Reviewed by Julie Brickman
Third Eye Rising
by Murzban F. Shroff
Jan 2021, ISBN-13: 978-1952419027, Paperback, 222 pages
Third Eye Rising, as its title promises, fixes its third eye of vision on the India beyond the scope of ordinary urban tales and travel. And what an India it is! This is the India of rural villages, superstitious rituals, arranged marriages, ancient traditions, manipulation, trickery and surprises. It’s the India of hearts too small for the occasions, minds too big for the opportunities and tongues too petty to do anything but lash and long. It is also the India beloved by the author Murzban Shroff who roamed far and wide and long to penetrate its secrets.
As a veteran writer and chronicler of the wiles of historical India and urban India, Shroff has dazzled readers with two previous story collections, Breathless in Bombay and Fasttrack Fiction, his novel, Waiting for Jonathan Koshy, plus a blizzard of stories published in the best literary journals.
In “The Kitemaker’s Dilemma,” we meet Baba Hanush, the kite-maker, whose brilliantly colored, carefully constructed kites are plumage in the sky on the festive kite-flying day of Makar Sankrati. Boy gangs compete for the ascendency gained by cutting the strings of enemy kites, all except one lonely disfigured little boy, ruined by the cruelty of his father and locked up in his dilapidated home. A big lonely childless widower, Baba Hanush finds his locked heart falls open at the sight. He is gripped by an insatiable passion to save the boy, to give him his best and brightest kite so he can compete with the boys of the kite-flying gangs and win. Can he get this boy to accept his gift? Will the father destroy it? In Shroff’s skillful hands, the tension along with kites ratchets up up up, moving your heart just to edge of sentiment but not beyond.
In the title story, “Third Eye Rising,” a shocking ritual gets forced on a young, dowry-less bride by her greedy in-laws. To pass her agnipariksha, the test of fire, she must carry a black vessel heated to searing heights while she walks barefooted over the stabbing, broken rubble of an unpaved road across the village. Meanwhile, her new husband cowers in the face of the cruelty of his family, dithering about the backlash helping her would stir.
Fascinating and gripping, the collection is rife with invention. “Eyes of a Temple Cow” may deliver the most innovative narrator since human-turned-cockroach, Gregor Samsa. In a voice of worthy of her status as moral compass, a sacred cow narrates the drama between entrepreneur and slattern, unfolding at her temple. In “A Matter of Misfortune,” best friends ascend from their mundane origins to meet vastly different financial, marital and moral fates. Seamlessly, these stories jigsaw together to show the startling offshoots of the traditions of India: the greater freedom of husbands than wives; the camaraderie of male drinking and its hazardous spill into families; the ways wealth and poverty bedevil relationships; the unslakable appetites evoked by success; the homely places where love thrives.
In the end, by the tender balance between grim and bright that the collection achieves, Shroff has given us the India of generosity, of empathy as a trait of the soul, and character as destiny.
About the reviewer: Julie Brickman is author of the story collection, Two Deserts, the novella, The Galapagos Story, and the novel, What Birds Can Only Whisper. She teaches fiction at the School of Creative and Professional Writing at Spalding University in Louisville, KY and lives in New York City.