The selection of these stories is a brave experiment that succeeds beautifully.
The short story is undoubtedly the trickiest form of writing; saying it all while saying very little (and not vice versa!) proves a tightrope walk for most authors. A select lot of authors, however, have over time not only mastered the art of keeping it short and memorable but honed the craft extensively.
India: A Traveller's Literary Companion is a splendid attempt to crystallise the diverse literary flavours of the different regions of the country and present it to the intrepid/ armchair reader as a neat bouquet. Edited by novelist and literary critic Chandrahas Choudhury, the book brings together an interesting assortment of writers, their works spanning a period from the late 1800s to the present.
While the old masters include names like Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, Fakir Mohan Senapati and Lalithambika Antherjanam, the comparatively newer lot of writers is represented by Qurratulain Hyder, Salman Rushdie, Kunal Basu, Mamang Dai among others.
The first observation that strikes the reader is the marked diversity in the treatment of terrain in the stories. This is a motley bunch and each author's way of perceiving and creating the story's setting differs radically from the others. In stories like “The Scent of Orange Blossom” (Mamang Dai), “Canvasser Krishnalal” (Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay) and “Asura Pond” (Fakir Mohan Senapati), the geographical setting weaves insidiously into the stories, manifests itself as a formidable entity, pulling the characters this way and that. While the urban charms of Calcutta are offset against rural languor in one story, another brings the mountain sounds and scents of Himachal Pradesh wafting in vividly. In contrast, the graphic description of Goa in Anjum Hasan's “Eye in The Sky” is merely incidental to the protagonist's journey, which is essentially internal. A train journey across a nocturnal landscape outlines lives which are neither here nor there and brings the main character in a direct confrontation with his inner demons. Consequently, an entire personal landscape is reshaped in Jayant Kaikini's “Dots and Lines”. The feminine mystique, its survival amid contemporaries, and, paradoxically, its deep connect and detachment from society are brought out in a manner that Qurratulain Hyder specialises in. Past life regression and obsessive love for a monument forms the crux of Kunal Basu's unusual story while Nazir Mansuri's “The Whale” tantalises the reader to a point beyond endurance- is it or isn't it a pickled and curried version of Moby Dick? Vikram Chandra's portraiture of Bombay's underworld is crisp, curt, cutting like cold steel and, as always, reaches straight for the jugular.
There is a ruminative unhurried pace to the stories where more than overt action, a subtle subterranean journey is being traced by the authors. This is especially evident in the charming tale of young love and the ramblings of a redundant stenographer, both stories set in southern India (“In the Moonlight” by Lalithambika Antherjanam and “Halfway Animals” by Githa Hariharan). Most stories in this collection lack sharply etched themes, are content to meander along absorbing the feel of a place and, thereby, utterly irresistible in their appeal.
The fine line dividing this particular collection of stories from a regular work of travel writing is traced by author Anita Desai whose foreword bears her trademark stamp of finely tuned reasoning. Editor Choudhury takes it from there and, with his customary eloquence, condenses each author's strengths and vocabulary into a crisply compact introduction. Interesting snippets of information enliven the introductory pieces. An overuse of the adjective ‘best' could be vaguely jarring (best writer, best novel etc). Indian literature is a thick and textured tapestry; to describe any one weave as ‘best' is doing grave injustice to the bigger pattern. Also, by selecting only famous names, the book ignores the fact that some of the finest stories have been penned by lesser known writers. Exploring the crevices of literature in search of those rare and obscure wordsmiths could mean a lifetime of labour though and so, probably not feasible from the publisher's point of view…..
The contrast between the old masters of story-telling, with their well-crafted prose holding timeless appeal and the newer set, with its racy sensibilities, is disconcerting to put it mildly, the pitch changing from story to story. Probably, only Mamang Dai stands capable of straddling both the old and the new worlds with an exquisite balance.
Seen through the gazes of these writers, each region assumes a fresh definition in the mind of the reader and one is unlikely to travel without recalling Rushdie's Kashmir, Phanishwarnath Renu's Bihar, the breathtaking beauty of Mamang Dai's Arunachal Pardesh or the Taj Mahal as viewed by Kunal Basu's accountant. The selection and getting together of these stories is a brave experiment, one that succeeds beautifully. The book would have been happier if split into two volumes; one with stories from the past gradually filtering down to zero in on modern themes. In addition to the authors featured, most readers would like to explore other writers and other geographies: Gulzar's Lahore, Ismat Chughtai's Allahabad, Aruni Kashyap's Assam and Kamala Das's Kerala, to name a few. But as it stands, this collection of short stories is undoubtedly a rich and rewarding read and one fervently hopes that many more volumes will follow.
India: A Traveller's Literary Companion; edited by Chandrahas Choudhury, HarperCollins India, Rs. 399.
Keywords: short story