It was never the Sports page. Or the entertainment section. Or even the crossword. Admittedly uncharacteristic for a teenaged reader back then, the biggest draw was the Op-Ed page. What always caught my fancy was not the editorials or the lead opinion article, or even, for that matter, the ‘Letters To The Editor’ column, which kickstarted my tryst with journalism in the late eighties. The ‘middles’, as they were called, going by their positioning on the page, would always be a must read, not just once, but at least a couple of times. One of the ‘by lines’ that I came to identify with sparkling wit, humour and a breezy style was Vandana Kumari Jena.
Title: Over The Edge
Well before the advent of the social media and the compulsive googling syndrome, one of her pieces revealed that she was a bureaucrat. That was an added attraction as I had nurtured a dream of entering the Civil Services. More than three decades on, after my innings in television journalism and transition to law practice, my favourite middle writer’s name popped up on facebook as a possible mutual friend. It brought back memories of my school years. Of waiting for the sound of the paper hitting the verandah floor before six every morning. Of making a dash to pick it up first. Of relishing all those brilliantly written anecdotes. Of reading them again in the evening! That I now get to review her latest collection of stories is probably more providential than coincidental!
At the risk of exaggeration, ‘Over The Edge’, actually won in a recent toss up between a serial on amazon prime or Netflix, as my bedtime entertainment. The 24 chapters will take you on a roller coaster ride of emotions – from tear jerkers to happy endings. With the potential to shake you out of your sense of entitlement to making you count your blessings, the vignettes are truly riveting.
I’ve always liked books in which chapters are distinct, where the index page is akin to an a la carte menu. The first chapter I picked ‘Queen For A Day’ had me hooked. The twists and turns in a day in the life of an airport house-keeping girl who, by a quirk of fate and adventure and a good samaritan’s largesse, embarked on her maiden flight journey, was dotted with surprises. ‘The Gold Chain’ on an orchestrated snatching, was another tale that unfolded without an iota of predictability.
What really strikes you about the stories is that they all seem so inextricably woven around raw realities of life. The characters are like folks we encounter everyday. Like a grieving wife ending up as a prime accused in her husband’s murder. A patient’s anxious wait for a kidney donor, exacerbated by a hunch about his wife’s affair in the most vulnerable phase of his life. The role of a surrogate that suddenly confronts a lady.
A standard answer in a Civil Services interview is that few other careers afford such diverse experience. When a veteran IAS officer of the 1979 batch, with leadership roles in rural development, women & child development, health and education, tucked under her pallu, who would have seen first-hand human misery and exploitation and interacted with battered victims of discrimination and crime, puts on her seasoned writer’s hat, brace yourself for an engaging read.
So, if you love your long, shapely nails, don’t read this book!
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, an Arbitrator, Columnist, Author & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)