Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
An Unshared Secret and Other Stories
by Ketaki Datta
ISBN 9788196417758, Paperback, 236 Pages, Nov 2023
Writing good short stories is tricky. You have such a small space to create scenes, characters with solid backstories, relationships and unrealised desires, bring in conflict, and develop a plot that goes somewhere, all while keeping the story punchy and brief. In her latest book of short stories, An Unshared Secret, Ketaki Datta shows her skill with the form, creating a series of twenty short stories, set primarily in Datta’s home country of India, mostly in or around Kolkata. The capital of West Bengal is so much a presence in these stories that it almost functions as a character itself, providing more than a backdrop. Kolkata is also a kind of functional centre point across the work, and a touchpoint with its history embedded in memorials, old temples, bridges, and train stations. The stories are depicted with precision and care, evoking all of the senses as the characters interact in sometimes strange and sometimes ordinary ways across the city.
The storylines in the book are varied, moving in an arc between a range of casual encounters, family-focused interactions, magical realism, mysteries and murders, chance meetings, deep friendships, romance, day-to-day travails, comedy, tragedy, and futuristic sci-fi. A number of the stories engage with current affairs – particularly the impact of Covid-19, which features in several of the stories, both in terms of the impact of lock-downs and the way in which the virus changed reality for people living through it, sometimes destroying lives and separating friends for good, and sometimes creating a much needed pause that enables the quieter beauty of nature to become more visible:
The birds in the trees went on cooing, madly. The cattle in the pen swayed their heads in joy. Ratanial listed to his father’s tale in rapt attention, along with Jhamru. Joy wafted in fragrance of newly-bloomed flowers in the thickets. (“Reality, Dreams and Jhamru”)
One story, “Does Love Really Matter”, traces the ill-fated journey of Emilia, an Irish girl who leaves her doctoral studies in the US to travel to India to be with a man she has fallen in love with just as Covid-19 is starting to become serious. Emilia goes from goes from one isolation hotel in Delhi to another, finally ending up in a locked-down and silent Kolkata where she is trapped and disappointed.
The settings are mostly domestic and familiar, even when the stories are set in the future where robots have replaced humans, or the past in the years before Bangladesh was partitioned from Pakistan. Point of view changes frequently, from an omniscient aged narrator looking back on the past to the first person observations of a child watching a mother, making a link to the way trauma passes through generations:
I looked at my mom’s face, which had a chiaroscuro of pain and grief on it. I was lost in myself, tinkering with sundry melodies, some very funny, some sad, some very bitter even. (“Lost Land, Vivid Memories”)
A number of the stories contain passages in Hindi (translated into English) which add richness to the vivid descriptions of how experience changes relationships, evoking sensation and emotion. In spite of the impact of Covid’s lockdowns that are woven through a number of the stories, there is a lot of travel. People seem to be in continual motion, travelling on foot, by train, by bus, and by plane – people fleeing, returning, visiting, or somehow just transiting for no apparent reason. Datta provides vivid descriptions of passing scenes from the Chai Wallahs and street food to the passing landscapes:
The clouds outside the window kept piling up, the layers were volatile as the aircraft was reaching higher. The light of sun was getting refracted from the corners of the clouds, spreading in different hues – red, blue, green, violet, so on. (“Does Love Really Matter”)
These stories cover much of life’s arc, from the perceptions of young children, love affairs, school days, university, parents coping with and without children, money struggles, politics, illness, death, and the in-between. The stories are engaging and sometimes funny combining philosophical musings, character interactions, and drama, with the impact interaction, as with the title story which ends the book with a flourish that conjures train travel perfectly:
Amid the din and bustle of the anxious travellers, the drone and metallic drawl of the engine, the scribbling of each other’s address on the note-pads, the train drew up to the platform of Howrah Station.
A number of the stories included in An Unshared Secret were published in literary journals, and each of the stories works perfectly as a standalone read, moving quickly and at only five or six pages each, allows for a fast engagement while waiting in queue, just before bed, etc. However, taken as a group, they tell a comprehensive story about life with all of its strangeness and human foibles. An Unshared Secret is a well-written and enjoyable collection that showcases just how much enjoyment and power a short story can contain.