It is hard to be objective when you are reading a book written by someone you know. There you are immersed in the story, and suddenly something triggers off a sense of déjà vous, and you recognise an incident that you know is autobiographical. It happened to me so often while reading Gouri Dange’s ‘The Counsel of Strangers’ that I had to re-read the book after a gap of a week before I could look at it dispassionately.
The premise of ‘The Counsel of Strangers’ is simple- six strangers are thrown together for a night, and under the shadow of anonymity share their stories, and help each other come to terms with the events that have been troubling them. The Hows and Whys of six diverse people finding themselves together is immaterial- they could have met at an airport longue, they could have been held hostage in a five-star hotel by terrorists, or they could (as happened) have found themselves as reluctant guests at a boisterous Indian wedding. The point is that six people ranging in age from 14 to 70 were thrown together for a night, and they each chose to share their stories, and offer support to the others. And there the author excels.
Gouri Dange is the undisputed Master of the Short Story- each story was beautifully written, and drew the reader in. The characters were etched with firm strokes, with just a suggestion of colour- the reader could choose to fill in the shapes, or leave them minimalistic. The situations were believable, even if they were situations we normally tend to avoid thinking about. And each of the characters held all the pieces of the future in their hands, and needed only a little help in putting together the jigsaw puzzle of their lives. At no point did you wonder how each of them was able to offer sensible advice to the other people, but struggle to bring their own life in order, because you know that it is the way things actually work in life.
If there was a flaw, it was in the narrative technique adopted. Each of the characters told their story, at the end of which the others helped point the character in the right direction. The book ended with an epilogue where each of the six strangers sent an e-mail to the others telling them how they managed to resolve their own particular dilemmas. The weakest point of the narrative was when each of the stories were interrupted by celebratory fireworks, or by a sortie to scrounge for food. It was necessary to contextualizing the location, but I wonder if it could not have been done in a way that integrated better. But that was a minor point- one which I was more than happy to overlook in an otherwise excellent story.
Could something like this actually happen in real life? Would anyone confide their deepest secrets in a total stranger? Would a stranger be able to offer meaningful counsel? I personally believe that the answer to all three questions is a resounding ‘Yes’. There are people with whom I have clicked at the very first meeting, and at least one person has confided in me the very first time we met (that we later became good friends is a totally different story). More and more, in my life, I find that the most unexpected people end up offering the best advice and support- where once you may have relied on family and friends, today you cannot predict who it is that will help you and when.
Overall, a must read for anyone who wants a slice of modern urban and NRI India.
[This is an unsolicited review. I do know the author, but she did not ask me to do the review, or influence it in any way. I bought the book myself.]