A gateway to everything Indian | Review of Arunava Sinha’s ‘The Greatest Indian Stories Ever Told’

This anthology by the prolific translator Arunava Sinha is a leitmotif of the multilayered Indian identity

August 24, 2023 01:07 pm | Updated August 25, 2023 01:12 pm IST

At times you want to summon Kalidasa’s roving cloud messenger in Arunava Sinha’s compendium of stories that skims across the Indian subcontinent listening to the heartbeat of a myriad different beings that crowd her plains and valleys.

At other times, Sinha, in his capacity as editor, creates a magic carpet that allows him to track events and stories from the past. His intention is to weave them into patterns that create the leitmotif of a many-branched tree on which are perched the songbirds that speak in English but which sing in many Indian tongues.

We shall not comment on the Barnum & Bailey Circus echo in the title, but focus instead on the subtitle: Fifty Masterpieces From The Nineteenth Century To The Present. It’s also a spin-off from the Aleph Book Company’s publishing repertoire that includes the best of stories in 15 major Indian languages.

In his brief but excellent introduction, Sinha writes: “It’s not accidental, then, that though you will read all fifty stories in this selection, in the English language, forty-three of them are in fact translations into English from the various languages of India.” As he goes on to add: “In reading these, you will live all the possibilities that India has to offer, possibilities that an individual cannot experience in a single lifetime. This selection is not just a representation of the multiplicity of magics that being an ‘Indian’ can offer, it is a portal to all the universes that the “Indian” identity can inhabit. It is not the totality of those universes, but it is a gateway into them.”

Curtain of reality

In a country where every household cherishes the memory of a storytelling grandmother, or grand aunt, this is quite a tall claim. And yet there is something magical in Sinha’s selection of stories, not least being the effortless transition that a superb array of translators effects from native tongues into English. As for magic realism, we do not need any foreign imports, the tangential twitching of the curtain of reality has always been a part of the Indian storyteller’s repertoire. The enemy within is in most cases the other. We’ve met variations on these themes in our epics. Sinha’s collection, in another shorter form, is an epochal recollection for our times.

Along with humour, hungry ghosts, departed and real, scrabbling for retribution, or for a few grains of rice in the dust, there are the nights of incessant rain, love, betrayal, and running like a scar beneath the surface, the tragic realism of Partition. As much as one tries to desist naming writers who have not been included, one might be forgiven for mentioning the peerless Saadat Hasan Manto and his short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’.

Or indeed Bapsi Sidhwa, who must stand in for all the effervescent Parsi writers who aren’t represented in this collection. There is also the incomparable Ruskin Bond, whose long short story ‘The Blue Umbrella’ has the reader tripping along the slippery mountain paths of Garhwal with the little girl Binya into the realms of enchantment. Never mind if Bond scatters a handful of snowflakes and fills the air with the line: “She walked home through the darkening glade, singing of the stars, and the trees stood still and listened to her, and the mountains were glad.”

Desire in many forms

There are enough stories here to point the reader’s conscience to the casual cruelty inflicted upon young brides and mothers; or of the sudden deaths that are in fact executions meted out by those in positions of authority, either elected, or in-bred within our caste-based society.

Desire in all its forms masquerades in some of these evocations of Indian life with an immediacy that can be as strident as the cawing of a crow in ‘The Story of a Crow Learning Prosody’ by Subramania Bharati (translated from the Tamil by P. Raja); or lascivious as the clerk who returns to his wife’s village in ‘The Madiga Girl’ by Chalam (translated from the Telugu by Dasu Krishnamoorthy and Tamrapani Dasu). Since the rain in all its varied manifestations — unpredictable, soft, gentle, harsh, relentless, and yet life-affirming — forms the backdrop to a number of the stories in the collection, one can only suppose that our lusts and lives are a result of this churning of the earth beneath our feet.

Sinha has wisely declined to be a tour guide through his chosen terrain. He leaves it to the reader to find openings in what is a crowded field that includes some of our most cherished stories. Certainly, this is the case with Tagore’s ‘Kabuliwallah’ (translated here from the Bengali by Sinha himself) — a brief but tender engagement between a Pashtun dry-fruits seller who is hailed by an upper-class Bengali girl, Mini, just five years old, who is both frightened that he might carry her away in the bag on his shoulder and enchanted by his strangeness. Or Khushwant Singh’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’, where the narrator’s grandmother is described thus: “She was like the winter landscape in the mountains, an expanse of pure white serenity breathing peace and contentment.”

By way of contrast, there are the bold brushstrokes of Paul Zacharia’s ‘Bhaskara Pattelar and My Life’ (translated from the Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty), where a latter-day Ravana lives in a forested area of Karnataka, indulging a raging hunger for conquest. Equally, one is beguiled by the tenderness of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s ‘The Blue Light’ (translated from Malayalam by O.V. Usha) that like the first drops of rain on parched earth revives melodies of favourite singers of yesteryear.

Perhaps that’s the best way to describe Sinha’s anthology. For those attuned to the search through the primeval forests of the Indian imagination, there will be the flickers of a blue light shining in the darkness.

The Greatest Indian Stories Ever Told
Ed. Arunava Sinha

The writer is a Chennai-based critic and cultural commentator.

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