Blurbs that promise oddities – ‘a manipulative-philanthropist ghost of a chairman’s mother; a footless whore in Siberia…’ – make one nervous these days. An outlandish cast of characters and wild leaps of fancy are no longer novelties in modern fiction. But there is a risk that the fantastical elements plucked out for the back of the book might be the most interesting thing about it.
Happily, this is not true of Lopa Ghosh’s ‘Revolt of the Fish Eaters’. The nine stories in this collection are compelling and Ghosh does deliver on the promise of taking you into a zone of glass towers, elevators, and recession-struck businesses.
‘The Chairman’s Mother’ tells the fate of a high-flying, award-winning executive after his dead mother begins to haunt him. She distracts him from the pursuit of profit by talking incessantly of floods. ‘Siberia’ tells the heartache of a professionally content research analyst whose school sweetheart has gone off to work in Siberia, and their conversation is mainly online. ‘Red Shoe’ tells of the encounter between a gritty young woman who has worked hard to pull herself up the corporate ladder, and a red pair of sexy heels that can no longer be bought for love or money.
‘Corporate Affairs’ is the most corporate story in this collection. It tells of a senior executive, an American, who is handing over his own responsibilities and during the course of a farewell dinner, discovers the conspiracies that have been brewing behind his back.
‘Richest Man in the World’ is not strictly a tale of the corporate world. The main protagonist is a slum-dwelling school-girl who is receiving a computer education at a center run by an NGO, thanks to a very rich man, while her abandoned mother howls and shouts and turns to black magic.
‘Death by Pineapples’ is the only tale here that unapologetically dives into magic-realism, for it is set in a plains town that finds itself overnight transformed into a hill town. It tells the story of a talented executive who is thrown out of his job for no fault of his, but the reference to climate change is obvious.
‘The Lockout’ is this reviewer’s personal favourite. This is the only story that is not just set in the world of corporations and the conflicts presented to their employees, it most directly reaches for the gruesome edge of employer-employee relations. What makes it refreshing is that the story is told as witnessed by the very young daughter of a top manager dealing with irate workers during a factory lockout. The victim label is hard to attach and politics doesn’t tip the story off its centre.
The only story that is more politics than business is the one that lends its title to the collection. It is also the one that offers the least surprise, the least tension. It attempts to traverse so much terrain – art, class war, elections, media, love affairs – that the reader is left with only a hazy impression of its context and purpose.
Overall, these stories are memorable. Ghosh successfully imprints her protagonists with a human ache, so that their financial and social drive lies crumpled around their ankles. This, along with a lucid, insistent narrative style, makes the book a worthy inhabitant of your ‘new writing’ shelf.