After a brief lull in the years of early 2000 when publishers would not touch them with a barge pole, short stories are back again, and with a vengeance. Magnum quantities of campus capers, chick-lit, city-centric stories, literary and paranormal fiction—all of it in a crisp short avatar—appear to be erupting on a regular basis and the mother of all compilations now arrives in the form of an exhaustive book of short stories, A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces.
Edited by the indefatigable David Davidar, publisher, novelist, editor and anthologist, and with a list of authors that boasts of names like Saadat Hasan Manto, Amrita Pritam, Ruskin Bond, Gulzar, Cyrus Mistry, Ambai, Buddhadeva Bose, Anita Desai, Anjum Hasan and more, a book doesn’t get grander than this.
A broodingly monochromatic book cover in indigo (with a lemon-and-chilli totem dangling ominously) predicts the mood at the very onset and right enough, of the 39 stories that follow, most fall undeniably in the sombre category. A detailed introduction by the editor besides discussing the technicalities involved in writing short fiction and justifying his choice of stories, paints an unexpectedly charming picture of the very young Davidar immersed in books amidst bucolic surroundings. The collection commences on an eerie note with a story by Rabindranath Tagore which has all the ingredients—stormy night, lonely palace amidst mountains, footsteps and laughter of invisible women—of a vintage ghost story. The stories that follow in quick succession swing from one end of the literary spectrum to the other evoking multiple emotions in the reader of which, paradoxically, wonder and dread reign supreme. Thus, in ‘The Shroud’, Munshi Premchand follows a duo of cobblers in their darkly comic search for a shroud with which to drape a dead woman while Buddhadeva Bose, in his depiction of a Sanskrit teacher dreaming of writing a Bengali dictionary in ‘A Life’, burrows into crevices that lie between words and sentences, speech and thought. Vaikom Muhammad Basheer creates a tender friendship between a young man and a resident lady ghost in ‘The Blue Light’ while Khushwant Singh etches his grandmother with quick brush strokes in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’. ‘Gold from the Grave’ is a chilling commentary about impoverished villagers struggling to survive in a big city by Marathi author Anna Bhau Sathe; Harishankar Parsai does a tongue-in-cheek take on corruption with his spoof ‘Inspector Matadeen on the Moon’. The aching loneliness of a barren childless woman living in provincial India is portrayed with exquisite sensitivity by writer Ambai in ‘In a Forest, a Deer’ and in a leap to the modern and urban, Irwin Allan Sealy in ‘Last In, First Out’ confronts sex-crimes in Delhi head-on using an autorickshaw-driving protagonist with elan. Ismat Chughtai’s (in) famous story ‘Quilt’ reaffirms its position as one of the finest and earliest stories on same-sex love while a tribal woman’s take on self-respect, shame and loyalty in Mahasweta Devi’s ‘Draupadi’ leaves the reader chilled to the marrow.
Certain stories in this exquisite collection stand out by the sheer power of their prose and Nisha da Cunha’s ‘Old Cypress’ is one such, enthralling with its brilliant craftsmanship. As horror, myths, fantasy, crime, romance and folklore weave through the tales, the stories vary sharply in length. ‘Old Cypress’ is almost a novella, likewise Vikram Seth’s fable ‘The Elephant and the Moon’ told in inimitable verse that runs into 30-odd stanzas. In direct contrast, Gulzar’s trademark brevity stuns with his hard-hitting incident set in the turbulence of the Partition. An eclectic collection, some stories are content to merely present an ambiguous sliver of life while some others read tightly structured; the esoteric quotient is high in some stories while some others end with a twist in their tail that is purely O Henry-esque. The pungent flavours of rustic life are all pervasive in this collection but dollops of Anglicised erudition are also present, but to a lesser degree. Humour is sparse, almost nonexistent, but an abundance of satire and irony more than make up for this. Some of the stories being legendary have the ring of familiarity to them but can be read again with a feeling of nostalgia. Though the reader is likely to revel in the company of such illustrious writers, he could find himself wishing that Davidar has occasionally ventured out of a comfort zone inhabited by literary luminaries and plumbed lesser known names for edgy fiction. With stories ranging from the Partition era to contemporary times, and from nearly every region of the country, the book presents an enormous canvas. Bengali, Malayalam, Kannada, Odia, Urdu and Hindi literature is amply represented but fiction from Gujarat and the Northeast is conspicuous in its absence (the introduction frankly admits to this). Maybe the vibrant voices of authors like Indira Goswami, Aruni Kashyap and Janice Pariat could have filled this void. Acknowledgments are amply due to the competent team of translators—Amitav Ghosh, Geeta Kapur, Arunava Sinha, Rakshanda Jalil and others—who have transferred regional language magic into English with minimum intrusion.
All in all, a carefully put-together, precious collection of short stories that begs to be read over and over again. And with every reading, like all great things, the stories are capable of throwing up fresh new interpretations.