Sanjeev Sanyal writes about all sorts of people who occupy our milieu
There should be a simple litmus test to determine how good or bad a short story is. And it should be this: Hours after reading one, does the reader still remember the characters and the settings? Is the story, or the people who populate it, memorable? This method of assessment has a drawback for authors because by its very definition, a short story lends itself to broad-brush strokes rather than detailed descriptions. In other words, writing a short story inevitably comes with its own set of unique challenges.

After writing a series of non-fiction books on the history of the Indian subcontinent and its people, Sanjeev Sanyal, principal economic advisor in the finance ministry and a former Business Standard columnist, tries to tackle that challenge. Life Over Two Beers and Other Stories, published by Penguin, is a collection of breezy short reads, and a few poems.

Do Sanyal’s stories pass the test? Yes and no.

Life Over Two Beers And Other Stories. Author: Sanjeev Sanyal Publisher: Penguin Pages: 217 Price: Rs 200
The stories in this collection that work, work brilliantly. Sanyal writes about all sorts of people who occupy our milieu, from social climbers in Lutyens’ Delhi to tribals in the Maoist-occupied regions of Chhattisgarh. Some of them are eminently memorable characters. There is, for instance, a banker who loses his job in the financial crisis and then uncovers systemic rot in an NGO; an unassuming Marathi housewife who leads a secret life as a devastating Twitter troll; a village simpleton who deals with the faceless bureaucracy for years without losing his innocence; a committed Marxist who faked his own death just to get the recognition he thought he deserved; a failed professional who sweet-talked his way to starring roles in lit fests; and a bunch of intellectuals in Kolkata whose ideas are long past their expiry date.

As the book’s title suggests, the stories aren’t too heavy-going or deeply philosophical in nature. They are mostly fun and can be consumed quickly. What will strike the reader immediately is the satirical tone. Sanyal makes fun of everyone — journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, high-society regulars, no one is spared. The stereotypes are exploited to full effect. To his credit, Sanyal punches up, and not down. The underlying theme in all the stories is the inherent human need for validation and recognition, and how some people are willing to go to any length to get it. The two stories set in the forgotten boondocks are also the most poignant in the collection.

As one progresses through the book, however — and this is where the point of short stories comes in — there remains the lingering wish that the characters could have been developed in a more substantial manner, that the stories could have been, for the lack of a better word, meatier. Don’t get me wrong — this is a really enjoyable book, and a great effort for someone trying his hand at fiction for the first time. But you close it with the feeling that it could have been something more. Almost there, but not quite.

In short, Life Over Two Beers is a light, breezy read that does justice to the title. It can be enjoyed over two beers.

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