Imaginative literature aims for the heart and the gut, but different audiences like different kinds of literature. Some like cutting-edge work that is experimental in form and theme, work which cleaves away to varying degrees from what was published before. Those of us who prefer this kind of writing forget that it is not the bulk of what is getting published in India. The mainstream audience likes, above all, what is called ‘relatability’ – that is, literature that features recognizable and familiar themes, and protagonists negotiating the same life situations as they are. Everything Changed After That: 25 Women, 25 Stories, edited by Aekta Kapoor, is firmly mainstream, and does a good job of it. The 25 stories in this anthology are are not particularly experimental, but succeed in their goal of pulling at your heartstrings, entertaining you, and taking you on a plotty journey.
The anthology is the result of a “nationwide short story contest for women writers in the midst of the Covid lockdown in 2020”, a contest launched by eShe magazine. The contest was judged by “India’s highest selling female author Preeti Shenoy, eShe’s founder Aekta Kapoor and author and editor-in-chief of Embassy Books, Aruna Joshi”. The anthology is a themed one. According to the preface, the anthology sought to highlight stories in which Indian women had “total freedom to express their thoughts and experiences”. As the foreword says, “There was a common thread weaving these stories together – the thread of womanhood and that of a life-changing experience”. It’s a good theme – very topical for the year in which the world changed. The theme is also tried and tested – transformation, metamorphosis, decisive change. The choice of form, too, is good. When a mainstream anthology employs the form of the short story, which is rather neglected in the anglophone India of recent times, it is a welcome development.
The stories are tightly written, pacy, well structured. For the most part the storytelling is straightforward, simple, and accessible, with none of the stories demanding any kind of pyrotechnic special effects. Many if not most of the stories follow a time-tested form, beginning in the middle of the tale, then looping through a flashback, and coming back to the present before proceeding to the conclusion of the story. Speaking of endings – all the stories have a satisfying decisive ‘click’ of a resolution, which will be much to the liking of their intended audience. The stories follow the well-walked trail of the classic short story masters such as Maupassant and Chekhov, and, closer home, Ruskin Bond. With one or two exceptions, none of the stories defamiliarizes the familiar. A few stories offer ‘morals’ or life lessons, which, again, some readers will enjoy.
In all the 25 stories except one, the protagonists are women who perform a variety of social roles, whether student, homemaker, employee, entrepreneur. In one story a main character falls in love with another woman, and gets support and love from her family. A few characters are Muslim, Parsi, and other religions, but for the most part, the stories are about Hindu, upper-caste characters. With notable exceptions, the stories are also overwhelmingly about urban dwellers and people with means and privileges. Many of the protagonists struggle with the traditional roles of wife-and-caretaker that society has imposed on them. And many protagonists yearn and strive to gain a foothold in middle-class society and to explore the everyday freedoms that elude them. Rather curiously, loss of a loved one to death and how the protagonist copes with this loss is a recurring element in many of the stories.
This anthology is an entertaining, breezy read - one that can be finished in under a week.