Hands Like Trees by Sabyasachi Nag

Hands Like Trees by Sabyasachi Nag is a pristine collection of nine short stories, each of which is filled with both exquisite descriptions and moments of deep unease. During the course of thirty years, we meet members of the Sen family through a series of linked pieces.   

In the opening piece, we are transported to a train somewhere in northern India.  Two squatters have claimed sleeping berths paid for and ticketed to a man and a boy.  Despite the conductor’s half-hearted intervention, the squatters refuse to leave and a violent brawl ensues.  Watching the scene unfold is a married couple who also become drawn into the conflict.  Shards of human emotion are revealed as we discover the woman’s unfulfilled maternal longings, the boy’s desperate search for family, and the conductor’s duality.  Lines rich with imagery shape the narrative:  The night is spread out like a coat of black butter.  Such restrained elegance is the hallmark of Nag’s prose, infusing his work with delicate metaphor to create both a sense of place but also one of foreboding.  

In Pumpkin Flowers, Nag takes us to Kolkata, then Calcutta, where an elderly gentleman is attempting to work through his grief and loneliness while determining whether or not to sell his home and move closer to family.  The tender descriptions are evocative and moving as he deliberates his choice:   

I had pulled out whatever knick-knackery I could find inside trunks and boxes, drawers, cabinets, and closets – spoons and mugs, seals and flags, trinkets, quilts, and photo frames – from way past and near past – pulled them out from their tin graves and mounted them to the walls, one at a time.  Almost three thousand feet of wall space, spanning three floors in the entire house, all turned into a canvas.  All of it alive and whispering and beating with time, tick-tock, tick-tock.  I didn’t know I could do that.  

As the narrator moves between indecision and decision, he eventually reconciles his position:  

Why are you still here? Why can’t you just pack up and leave? I can’t because there is no decent way to pack up history and leave.  Because to leave history and pack up is not what my time here is all about.  Time has a shape, direction.    

Nag does not impose resolution on his characters or his readers but, rather, allows each to envision their own coda.   

In The Lottery, we are introduced to an unhappy couple struggling with infertility and a deep disconnectedness at the heart of their relationship.  When the wife wins a lottery to host a visiting guru in their Brampton home, the husband becomes a reluctant host, begrudgingly participating in the expectations of his role until he escapes to a bakery:  

Then I unwrap the yellow tart, letting the chilled sweetness drip into my mouth as I bite into the baked egg caramel, listen to the music of the crisp pastry crumbling inside my mouth. 

The level of sensuous engagement here alone subtly suggests the husband’s discontent more broadly, in both his life and marriage.  

In the title story, Hands Like Trees, a successful painter recalls his childhood and his mother’s then boyfriend with whom he was closely bonded.  When the boyfriend faded from their lives, the young narrator began a series of troubling “hand drawings” which he drew obsessively: 

I’d see something, a switch would get flipped setting off a reaction, shutting me down completely.  I’d start shivering, pimples would break out all over my skin, my heartbeats would quicken.  It was like something had invaded my body and got me all worked up.  A hand hammering away at my chest.  Breathless, I moved around just to get the hand off my body; get the hand off the hammering and nailing and clawing; get the hand away from a black box, empty and waiting.      

As we learn more about the boy’s preoccupation with hands and his connection to the boyfriend, the details become increasingly murky.  Were the hands that so occupied the boy’s psyche, malevolent or nurturing?  Had the boyfriend trespassed in his relationship with the young boy? How is the boy’s longing to be defined or explained, other than as a formative sexual experience?     

Each of these stories meditate upon significant moments in a life, revealing deep vulnerabilities and unhealed places.  Nag’s powerful use of description and analogy skilfully present cinematic images that resonate with mystery and emotion: 

Words – conjoined like a train of coloured soap bubbles – floating under the beams of the high ceiling, a chameleon’s tongue moving from the dark cavern inside his mouth towards my body, penetrating the sheets, touching me everywhere or just sitting there – distinct and languid and effortless, defying gravity – gliding, stirring, quickening the heartbeat; and the sounds from his throbbing mouth with would mix with sounds from the radio seeping in…  

Splinters of powerful memories are finely presented through the skilful application of language – often employing discordant phrases and word choice to create a sense of unease and dissonance.  This is an accomplished collection of short stories that will take the reader to new worlds and deeply intimate places.  Highly recommended.  

Sabyasachi Nag is the author of Uncharted (Mansfield Press, 2021) and two collections of poetry. His work has appeared in Black Fox Literary, Canadian Literature, Grain, The Antigonish Review, and The Dalhousie Review. He is a graduate of the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University and the Humber School for Writers. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of BC and the craft editor at The Artisanal Writer. He was born in Calcutta and lives in Mississauga, ON. www.sachiwrites.com

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Ronsdale Press (April 14 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 200 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1553806867
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1553806868

Lucy E.M. Black is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket, Eleanor Courtown, Stella’s Carpet, and The Brickworks. Class
Lessons will be released October 2024. Her award-winning short stories have been published in Britain, Ireland, USA and
Canada in literary journals and magazines including Cyphers Magazine, the Hawai’i Review, The Antigonish Review, the Queen’s
Quarterly and others. A former high school principal, she is a dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer and
freelance writer. She lives with her partner in the small lakeside town of Port Perry, Ontario, the traditional territory of the
Mississaugas of Scugog Island, First Nations.