Thursday, January 15, 2015



Most often short story collections are reviewed as one-line descriptions with just a few stories picked out for longer treatment. I think this collection deserves better. 

Many of these stories are great classics while others (like the one by me, called FEAST) are very new and untested by time. I thought I'd write slightly longer descriptions of each story, reporting on them as if reading them for the first time, sharing whatever I find to appreciate. So this isn't a review of the book or the stories, but an appreciation.

Here are all 39:

1) Rabindranath Tagore: The Hunger of Stones; trans by Amitav Ghosh. A traveller on a train-journey tells the narrator an extraordinary story of a time when he was seduced by a … was it a ghost? Or a deserted marble palace? … but the journey ends before the narrator gets to hear the end of the story. Wonderfully evocative, melancholy and romantic.

2) Munshi Premchand: The Shround; trans by Arshia Sattar. We are introduced to a father and son, a pair of wastrels, who are roasting potatoes while the son's wife lies "thrashing about in labour" nearby and out of sight. The shroud will be for her but the father-son duo appear unrelentingly callous. Even in death, however, she shares the bounty of her existence. An allegory, perhaps, on how we as humans treat the Earth … 

3) R.K.Narayan: A Horse and Two Goats. A penniless elderly goat-herd encounters an "red-faced" American tourist. The story sparkles with wry humor as they engage in a long lively conversation in which neither understands the other's language! Yet a business deal is concluded and both parties retreat to their respective lives, satisfied. 

4) Buddhadev Bose: A Life; trans by Arunava Sinha. A modest Sanskrit teacher embarks on a great project, that of creating a comprehensive dictionary of the Bengali. The story proceeds in the way of a great river that might start out as a tiny mountain stream. The conclusion is foregone -- we can guess where this river will go -- but it's the sights along the way that catch at the heart.

5) Saadat Hasan Manto: Toba Tek Singh; trans by Khushwant Singh. After the Partition, the governments of India and Pakistan "… felt that just as they had exchanged their hardened criminals, they should exchange their lunatics." So begins a story that I found gently satirical despite the jagged shards of history that poke up through the fabric of words.

6) Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai; The Flood, trans by O.V. Usha: As a flood devastates his village, Chennan "the pariah" first attempts to save himself and his family from the rising waters, then gives up and accepts being rescued. But he leaves his dog behind and what follows is a heart-rending description of an animal's desolation. Even in its despair the poor creature attempts (but fails) to defend his master's banana trees and hay-rick from thieves. 

7) Vaikom Muhammad Basheer; The Blue Light, trans by O.V.Usha: A man, a writer, searching for a house to live in finally decides upon a building named 'Bhargavinilayam' that he finds intensely appealing. Just as soon as he's put down two months' rent, he discovers that it's haunted by the ghost of a young woman, Bhargavi. All his friends warn him not to stay but he, determined not to lose his deposit, prefers to court the ghost with friendship and kind words, calling her "Bhargavi Kutty"! Quite a charming variation on the typical Vengeful Ghost theme. 

8) Gopinath Mohanty; The Somersault, trans by Sitakant Mahapatra: Jaga Palei of Sagadiasahi (Orissa), a young man of modest means, wins a local level wrestling match and qualifies for the finals and the All-India title. He rockets to fame but he remains unswayed by the attention. His devotion is to his guru, to his training and to his knowledge of his station in life. 

9) Khushwant Singh; Portrait of a Lady: The famous writer paints a portrait of his grandmother, "... so old that she could never have grown older" when he knew her as a little boy. He tells us that he could not imagine her being pretty, yet she was beautiful "... like the winter landscape in the mountains, an expanse of pure white serenity breathing peace and contentment." What seems like a fragment of autobiography is lifted into the realm of story by a moment of great sweetness at the end.

10) Ismat Chughtai; Quilt, trans by Rakhshanda Jalil: The protagonist tells us that she was an unruly young girl whose mother lodges her with a lady "... whom she considered as close as a sister", Begum Jan. This Begum has a personal attendant called Rabbo who is by her side day and night. During her stay with the Begum, the narrator describes the Begum's quilt undergoing strange transformations at night ... The power of the story lies in the way we see with the eyes of a child as well as our own adult eyes.

11) Amrita Pritam; The Stench of Kerosene, trans by Khushwant Singh: The story's soft texture seems at odds with the harsh title -- but it isn't, really. A village couple who married for love are undone by other kinds of love and other urgencies. 

12) Anna Bhau Sathe; Gold from the Grave, trans by Vernon Gonsalves: If this were a painting, it would be in strong colors -- blacks, reds, lighting blue, metallic gold -- a surreal portrait of a violent character, plundering the graves of recently deceased wealthy people, for the bits of gold they are buried with. 

13) D.B.G.Tilak; The Man Who Saw God, trans by Ranga Rao: What begins with an elopement -- Gavarayya's wife elopes with "the sewing machine man" -- turns into a saga of a village pitted against one obstinate but wealthy man. It is told with wit and compassion, contrasting the shallow morality of pious village elders with a man whose only real crime is that he is not obliged to bow his head to anyone. Not even God.

14) Harishankar Parsai; Inspector Matadeen On The Moon, trans by C.M.Naim: A bitter satire told in the form of space fiction, in which Inspector Matadeen, "investigating officer of a thousand and one cases" is invited by the Moon Government to help them catch criminals. His methods involve every form of police corruption, from planting evidence to fabricating FIRs to coaching witnesses, with the aim of finding solutions to every crime. It is clever and would be very funny too, if it were not so close to the truth.

15) Mahasweta Devi; Draupadi, trans by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: A story of extreme injustice, told in a powerful jerky style, of a tribal woman hunted like a wild animal until she is cornered and caught. Unlike her mythological namesake however, she rejects the verdict of humiliation and instead triumphs over her own victimhood.

16) Vijaydan Detha; Countless Hitlers, trans by Christi Merrill & Kailash Kabir: Five brothers, five Rajasthani farmers, buy a bright red tractor with their accumulated savings. Their pleasure in the purchase is balanced against the message in the title. A taut and well-orchestrated tale of strong passions told against the backdrop of the unforgiving desert landscape.

17) Nirmal Verma; Mirror of Illusion, trans by Geeta Kapur: Diwan Sahib is an old man when we meet him, living by the light of his past glories. His daughter Taran is trapped with him in the bungalow, yearning to escape yet paralyzed by her sense of obligation, of duty, of memories.

18) Sundara Ramaswamy; Reflowering, trans by S.Krishnan: A tale told in a small textile shop in a Tamilnadu backwater. A blind "bill-maker" called Rowther is able to keep his job because of his extraordinary skill with numbers. But then a mechanical innovation enters this world of veshtis and small towels: a calculator.

19) U.R.Ananthamurthy; Mouni, trans by H.Y.Sharada Prasad: Like a classic documentary film, we watch the story of two men, two Bhattas, unfold. They live in a small village in Karnataka, making their living from managing areca nut plantations leased from the local temple. The two men are bitter enemies on account of "an old enmity, its origin lost to memory". A clear-eyed lack of sentiment coupled with a wonderful eye for detail makes this a powerful portrait of rural life.

20) Nisha Da Cunha; Old Cypress: Radha and her husband Rohan decide to buy a cottage called Old Cypress, in the hills. The cottage, Radha's memories and the people Radha befriends create a textured memoir of a genteel life that has reached its peak and is just starting down its final slope.

21) Ruskin Bond; The Blue Umbrella: A gem-like story, told with economy and gentle whimsy, of a little girl called Binya and the blue umbrella she covets, owns, loses, recovers and ... well, that's the story!

22) Gulzar; Crossing the Ravi, trans by Rakhshanda Jalil: A Partition story told in spare language with no extra frills. All the hardship and agony are contained in the harsh simplicity of the telling, as if there was nothing to spare during that time of unspeakable anguish, no sweetness, no tears. Just pain.

23) Anita Desai, Games at Twilight: Children at play in the heat-parched afternoon of a distant summer's day. Hide 'n' seek is the game and one little boy hopes to foil the boy who is "It" by hiding in a place so secure that he cannot be found. But he discovers that never being caught isn't quite the same as winnning.

24) Vilas Sarang; A Revolt of the Gods, trans by the author: During the Ganesh Festival in Bombay, a photographer with his own small studio is witness to a mass 'revolt' of the Ganesh idols being carried in procession to the water's edge. The idols were seen coming to life and moving out of sight. The story has a surreal, sarcastic edge, like a laddoo wrapped around a slice of lemon.

25) Ambai; In a Forest, A Deer, trans by Lakshmi Holström: An evocative story, told from a child's perspective of an aunt who was rich with stories but childless. We glimpse her story as if watching a deer walk, now stopping, now starting, always afraid, through a dense forest. Not quite sure of what we have seen but grateful nevertheless to have seen it.

26) Paul Zacharia; Bhaskara Pattelar and My Life, trans by Geeta Krishnankutty: Told with extreme intensity, this is the story of a criminal gang-lord as seen through the eyes of a loving henchman. The narrator appears to have the consciousness of a crazed puppy for whom violent emotions are the norm.

27) Devanoora Mahadeva; Tar Arrives, trans by Manu Shetty and A.K.Ramanujam: The elements of the story are assembled like characters on the stage-set of a small village in Karnataka -- the bad characters, the village opinion-setters, the outsiders. Then "tar arrives" in the form of a road-construction team and the little drama plays out. Echoes of this story can be heard wherever and whenever Modernity rams itself into the soft flesh of Tradition.

28) Irwin Allan Sealy; First In, Last Out: Baba Ghanoush is a perceptive and well-educated autorickshaw driver who witnesses the aftermath of a crime. He decides to take a hand in punishing the pair of scoundrels involved, using his trusty three-wheeled vehicle as his batmobile. Yes, he's clever and he may even be rather likable but … is he fighting on the side of the angels or the demons? That's for us to decide!

29) Vikram Seth; The Elephant and the Tragopan: A fable told in vivacious verse, about a delegation of animals that sets out to beg human beings to be more considerate towards their fellow creatures. It is as charmingly told as it is wise and worldly.

30) Manjula Padmanabhan; Feast: about a European vampire who visits India as a tourist. [as this is my story I can't allow myself to say anything more about it]

31) Githa Hariharan; Nursing God's Countries: The protagonist is that woman in white whom we barely acknowledge, the Malayali nurse. A woman we rarely think of in terms of her needs and desires because her occupation is built around the needs of others. This is the story of one such nurse, one of the more successful ones: a job in Canada and a child back in Kerala, with whom she hopes to be reunited. But muteness is her song. In her silence, the stifled dreams of millions of young women.

32) Cyrus Mistry; Proposed For Condemnation: Ajay, a young man in Bombay, finds release amongst women, while dressed as a woman. No tawdry "eve-teaser", his passion is keen and his adventures in the Ladies' Compartment of Bombay's suburban commuter trains are like a fever-dream of heat and lust.

33) Shashi Tharoor; Trying To Discover India: We find ourselves aboard a famous ship, alongside a famous explorer, en route from Spain to discover a Westward route to the Indies. The narrator is an Indian, from Kerala and alas he has little respect for the famous explorer, because he has guessed that their destination cannot be what it is supposed to be. With sly winks and nods towards the reader he retells history from his alternative perspective.

34) Upamanyu Chatterjee; Desolation, Lust: The descriptions of Bombay as seen through the eyes of an unhappy, disenchanted young man, traveling with his unlovely -- and unlovable -- girlfriend, are unsparing. Yet there is a bleak grey humour twitching in the rubble-strewn landscape he shows us. We champion his cause even as we despair for him.

35) Vikram Chandra; Kama: This is a long story -- so long that I was nervous, as I approached it, having grown used to the highly condensed narratives of most of the other tales in this collection. But it is told with cool control, from the perspective of a Sikh police inspector in Bombay and includes a large cast of characters. It clicks along like a powerful, well-oiled machine, touching all the points that one might expect in a 'romain policier' -- then goes a few steps beyond.

36) Anjum Hasan; Wild Things: A wayward schoolboy runs away from his village school to spend a day with his cousin Natesha who works in a restaurant in Bangalore. The story is told with wit and sympathy, as Prasad, an Indian Tom Sawyer, tests the limits of his unruliness.

37) Amrita Narayanan; Stolen: Four women in a wealthy home, on an afternoon of heat and lust. Three of them are domestic workers, one is of the employer class. Steamy and fragrant as a bowl of tropical fruit left out in the sun at the height of summer, the story is like a single glimpse stolen from behind the screens of a hidden world.

38) Shahnaz Bashir; The Gravestone: An old man, once a skilled craftsman, is on his way to his son's grave. He carries with him the tools of his trade, intending to correct a mistake in the inscription on the headstone. But in the way of Fate, that carves what it will on the granite of each person's history, the old man's hand slips and he removes more than he planned.

39) Kanishk Tharoor; Elephant at Sea: An elephant is on its way to Morocco from Kerala, requisitioned by the whim of a young princess. The story is told in a tone of light allegory, as the great beast arrives, is greeted with fondness and some bewilderment, then left to enjoy the hospitality of the Royal Garden. There it remains, like a fable untethered from its home culture, beloved, admired and wholly misunderstood.

No comments: