Today’s Pavement Piece is crumpled against a bus stop, dying like a freshly-pinned dragonfly. Her mouth is speckled with broken teeth and waves of dust. I never keep my mouth open in the daytime – the heat makes it difficult to swallow.
”Are you hungry?” I ask and wait for a bloodstained finger to crawl out from under her jaw. Perhaps there are moths hanging in silver clusters from the roof of her mouth.
Perhaps she will say something.
My grandmother died without saying a word, when nobody was looking. A dog howled and her paper gods fluttered with sorrow inside their make shift frames. When we lifted her out of her corner, her bones snapped and crumbled like exhausted twigs. Her sari fell away revealing breasts that had collected in sagging puddles of discontent inside her blouse. There was nothing to do except watch the wailing women who passed the time by beating their chests.
Today’s Pavement Piece stares into the white sky like a freshly-pinned dragonfly. I slip the coin between her broken lips, careful not to touch her.
Perhaps now, she will say something.
The above excerpt is the entity of Manickavel’s short story, The Unviolence of Strangers, and in both content and tone, it is relatively consistant with all the stories that make up her collection, Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. She creates a mood in which everything seems perfectly normal, but at the same time, everything is horribly jarring. Physical descriptions become uncomfortable eerie metaphors; there’s a sort of body dysmorphia in which hands become balloons, to give one terrifying example. That which is personal, namely the body, becomes un-personal, alien, and the result to the reader is almost akin to seeing a disconnect of the self. This is amplified by a sort of fugue state that effects a number of the characters within the short stories, who forget things they should know, act in ways that are strange to the reader; they write down little poems made of “unphrases” or speak sentences that make very little sense. The overall effect is that there is a real feeling of unreality about Manickavel’s stories, as if anything can happen, and it so often does.
One of the themes that consistently appears throughout the stories in the collection is decay, both human and environmental. In one story, one of the characters remarks that everything decays in Chennai, even if it isn’t dead. The same story features a dead mouse named Miraculous that doesn’t decay initially for a long period after death until it is eventually discarded by its owner. A character in another story collects dead insects and places them in a bottle because doing so allows her to write strange little rhyming poems. Another muses if her bones will burn when she is placed on the funeral pyre, or will simply blacken inside her body. In The Sugargun Fairy, the main character, Stalin Rani, coughs up a hard, black lump every morning and stores it in a shoebox given to her by her uncle. The inevitable decay of all things, the principle of entropy, gives the stories a sort of sensory brown colouring, creating a slightly dirty, almost sinister mood.
Insects feature heavily in the collection, as suggested by the title, and there is usually some form of insect in each of the stories, be it ants, beetles, spiders, butterflies, to name a few. For the most part they reside in the background, but in one of the stories they take centre stage, The Butterfly Assassin, about an Entomologist who cannot seem to grasp that he is being evicted, and as a result destroys all his butterfly specimens and hangs himself. As Manickavel writes,
Before hanging himself the Entomologist smashed every single one of his butterfly specimen boxes. Malar thinks he probably threw them on the floor, one by one. Or maybe he put his foot through them. She is not sure if he crushed the butterflies himself or whether they simply fell apart after the glass was broken. She finds a few specimen tags; Gossamer-Winged Butterfly, Brush-Footed Butterfly, Skipper Butterfly. She Irons them out with her hand and places them on the table in alphabetical order.
Malar watches the Entomologist swing back and forth and tells herself that some people are just like accidents. They are like sprained ankles and stains – they just happen.
It wasn’t until I read this story that I understood what the stories in the collection were essentially about; chaos.