Aesop’s Fables, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Boccaccio’s The Decameron and the Indian Jataka tales, the Panchatantra, Somadeva’s Katha-sarit-sagara are among the forerunners of the short story. The advent of its present form can be traced to the early 19th century and of its parent, the novel, to the 18th century. The brevity of its narrative, single action, and thematic focus naturally met with a wordwide reception and thus short fiction matured into an artistic genre, casting its net across the world. Murli Das Melwani’s book makes a historical survey right from the beginning to the present-day. Such a wide-ranging critical survey has hitherto not been attempted. He raises two weighty questions that merit our attention. First, has the Indian short story writer contributed anything of value to it? and second, has his work made the form more flexible, as say, Hemingway’s or Chekov’s did? Melwani subjects all short-story writers — 66 in all — from 1835 to 2008 to a close scrutiny. The stories are not discussed individually, though some specimens are close-read and locally analysed. But a writer’s entire collection is examined and evaluated, with conclusions drawn at the end.
Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, and Raja Rao, who represent the first flowering (1935-45) of this genre, responded to the nationalist movement, each in his own way — Mulk Raj Anand, the social activist, presenting a true vision of Indian life; R.K. Narayan, with his perception of the average as positive, exploring the nature of life and reality; and Raja Rao experimenting with form. The second flowering (1960-70) looked for answers to the question often raised in academic circles: can the Indian sensibility be expressed in English? Ruth Prawar Jabwalla’s “detached involvement with the Indian situation,” and Bhabani Bhattacharya’s professionalism and the easy readability of his stories supply some answers to that question. The 1970s more than fulfil the expectations of the ‘60s. The decade is marked by an endless variety in the handling of themes and variations, coupled with varying modes and techniques of narration influenced by Russian and American short fiction.
Galaxy of writers
We have a galaxy of writers — Keki Daruwalla, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Arun Joshi, Kamala Das and a host of others — participating in the ongoing process of openness in form, reliable and unreliable narration with multiple points of view, and shifting focalisation. The period between 1980 and 2008 reflects, in the words of Melwani, a “burgeoning creativity.” There are more women writers now than at any time in the past. Altering perspectives in man-woman relationships, alienation in modern life, and the impact of feminism and feminist theories on the academia have supplied meat and juice to a potential creative writer. As readership expanded across the world, Indian stories tended to get translated into foreign languages. The author is quite right in his assessment that the short story has covered a wider range of subjects with a larger gallery of characters and that the record of Indian life is more authentic in this genre than in the novel. The ‘little’ magazine that is most selective in choosing the material for publication — getting a story published in it is considered highly prestigious — has done much to improve the quality of this genre. Paperback print editions and online literary magazines too have helped a great deal in popularising this form. He suggests that instituting literary prizes and bringing out a collection of the best short stories every year will encourage new talent.
Melwani adroitly integrates his critical comments on the works with the short introductory remarks of each section on the evolving political and social mores of the times. On the whole, the book is absorbing and well-researched. It is a convincing, lively narrative history of the short story that still remains a developing literary form. We need more — and yet more — of such narrative histories that can discuss changes in artistic trends, materials, techniques, et al. The scope for the Indian short story is indeed boundless.
THEMES IN THE INDIAN SHORT STORY IN ENGLISH: Murli Das Melwani; Prakash Book Depot, Bara Bazaar, Bareilly-243003. Rs. 175.