The short story form has never really taken off in Indian writing in English—the focus has been on novels. In other Indian languages, however, the robust ecosystem of literary magazines, newspaper supplements, and a continued interest of the reading public has served to sustain this form. Most writers in Indian languages have published collections of short stories to their credit, often collected after individual publication.
These short stories have an earthy flavour that we’ve been missing in Indian English—they talk of the people away from the big cities, not in the English-speaking, progressive, connected elite. Their problems are not worthy of mainstream media, but their lives have all the richness of reality and the pathos of the Indian condition. Love, money, nostalgia, depression, ego—it’s all there. Read these stories, even translated into English, and you realise that these stories are talking about us—we Indians, we humans, and that we all have more similarities than differences. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Here are three collections of short stories that bring that earthy smell to English readers: A Faceless Evening and Other Stories by Gangadhar Gadgil, After Yesterday and Other Stories by Appadurai Muttulingam, and If a River and Other Stories by Kula Saikia. These are beautifully translated from Marathi, Tamil, and Assamese, respectively. Each hardbound volume comprises up to 20 stories.
Although the three volumes work well as a set, the themes of the authors have different nuances. Gadgil explores in detail the emotional life of small-town, middle-class characters: the oppressed daughter-in-law in a joint family, the dying old woman wanting to pass on some last advice to her sons, the lecherous middle-aged man... all of them heroes in their own life.
Gadgil uses a variety of tones, too. One of my favourites is the tongue-in-cheek story of Bandu, an absent-minded office worker who wants to get an umbrella. “They were all making fun of someone called Tatya… Bandu craned his neck this way and that to see who this unfortunate Tatya was… and a horrible thought came to Bandu’s mind. He quickly slunk away.” Not all the stories are as funny, of course, but the people are just as cleanly etched out.
In After Yesterday, Appadurai Muttulingam has a clear target. Muttulingam is from Sri Lanka, and he chronicles the effects of the decades-long civil war on the people of his country. More specifically, he talks of the people forced to leave their homeland and become powerless refugees in Europe and Canada: ordinary people deprived of the comfort of home, struggling to make a space in an unknown country.
The treatment varies here: sometimes it is a waitress with a limited vocabulary, trying to deny a connection with a young white man in Canada, elsewhere it is a man turned into a smuggler of cars in Italy. There are those small moments of transformation and realisation that make the story. Two stories from the collection stand out: ‘After Yesterday’, which describes a Sri Lankan mother’s visit to her son’s house in Canada, and ‘The Good Earth’, in which an erstwhile civil war soldier is repatriated to his family in Canada. While the storyline may seem similar, Muttulingam’s different treatment shines here. The first story focuses on the generation gap, while the second talks of the lost cause that the civil war soldiers nurtured in their hearts.
Kula Saikia’s If a River talks of the effects of time, by way of dramatic irony. The title story says it all: A bunch of kids playing at creating a river in the sand of the desert. During their play villages rise and fall, kings and palaces come and go. Other stories expand on the various ways time works: An old man is reminded of the gifts he’s been given and received, a father thinks of the effect a bridge construction has had on his town, a college reunion brings old friends together.
The shadow of old events falls on the characters, moulding their thoughts and actions. One fine story is ‘Timeless Flavour’, in which a couple faces the effects of dementia on the husband—memories and behaviours that they had relied on are slowly being stripped away.
The translations of all the volumes are top-notch and extremely fluent. Without resorting to either too many non-translated words, or to pandering definitions, the text brings out the original flavours of the stories. There is also uniformity in the three volumes—indicating some good editing work behind the scenes. Special mention must be made of the production quality. The cover design and overall the physical quality of the books make them a pleasure to hold.
The only nitpick I have with the volumes is the lack of detail about the writers and their backgrounds. These writers are worth knowing about—Kula Saikia, for example, is a high-ranking police officer, the DGP of Assam, and Gangadhar Gadgil is a pioneer of the modern Marathi story form. A short biography would not be amiss. However, the stories shine through on their own and are no less for the lack of introduction. Read these books as an introduction to the art of storytelling. In their attention to people rather than to narrative innovation, they take a different direction from the typical English short story.