The British poet, historical novelist, critic, and classicist Robert Graves once memorably exclaimed, “A well-chosen anthology is a complete dispensary of medicine for the more common mental disorders and may be used as much for prevention as cure.”
The very concept of an anthology is intriguing. An act of harnessing contradictions, tying together diverse perspectives, unifying vibrant, restless and throbbing threads of individual imagination into a cohesive structure is what distinguishes an anthology from its other cousins such as let’s say the essay. The father of essay writing – arguably – Michel de Montaigne meant the act of an essay to mean an attempt. An essay is to “try”. An anthology however does not just attempt. It goes even beyond that act. While an essay aims to play within limits, an anthology plays with limits. In “Blood Runs Cold” – the title itself seems to be a clever take on Truman Capote’s spine-chilling true-life chronicle “In Cold Blood” – seventeen young and talented authors bring together their perceptual sweep and wake of the genre of thriller to assemble an anthology that mesmerizes. Before I bore my reader to death with my monologue on anthologies, let’s dive into the stories (sans spoilers of course) that form part of this arresting bouquet:
- The Crypt – Priya U Bajpai
What does an attractive woman with acuity and alacrity do when after engaging in a wild celebration to usher in her twenty seventh birthday, she wakes up to find herself not only in a state of post-inebriation, but also isolated in the deep dark confines of a crypt? Vani would know. The protagonist of Ms. Bajpai’s story “Crypt”, Vani stares at a situation that might at once be dangerous and one that puts her very existence in peril. She needs to bring to bear all her verisimilitude to get out of this conundrum. But why has she been abducted? Or has she even been kidnapped? Where or what is this crypt? Ms. Bajpai’s imprimatur is her simplicity. The plot is tight, the narrative easy on the eye and the tension, palpable. “Crypt” sets a humdinger of a platform for what is to follow!
- Hollywood Murders – Anshu Bhojnagarwala
At the end of every story in the book, there is an ingenuous chapter that illuminates the idea behind the story. Ms. Bhojnagarwala’s reason for penning her story is apparently, to challenge herself to tackle a genre which she has not tried her hand at before. If this is true, then Obama is my Uncle! The poise and panache with which she deals with the investigation skills of Inspector Savio and his Hollywood thriller obsessed sidekick Sridhar, makes Ms. Bhojnaragwala seem a seasoned veteran of her craft. Shades of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and flashes of Denzel Washington’s “The Bone Collector” assail (pleasantly) the reader as she races through the story in one breathless sitting. “Hollywood Murders” – One for the Judge, Jury and Executioner! This is one short story that would have even made Hitchcock deliver a silent chuckle of approval.
- Crimson Circles – Pranav Kodial
Mr. Kodial elucidates that the inspiration for his story stemmed from the epistolary work of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. The effort one must admit is linear to its outcome. Of a near perfect length, a crispiness that is effervescent and a gripping plot that whizzes forth like an arrow from commencement to conclusion, “Crimson Circles” is a delightful exercise in combustive spontaneity. A eulogy-cum-obituary that waxes eloquent over the accomplishments of a dead murder mystery writer takes a catastrophic hue and demonic colour as the words progress from the prosaic to the perilous.
- Shadow Wars – Sarveswari Sai Krishna (Sarves)
In his seminal work, Finite and Infinite Games, Professor James Carse, expounds that the objective of players playing an infinite game is to never strike a terminal blow that would end the game. Their very motive of playing is to keep the play, in play, perennially. “Shadow Wars” bears classic testimony to this aspect. One of my favourite stories in the book, Ms. Sarveswari pulls off a veritable master stroke in this fight between two gangsters seeking to usurp the fortunes of each other. Engaging in a deadly predator v prey gamble, both know that irrespective of their existence the show must go on. There cannot be an end to exploitation. R.E.A.D. T.H.I.S!
- Swipe Right to Die – Ell P
“When Shammi auntie spoke, people shut up and listened. Don’t mistake my Shammi Auntie; she is neither eloquent nor charming. In fact, with a face leathery enough to look like a third generation ‘hand me down’ Louis Vuitton, a body flappy enough to gather puddles of sweat in between the folds, she is positively grotesque.” This is Ms. Ell P at her vintage best! This is exactly what makes this woman one of my favourite authors. She writes in a vein that is irreverent, a manner that is irascible, and a style that is inimitable. One ought to write for oneself with nary a thought for the “sentiments” or “reservations” of the reader, unless such supposed transgressions are religious. Ms. P does just that! A couple of indescribably gruesome murders, a hulk of an inspector, an Alzheimer’s afflicted sleuth and a horny writer who just cannot wait to get into the jeans of the inspector all add up to make a “Tinder” box (no pun intended) of a story! A slobber knocker this! Think twice before installing any dating app on your smartphone!
- Tango in the Woods – Srivalli Rekha
A voluntary dalliance with danger, a macabre dance of death in a dense clearing, a confident and arrestingly beautiful Mayor and an intrepid architect all come rushing together in a crescendo of mystique, mystery and menace. Ms. Srivalli does a fantastic job of coalescing a dogmatic and ritualistic past with a contemporaneous present in the ambivalent and quaint setting of Mayanagari. Svana the Mayor with a languid elegance and Razi, an architect with a purpose fix a combined date with destiny, as there are feuds to be settled and sins to be atoned for. The most compelling aspect of this story is the attention to detail, especially, for the settings in which the most vigorous of actions take place. From the cozy confines of a bed to the wilderness of bushes, this is total bedlam!
- Countdown to 100 – Christopher R D’Souza
One of the shortest stories in the book is also one of the crispiest and lingering! This will remain with the reader long after the covers have come down. A homage to the fact that a story does not need either an expansive setting or a convoluted phalanx of characters, the life and times of the serial killer Billy Arnold in solitary confinement and waiting to meet his maker, is one that cannot be missed.
- An Insidious Affair – Ratnakar Baggi
Rashmi Joshi is a starlet who has resuscitated an almost terminal career in the Kannada film industry by creating ripples with a universally acclaimed comeback. However, this second coming receives an unwelcome jolt when her Koramangala apartment in Bangalore plays host to an “accidental murder.” To add agony to anguish is the fact that she must put up with a dysfunctional marriage. When to this already unsavoury mix is introduced the involvement and appearance of an intransigent security guard, intrusions of an intrepid neighbor, and frequent appearances of intellectual man of medicine, mystery takes on proportions that are of a different dimension. A breezy one by Mr. Baggi.
- The Lone Soldier – Aradhana Shukla
One of my personal favourites in this anthology, “The Lone Soldier” is a stirring, reverential and resounding tribute to the sagacity, and sacrifice asked of uncountable number of repressed women, unfortunate to have fallen prey to the sadistic vice of the ISIS. Viewed purely as chunks of meat to be ravaged before being taken to the cleaners or discarded, these women have shown that the change that they can birth, is putting it mildly – revolutionary and earth shattering. Faryal, The Lone Soldier is one such woman. The frail figure hidden beneath Ms. Shukla’s ‘Abaya’, is in fact the very epitome of resilience. Defiled and desecrated by many filthy hands and filthier souls, Faryal decides to take revenge and since the illiterate clan of the ISIS have no idea about either Shakespeare or his timely warning that “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, they are equally oblivious to the fate awaiting them. Neither does the enraptured reader until reality hits her like a ton of bricks! Read this, re-read this and once done, get back to it again. Unmistakable traces of “The Beekeeper of Sinjar” and unmissable shades of “The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State”, adorn this story.
- The Family Man – Sreeparna Sen
Ms. Sen, in an ingenious way uses mystery as a tool to deal with a seminal and topical concern that is tormenting the medical profession throughout the world. The insidious killer that is depression is also a remorseless leveler. Caring for neither fame nor inconspicuousness, distinguishing between neither fortune nor impoverishment, this murderer strikes with an impunity that is startlingly unbiased. Ms. Sen takes this issue head on and deals it with an aplomb that is refreshing. The protagonist-is-the-antagonist conundrum leaves the reader in a bind and provides a real perspective of the sufferer himself. One has no choice but to detest as well as sympathise with Bishwambar Mishra.
- Asphyxia – Yatindra Tawde (YT)
“A sozzled Ronnie stumbled out of the pub.” Thus begins YT’s story. What seems like a happy hour tryst gone wrong in a pub takes on contours that will make the reader wince, squirm, and squiggle. Extrinsically, a revenge-is-a-dish-served-cold story, the quintessential theme permeating the story is one that is intrinsically inimical to our country. The issue of women’s safety. Let me be clearer. The responsibility of a cultured and civilized society does not and should not end in merely ensuring the safety of every women. There must be a preservation of dignity of the fairer sex as well. If the law and order cannot ensure this, then as YT illustrates, women might be forced to take extraordinary measures and those I assure you might not be one bit pleasing! Asphyxia is the strangulated rights and privileges that ail women globally and a release from which is imminent.
- The One Who Got Away – Tina Sequeira
The right dose of adrenaline juxtaposed with a strong social message. Ms. Sequeira’s “The One Who Got Away.” Is a where-Mila Jovovich-meets-Angelina Jolie-meets-Michelle Pfeiffer tale that encompasses sex, salvation, and everything in between! Thrill-a-minute stuff with a strong and telling threat – “treat women as pure objects of lust at your own peril. You might not live to tell the tale.” And deservedly so!!! Wonderful job. I hope this story sprouts a thousand Kushas but preferably not the accompanying decapitations!
- Scarlet Shadows – Sheerin Shabab
What secrets can a serene and tranquil garden nestled in a quaint setting possibly harbour? Rajan Mehra is soon going to find out. Keen to escape the unrelenting hustle and bustle of a concrete jungle, Mehra beats a retreat to a bungalow leased out to him by a former Major. The only other occupants of the house are Ms. Cardozo the cook-cum-maid and Mohanlal, a grumpy, indifferent and intransigent gardener. When Mehra plans to alter the replanting setting of a regal and imperial “Parijat” tree, skeletons begin tumbling out of the closet – literally. The highlight of this deftly concocted short story lies in the fascinating elucidation of nature that plays an integral albeit unwitting role in unraveling a mystery that hitherto lay dormant.
- Cause and Effect – Kanika G
The only Science Fiction thriller in the book, “Cause and Effect” does not disappoint one bit. This, to a great extent is attributable to the pedigree of the author. If the cause is Science, the outcome must be an invention. “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I will move the world” said Archimedes. “Task me with a story forming part of an anthology and I will transform the dimensions of thinking” Ms. Kanika seems to exclaim! An amalgam of theoretical Physics, metaphysics, ecology, ethos and human foibles, “Cause and Effect” has at its heart an angry young man of Science, Dyson, steadfast in his intention to avenge the havoc wrought by purveyors of ecological destruction, and to ensure the visitation of doom on all individuals whose collective action has resulted in a bereavement which Dyson cannot overcome. But for his ambition to be fulfilled he will need the assistance of his able friend and a master of time travel Kaster? Will Dyson & Kaster achieve the impossible?
- ABCD – Varadarajan Ramesh
The most innocuous title in the book disguises within the most complex and intricate story of the book. Encompassing layers of psychological intricacies, maniacal intrigues and unexpected interludes, “ABCD” by Mr. Ramesh is a head spinning act of originality. Miffed by what he perceives to be an unjust, unfair and unwarranted rejection of his acting caliber, a method actor decides to take things in his own hands. What follows is mayhem unlimited! Even though the story does not have spilling intestines and smashed cerebellums, the tension is so palpable that it can be cut with the proverbial knife. Don’t read this if you have a drink or two in your hand, or on second thoughts read this only after a drink or two!
- No divorce for Mrs.Das – R Pavan Kumar
A fantastic story about a struggling detective who nurses fantasies of a goldmine when an attractive and alluring woman comes calling to his miserable shack seeking assistance to trace the whereabouts of her missing husband. The missing man is no ordinary individual. He is Mr. Das, a premier real estate tycoon whose middle name is cash. But detective Sahil Solanke might just have bitten more than what he could possibly chew as the contours of the investigation take a murky turn. Mr. Kumar does a commendable job of conceptualizing a plot that is tight and which never lets its intensity levels to drop.
- The Healer of Dreams – Rashmi Agrawal
Freudian in construction, Ms. Agrawal’s short story juaxtaposes the paranormal with the parapsychological. The protagonist of the story Mr. Ranjan mirrors the character “Eleven” in the popular Netflix series “Stranger Things.” The treatment of the story is expert and riveting. The ambiguous ending that leaves the interpretation open to the readers is the icing on the cake.
To paraphrase Yehuda Berg “Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” I have employed the medium of words to genuinely express my unbiased and impartial feelings about the concerted efforts of a dedicated and bright band of people who decided to put pen to paper and, in the process, conjured a memorable anthology.
Please read it. You won’t be disappointed.
Thank you for a fabulous review, Venky.
My pleasure Varad! A magnificent anthology – as always!