12 June 2017

Review: Hot Death, Cold Soup by Manjula Padmanabhan

Hefty update, as I've been negligent. Reviews of Big Finish's "Mel Returns" trilogy (A Life of Crime, Fiesta of the Damned, Maker of Demons), series 13 of Jago & Litefoot, and the four-in-one Doctor Who release The Memory Bank and other stories are all up at USF. If you only read one, read the last one; I tried harder because so did the story!

Trade paperback, 241 pages
Published 1997 (contents: 1984-96)

Acquired February 2015
Read April 2017
Hot Death, Cold Soup: Twelve Short Stories
by Manjula Padmanabhan

I got into Manjula Padmanabhan as part of a project on Indian science fiction (I eventually published an article about her in an academic journal). Her most famous work is the horrific dystopian play Harvest, but I was really won over by her short fiction. It's been collected in three different volumes, of which this is the earliest, the other two being Kleptomania: Ten Stories (2004) and Three Virgins and Other Stories (2013).

Hot Death, Cold Soup collects, as the subtitle implies, twelve short stories, both previously published stories from 1984 to 1995, and a set of unpublished ones written over the same time period. The most famous of these is probably "A Government of India Undertaking," one of the science fiction ones: a desperate narrator discovers the government bureaucracy that controls reincarnation and tries to figure out who she needs to bribe to get out of her current life and into a much better one-- an amusing idea with a nice final scene.

I feel like much of Padmanabhan's non-sf is driven by an sfnal impulse, to take a single idea and follow its permutations and implications through to their ultimate conclusion, such as the title story, about a white American widow of an Indian man who's determined to commit sati, or "The Calligrapher's Tale" (probably my favorite in this book), about a wealthy young man who hires a highly skilled calligrapher to write out erotica for him, or "Teaser," about a sexual harasser who finally accomplishes his greatest goal.

Padmanabhan is skilled at capturing human pettiness and balancing it with the meaningful and the profound: I enjoyed, for example, "Mrs Ganapathy's Modest Triump," about a woman trying to marry off her unconventional daughter, and "The Copper-tailed Skink," about a white English biology professor doing field work in India who's struggling with a different culture with different customs. One of my other favorites was "Stains," which concerns a black American woman engaged to an Indian man, and the cultural differences she considers irreconcilable-- the "stains" of the title are  menstrual blood she leaves on the sheets, to which her future mother-in-law reacts quite strongly.

I guess as I write that I realize that a number of these stories deal with cultural clash, which Padmanabhan handles in an interesting and provocative way, as someone who's spent her own life passing between India and Britain. Like her other volumes, highly recommended.

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