Short with depth

Neelum Saran Gour weaves a tapestry of lives and eras in her new anthology, “Song Without End and Other Stories”. Shalini Shah speaks to the author

November 30, 2011 07:26 pm | Updated December 02, 2011 05:15 pm IST

"Song Without End and Other Stories" by Neelum Saran Gour

"Song Without End and Other Stories" by Neelum Saran Gour

Thirty years is a long time; —thoughts penned across a melange of moods and subjects. The stories in Neelum Saran Gour's new anthology, “Song Without End and Other Stories” (Penguin), in the author's words, “document an age that has been left undocumented.”

Fifteen stories — of faded grandeur, unexpected bonds, the disillusionment of old age and the accompanying loneliness, of deepening celestial bonds and weakening earthly ones, often narrated with self-deprecatory humour — run across the pages, many with the recurrent theme of nostalgia.

There's the senile nawab in Kanpur who can't get the flavour of old opulence out of his memory even when all else is lost in “The Taste of Almonds”; the retired bureaucrat who, during a bid to make himself up-to-date, peeps into a window to a stranger's troubled world in “Connectivity”, while a storyteller bemoans a lost talent in “Grey Pigeon”. They're rarely depressing, the humour serving to alleviate the mood and even acting as a catalyst to underscore the sorrow through the sheer function of contrast, like the razor-sharp banter between the nawab and the begum who detest each other and find roundabout ways of expressing it, much to the amusement of witnesses in “Grey Pigeon”.

Neelum, on the phone from Allahabad (where she is a professor in the English department at the University of Allahabad), says, “They include the stories of people I have known who are no longer here. And they record a particular generation's experiences — my parents, my grandparents and a world which now seems to have disintegrated. It's nostalgic because I value some of those things which are lost.”

Set in places like Calcutta, Kanpur and Lucknow, these are stories that operate out of very specific local references rather than general vacuum.

While readers, the author says, have liked “The Taste of Almonds” and “A Lane in Lucknow”, she picks out “Play”, the first story in the anthology, as a favourite, “because it is a new story and it addresses concerns which are very fresh in my mind.” Here, a stage actor during the enactment of Neelbandhu Ghoshal's “Five Letters” learns some lessons for keeps.

Neelum has previously brought out two other collections of short stories — “Grey Pigeon and Other Stories” (1993) and “Winter Companions” (1997) — besides novels like “Speaking of '62” and “Virtual Realities”.

How does she compare a short story to the novel as a form of storytelling? “I don't draw these distinctions because even the four novels I have written seem to be strategically organised conglomerations of short stories. Let's stop thinking in forms. If you just see a huge rush of people on a railway platform, you think of all these people who carry all their stories within them. And they're all on the same platform. So life is made up of a whole bundle of stories functioning simultaneously. A novel is a group of short stories as a city is a group of people,” she says.

Does a short story ever become constrictive, with the pressure of economy playing at the back of one's mind throughout?

“It's not difficult when you're passionate about a particular idea, when you don't have to do anything,” says Neelum. “You just have to let the idea write itself out through you. And you don't have to do any active work except just be a receptive recorder of the idea. But yes, there are stories in which conflicts arise; you don't know what real life would demand, and that is when you just have to let it go and wait and wait for something inspirational to come up.”

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