2014 first half reading

2015 First Half Reading: Binging on Short Stories

This has been my Year of Short Stories. I hadn’t quite started out planning it as such. But, as my writing this year has focused on short stories, which was planned, I’ve been drawn more to reading them too. And, that’s when I realized a) how much I love short stories and b) how much I have yet to learn about the art and craft of short stories.

Before we go any further, let me share why I love the short story.

First, generally, it is about illuminating a particular event or a moment in the protagonist’s life in ways that the event/moment stands for so much more: it tells us everything about that world, those people and their lives, troubles, joys and desires. A short story can create a complete world just as well as a novel. Though, of course, there are masterpieces that break this particular-event-or-moment rule wonderfully.

Second, in a short story, every detail counts, every nuance matters and the necessary tension and intensity can only be achieved successfully through creativity and originality. Sarah Hall recently said this, which makes a lot of sense:

With short stories, you want the story to reverberate in a big way, so you’re alluding to things that go beyond what you’ve just written about. A lot of readers aren’t reading to feel the disquiet that short stories can deliver, because most people read for comfort or consolation. There’s this trend of wanting everything to be tied up in the end, but life isn’t like that. Short stories are a reminder that, actually, you may never get to the bottom of something. You might end up staring over a precipice.

While I have read other non-short-story books this year too, I won’t write here about them for now. Also, to keep this post context-relevant, I’m going to highlight only the India-related short story collections. Note that this is not, by any means, representative of short story writing across India today. In fact, three of the five collections are by Indian authors who have settled in the West. And, I have yet to get into more translated collections, which are still rather scarce.

1. Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry

Of the five short story collections I’ve written about here, this is, hands-down, my favorite. Mistry has not disappointed me so far. I read his ‘A Fine Balance‘ decades ago and wish I hadn’t taken so long to come to this collection. And, now, of course, I intend to read all his books soon enough.

Every story here is like a polished jewel. Mistry weaves together humor, pathos, romance and tragedy to give us deep glimpses into the following: a Bombay that was falling apart and fading even as the stories were unfolding; a Parsi community that cleaves to a world it doesn’t know how to live without; individual characters who tussle with what their Parsi identity/culture means in a Bombay that only considers itself in Hindu and Muslim terms …. All this and more.

There are, as with Pariat’s book below, elements of mysticism and surrealism in a couple of these stories. But, Mistry handles them with such skill and ease that my skepticism barely lasted past the first paragraph.

I wished there were more stories here because I wanted to inhabit the world of Firoszsha Baag that much longer. And, isn’t that the greatest test of a good work of fiction — that it makes you want to experience the world it creates, despite all the flaws and troubles of that world?

For me, this collection is on par with some of the best of its kind, like Joyce’s ‘Dubliners‘. Which is not to say that Mistry sounds anything like Joyce but that he has captured Bombay and Parsis in uniquely haunting ways, much like Joyce did with Dublin and the Irish people.

And, interestingly, while Manto (see below) wrote about the Bombay of the ’30s and ’40s, Mistry grew up in the Bombay of the ’50s and ’60s, so there are some interesting juxtapositions in the very different Bombays that both presented through their collections.

2. Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto (translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad)

Manto has had rather a revival in English translation in the past couple of decades. I must admit that I hadn’t heard of him till I started searching for regional language short story writers. Then, one of the first things that I came across was this Aakar Patel essay on Bollywood. One of the Manto quotes that Patel referenced was from a 1938 speech by Manto, during his early years in the Indian film industry when he was barely twenty-six. I thought it showed a remarkable level of insight and maturity and hoped to find the same in his stories. (See the end of this section for that quote.)

Maybe something got lost in the translation. Urdu, Manto’s original language, is rather intricate from the little I know of it. You could say something very commonplace and it will sound richly beautiful in Urdu but banal in English. I say this as an appreciation of tough task that the translators must have had, rather than as a criticism of their effort.

On to the stories. Manto wrote mostly about the world that he lived in himself. A few of the stories here had Manto-like protagonists that were even, wait for it, called Manto. In this, he was rather unique and ahead of his time. These were everyday characters, mostly from the lower classes and very aware of their place in society. Manto presented all their whimsies and esotericism in exacting detail so that, after reading, we might look around at the people we wouldn’t normally give a second thought to, and pause to consider their lives beyond our simple, passing interactions with them.

My only issue is with how Manto’s women, mostly all prostitutes or “loose characters” are rather two-dimensional. He did this clever thing where almost all of them were shown through the eyes of male protagonists. Yet, as we know from the works of the best writers, you can still show well-defined and rounded characters through that kind of limited perspective. So, that was, to me, Manto’s limitation as a writer. Because, when he wrote about a man seen through a male protagonist’s POV, e.g. in ‘Mammad Bhai’, he did much better, relatively speaking. There is one story, ‘The Insult’, that’s told from a prostitute’s point of view in third-person. But, again, I thought that, where Manto had the opportunity to strike multiple notes, he stuck with two-three of his favorite ones, giving us a character that wasn’t unlike the rest of his prostitutes.

Overall, though, Manto opened the door to a 1930s and 1940s Bombay like no other writer of his time. Through his roll call of whores, pimps, lowlifes, actors, writers, thugs and so on, he set the stage for many other writers of Indian origin to take on similar characters in their stories (including, most famously, Salman Rushdie with ‘Midnight’s Children‘). And, of course, Bollywood has continued to pay homage to Manto in its own way by continually plagiarizing from him.

All that said, Manto is a must-read within the tiny pantheon of Indian short story writers.

Oh, and here’s the quote that impressed me. There’s also a terrific Manto essay on literature at the back of this particular edition with many quotable bits that you must discover for yourself.

There are many ways of educating a nation, but there is consensus that film is an important one. It is easy and efficient to communicate a message, even one that is complicated, through movies. Texts weigh heavy on the individual, and for most children, so does schooling. It is no different in college, of course. But the message that might take months of studying to properly understand, however, might be passed on in an instant through films. India needs entertaining movies that also educate, exercise the mind and introduce us to new ideas and new thinking.

[UPDATE: And, here’s an excerpt from one of Manto’s essays on literature. Equally good and well ahead of its time in India.]

3. Arranged Marriage and Other Stories by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I have a couple of Divakaruni’s books on my shelves and I’ve seen her at the odd literary festival and bookstore reading. I also follow her on Twitter. She’s one of those genuinely compassionate people who sees readers as people and not just as money in the bank. So, I really wanted to like this book, the first of hers that I’d read.

It was a mixed bag for me. I didn’t find much originality of plot in these stories. That said, the writing is, technically speaking, very skillful.

I wish that all the marriages in these stories wouldn’t have ended so badly. I know so many that aren’t fraught with so many problems. It would have been, perhaps, realistic, if there were one or two stories where the marriage was great but the conflict came from some other place. As it was, I didn’t feel sympathy or empathy for any of the poor women here.

Also, there were several anachronisms and cliches in the last few stories. Some of the dialogue just didn’t ring true because you know that Indians don’t act/talk like that, especially in public. For example, when a group of friends cautioned/questioned a man about his decision to marry an ABCD (American Born Confused Desi), just as he was handing out his wedding cards to them, he snapped at them angrily and walked out on them….. all this while they were in a coffee-shop. Some conversations read like she was explaining things for the Western reader which, perhaps, at the time that her book came out, was needed. Then again, maybe not.

I don’t know that I’d recommend this entire collection to someone. Maybe read one or two stories from it. But, I’d go to Divakaruni’s later works. I’ve read some excerpts from her more recent novels and find the prose and plots better-crafted. I intend to get to those works myself at some point.

4. Love and Longing in Bombay: Stories by Vikram Chandra

Though I’ve had Chandra’s first novel, ‘Red Earth and Pouring Rain‘, on my shelves for ages, this books is the first of his that I’ve read. After reading Manto’s and Mistry’s books, I had a hankering for more Bombay. This absolutely fit the bill.

What I liked about it: it described, to a certain extent, the Bombay that I grew up in — my time. Technically, Chandra is a very skilled writer in that, he has used both summary narration and expository scene descriptions at just the right places in his storytelling to create tension and conflict. I also liked how he titled the five stories here: Dharma, Shakti, Kama, Artha, Shanti. They absolutely support the main themes within each story.

What I didn’t like too much: the story-within-a-story-within-a-story approach. There was a main narrator, who was being told stories by another character and, within one or two of those stories, one character told another stories too. Not that it was confusing, because you knew exactly who was telling which story, but that I didn’t see how this nested approach moved the overall narrative along. And, one of my pet peeves: very few women characters.

Dharma, the first story, was about an Army man who is haunted by a ghost. There was a battle scene, which, with its staccato narrative rhythm reminded me of Hemingway’s war prose. And, the ghost scenes were filled with deliciously thrilling sensory descriptions and apt metaphors/similies. It’s the kind of story I’d read again just for those scenes.

Shakti, the second story, was a delight. Two upper-class women were battling it out in high society with some very clever machinations. The black humor here was spot on, though I felt that, at times, Chandra pulled his punches. For example, when the protagonist openly attacked her nemesis by going after her husband’s business empire. I didn’t care for the protagonist’s sudden pangs of conscience or weltschmertz either. They didn’t ring true with her go-getting, opportunistic and ruthless scheming up to that point. That’s not to say that even the worst characters cannot have an overnight change of mind. Just that, with this particular plot arc, I wasn’t entirely convinced. It was all too Bollywoodsian for me in the end. Still, very well told.

The novella, ‘Kama’, too was well-written. But, again, there was something missing. It was as if you were drinking a drink that had no fizz in it when you were expecting, even led to expect, that there would be fizz. The ending here was meant to be epiphanic for the main character but it was rushed too much, rendering it a bit vague. Novellas are tough, though, especially when stuck in the middle of a short story collection. The main character here, policeman Sartaj Singh, is the main character of Chandra’s much larger novel, ‘Sacred Games‘, also set in Bombay. Quite possibly, that novel was Chandra’s attempt to amend giving Singh short shrift in the novella.

‘Artha’ felt like it could have been two stories: one about a disappearing lover caught in Bombay’s underworld and the other about business fraud. They overlapped because the protagonist featured in both of them but, somehow, that pattern didn’t quite work for me. That said, again, Chandra’s prose is pitch-perfect: sparingly hard-hitting when it needs to be and exuberantly dancing off the page when the scene demands it.

‘Shanti’ is the last story and, again, Chandra created some memorable characters here. Set in the pre-Independence 1940s, it followed the love story of a couple who had both suffered personal losses. The way they kept meeting each other till the man worked up the courage to ask the woman to marry him was charming, but not nauseatingly so.

In the end, I wished that Chandra had given us more than five stories. But, it was still a very satisfying read and I look forward to more of his works.

5. Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories by Janice Pariat

This collection has won two big literary awards in India: the 2013 Sahitya Akademi Young Writer Award for the English language and the 2013 Crossword Book Award for fiction.

What clinched it for me was that it was set entirely in Northeastern India, a part of the country I know very little about. And that the stories were described as weaving mythology and reality together. I was not disappointed on both these counts. Each story here gave me a view into Northeastern culture and some of the region’s troubled history (that said, I certainly supplemented that with a lot of reading on the side from other non-fictional sources).

What disappointed me deeply, however, was both the weakness in plots and the rather pedestrian prose. Some reviewers have called this prose “lyrical”. I find that a nauseatingly over-used term for any writing that tries to get too descriptive. And, indeed, Ms Pariat gives us many, many sunsets, misty landscapes and waterfall-ed forests. These, however, did not help to make up for the lack of substantive or original storytelling. And, indeed her editor(s) must have been very easygoing as plenty of cliches slipped through, such as “The world ceased to exist” (this happened many times, in slightly different words, every time a character looked at mist-filled or mountainous landscapes). There were also several annoying language-related redundancies such as “ferns hanging, suspended from the ceiling”. I don’t usually nitpick like this when it occurs in a piece of writing once or twice. In this case, I could find such instances on almost every page of the book, certainly in every story. So, it jarred. It did not let me lose myself in the stories, the places or the people as I’d hoped to. I did read it to the end because I kept thinking it would get better.

Two of her stories were inspired by a couple of New Yorker stories by other writers and Pariat acknowledged them honestly at the end of the book. I read the one by Tom Drury, which had inspired ‘The Keeper of Souls’. And, again, I was disappointed. My thinking is that, when you’re inspired by another piece of writing, a more well-known story, I want to see you do a worthwhile variation on it, riff on it such that your version is just as, if not more, memorable and unique. Sadly, Pariat’s versions did not get to this level for me.

There was one redeeming feature: a handful of the stories had well-written, epiphanic endings. But, otherwise, no, these stories were not, as one prolific and popular Indian reviewer described as “early Alice Munro stories”. As an Alice Munro fan, I just cannot accept that. And, if I wanted to be really tough as a reviewer/critic, I’d say that most of these stories were local gossip tales told in predictable linear narrative with plenty of regional language words thrown in to make them sound exotically different.


An observation: For the most part, the short story form is still evolving slowly in India. Among the many factors contributing to this (including the inter-tangled skeins of the many critiques of Indian writing in English, the Indian readership and the Indian publishing industry — which I will get into in due course), the biggest ones I see are:

a) There are no widely-read and well-regarded literary journals focusing on the short story form. True, there are several journals out there now, thanks to the ease of building websites, but their efforts are not on any significant level or scale and their content and editorship leaves a lot to be desired for.

b) There are no major short story awards or contests as there are in the UK and the US. For the average writer, the role models are the commercial fiction novelists like Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi, Anuja Chauhan et al.

c) Creative writing and, particularly the short story form, is not encouraged in high schools. It is not seen as a viable use of one’s talents or time — much as it was several decades ago during my high school years. So, those who do stumble into short story writing tend to be the lucky ones who’ve managed to go abroad and study at Western universities. Which brings me to the next problem…..

d) Where there are writers focusing on the short story form (in English), they tend to emulate their more famous Western forbears rather than try to find a voice of their own. Of course, this latter is easier said than done, particularly given the problems a-c above. Still, India is such a vastly complex entity that trying to write about her and her people and places in ways that Western writers write about their people and places cannot be worth a reader’s effort. I really don’t, for example, want to read an Indian author who sounds like an “early Alice Munro”. I’ll happily read Munro, thank you.

e) Finally, I do agree, to a certain extent, that there is, indeed, a problem with trying to express or present parts of different Indian cultures and societies in the English language. Regional writer, Nemade, is partly right that not everything is so easily transferable from one language to another. When we speak a certain language on a daily basis, its idioms, metaphors, similies, phrases reflect not just how we behave but also how we think. It is a significant feat for any Indian writer writing in English to be able to convey all those nuances and complexities in a story narrated in the English language. Mistry, for me, came the closest in the collections above. This is not to say that Indian writing in English is no good, but that it has a long way to go. More on this last point in a longer post another time.

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