Story: Kavitha and Mustafa, by Shobah Rao

I hardly ever read Indian fiction or fiction set in India (well, Rao is Indian-American), and I don’t remember how I came upon this story, except that it got a prize (the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction) and it was listed in a blog list of stories to consider. It has also been chosen by TC Boyle for inclusion in the Best American Short Stories 2015. It was thrilling and deep, and made me want to read the whole collection!

In less than 15 pages Rao delivers both a thriller and a psychological analysis, and although I wasn’t quite clear about what went on in some of the action, it was compelling and gave me lots to think about.

Kavitha is a 26-year-old Pakistani wife travelling on a train with her husband Vinod. Their ten-year marriage is a loveless arranged match, Kavitha is bored but at the same time she knows that it could be worse. From the first sentence we learn that something out of the ordinary is happening, but we don’t know:

The train stopped abruptly at 3:36pm, between stations, twenty kilometers from the Indian border on the Pakistani side. […] She knew what this meant.

Kavitha realizes that the crowded train they have boarded seven hours before is being robbed, and the robbers are usually violent and merciless with the passengers. She remains calm and silent, but the reader is thrown from the get-go into a thrilling suspense: will she survive? what will happen to the train? what will happen to Kavitha’s husband? And who the hell is Mustafa, by the way?

When the action moves along (it’s hard not to spoil anything), Kavitha becomes a lot less passive. There’s a boy in the berth she’s stuck in, and this boy seems to have a message for her. She is given a choice, and this choice might be good or disastrous to her. There are several interpretations left open to what happens in the end, but it didn’t bother me.

From Rao’s website I understand that the action takes place during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and I missed this point entirely. I don’t know if that changes anything to a reader’s understanding, and I would be glad to learn more if I had the chance.

The collection is titled: An Unrestored Woman

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