes of morality and their encroachment into personal lives surface in stories like Fear and The Shirt. Taking a humane course of action lands the protagonists in trouble and being human in itself becomes a crime.
None of the stories in The Play of Dolls is an easy read. Much like masters of the form such as Kafka and Borges, Narain asks his readers to examine the world with an open mind, stay alert, and continuously reason with themselves as they turn the pages.
The reviewer is the author of A Happy Place And Other Stories.
The Play of Dolls; Kunwar Narain, trs John Vater, Apurva Narain, India Penguin Modern Classics, 399