Intergenerational strife is the dominant flavor of this piquant collection of short stories by Anukrti Upadhyay, the award-winning author of Kintsugi.
Upadhyay is a former investment banker and the stories, whose settings range from India to Hong Kong and Singapore, perhaps reflect some of her experiences. She is also a keen naturalist; her knowledge of flora and fauna shines through the text in her evocation of place, choice of metaphor and sometimes plot device.
The title story, The Blue Women, stands apart from the rest with its paranormal element. It also sets the tone for the collection by dealing overtly with one of Upadhyay’s favorite themes: the lowly status and mistreatment of women. A female taxi driver in Mumbai has a frightening gift for identifying female passengers in the back of her cab who are about to die: they emit a ghostly blue aura. All of these deaths, the unnamed driver later finds out, are caused, directly or indirectly, by men. The visions only stop after the driver has seen her sister in a blue glow and intervenes to prevent her murder.
Mistreatment of women isn’t only physical.
The type of man who always puts himself first is given a lashing in a subsequent story, Made in Heaven. Pankaj, a successful and arrogant businessman, is called to the hospital where his wife, Ulja, has been taken after a serious traffic accident. Going through her handbag, he discovers details of her life that he knew nothing about—because he never bothered to ask. When Ulja regains consciousness, the first name she speaks is that of their son. So much for the “made in heaven” arranged marriage that Ulja’s sister told her not to pursue.
The conservative “Indian values”, which Pankaj specified as essential for any candidate aiming to be his wife, cause trouble for other characters in the stories. Meena, for example, in The Satsuma Plant, is estranged from her family having refused a traditional marriage. Likewise Vishakha in The Queen of Mahim struggles with prejudice against her upbringing and her long-term liaison with a married doctor.
However, when those values are foisted on unwilling children, the results can be potentially fatal. The narrator of Insecta is a teenager forced to comply with (perhaps unrealistic) parental expectations. Instead of encouraging his interest in entomology, his parents send him to a new school, which generations of the family have attended and where he is bullied. Instead of listening to his worries, they berate him for not achieving high grades. To demonstrate his worsening mental health, author Upadhyay uses an imagined (although the narrator believes it is real) invasion of insects to great effect. The family is eventually overwhelmed by beetles, leaving unanswered the question of whether the assassin hired by the narrator to kill his parents is successful. Upadhyay writes:
He tried to close the door, pushing it with both hands, with all his strength, but it was already too late. Through the opening, insects poured in, surging waves of Coleoptera – stag beetles, spittlebugs, dung beetles, click beetles, deathwatch beetles, blood beetles … exploded into the house in a red-black-grey tide, rising, rising …
It is a shame that the editor did not pick up a couple of instances of problematic phrasing, such as having “hair” take a plural pronoun and an uncontextualized usage of the epithet “chink”. They do not however detract from the quality of the writing, which is exemplified in Shawarma. Two work colleagues are catching up in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Hong Kong in what appears to be the precursor to an office romance. Events quickly twist into an unexpected and poignant ending which, like the other stories in the collection, has much to say about the way we live now, in Asia and further afield.