Thursday, 3 February 2011

India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion – A Review

Harper Collins has come up with a collection of short stories, which audaciously seek, in the words of Anita Desai who has written the foreword, to 'present India'. A daunting challenge no doubt, but one which, after reaching the end, I feel has been ably met.

Edited by Chandrahas Choudhury, author of Arzee the Dwarf, these stories are drawn from all parts of India and belong to various periods in time. There are 13 stories, 3 each from the North, South, East and West and one from the North-East. Amazingly, eight of the stories are translations from various Indian languages. In editor Choudhury’s own words, “many of the riches of Indian literature are lying invisible in the shadows, waiting for a translation that will release their rhythms and energies into the world.” In his preface, Choudhury tells us that he hopes to arouse in his readers “the desire for a more sustained encounter with writers whose work is every bit as good as their better-known counterparts in English.”

I liked all 13 stories, except one, a lot and the one I didn’t like as much as the other 12 (“The Whale” by Nazir Mansuri), was also pretty good. It speaks volumes of Choudhury’s familiarity with the Indian literary landscape to be able to select such a terrific mix of short stories which span across genres and tastes.

The stories are meant to present India, region by region. And all of them do, some more than others. Salman Rushdie’s “The Prophet’s Hair” is one of the few which does it to a lesser extent. Set in Srinagar, against the backdrop of the 1963 incident when the famous relic (the Prophet’s hair) housed within the Hazratbal Mosque went missing, “The Prophet’s Hair” has Rushdie’s magic realism stamped all over it. An amazing story which will make you wonder if there is any limit to Rushdie’s vivid imagination, “The Prophet’s Hair” is so well written with all of Rushdie’s customary flair that despite the setting in Srinagar and the obvious Kashmiri characters, one doesn’t get more than a faint whiff of Kashmir.

On the other hands, Mamang Dai’s “The Scent of Orange Blossom” makes one feel one is in Arunachal Pradesh, where women enjoy rights and a status in society practically unknown in most of India. Nenen, a woman and the lead protagonist, is not just being treated equally by everyone around her, including her shy husband Kao, but also treats herself well. When Nenen says “tonight I will see everyone well fed and happy” you know that Nenem is a capable woman able to do exactly what she says. There are references to a previous partner David invoking sadness and nostalgia, but not stigma. When Nenen thinks “Together they would raise a family, guard their land and live among their people, observing the ancient customs of their clan. Surely these were enough gits for one lifetime”, one can’t help but feel very happy for Nenen and Kao.

The idea of a woman having her own way is looked at from a different angle in Anjum Hasan’s “Eye in the Sky”. Dawn decides to take a coach to Goa on an impulse. She is pursued by a man who was the same coach, but Dawn doesn’t panic. In fact, she lets him get a little bit close and hold her hands till she decides to chase him away, with help from two other (middle-aged) men. The story ends on a delicious note, in a restaurant with Dawn and the male helpers having a good laugh over fresh fish and booze, leaving a number of possibilities open

Some of the stories are set in the past. “The Sound of Falling Leaves” by the late Qurratulain Hyder is set in Delhi and Lahore just before and after Partition and it beautifully captures the values of those times. A beautiful woman has an affair with an army man and he beats her up often. The man’s right to beat his woman is taken for granted, not just by the man and woman, but even by the narrator in a manner that tells the reader that those were the values that prevailed then and there’s no point wringing one’s hands over it now.

Some stories, like Kunal Basu’s “The Accountant” go even further back. In this marvellous story, we are transported to the days of Shah Jahan when the Taj was being built.

None of these stories appear to have been written specifically for these collection. Rather they have all been reproduced with permission. Some are extracts from previously published novels. For example, Mumbai is presented with all its grime, crime, grit, enterprise and glory in full bloom through Vikram Chandra’s “Ganesh Gaitonde Sells His Gold”, an extract from his “Sacred Games”, a novel that needs very little introduction.

Village life is admirably captured in a number of stories. “Asura Pond” by the late Fakir Mohan Senapati describes a village pond. There is no plot or twists or turns, just a vivid description of the pond and the people whose lives revolve around it. The late Panishwarnath Renu’s “Panchlight” describes a single event, the purchase of a Petromax lantern by a low caste community, the Mahtos, in a village. The community has ostracised one Godhan, for having sung paens to Gulri’s daughter Munri. It turns out that only Godhan can operate the Petromax lantern. Should the community get help from an outsider or should it take Godhan back into its fold? What could be the lesser insult? How does Munri feel about Godhan? Do read this story for yourself and find out. It’s worth it, I promise you.

Hectic city life in Calcutta (sic) is recorded in all its hustle and bustle in the late Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay’s “Canvasser Krishnalal”. Translated by Phyllis Granoff, “Canvasser Krishnalal” is different from most other stories in this collection in that, in addition to presenting Kolkata with all its crowds, atmosphere and dirt intact, it has a plot and a surprise ending. City life is also favourably contrasted with village life, which is shorn of all romantic halos.

An exploration of India is incomplete without a train journey. Jayant Kaikini’s “Dots and Lines” does just that for the reader. The story of a beautiful friendship that develops between two young men travelling together, it is a gentle reminder that sometimes life can be as simple and uncomplicated as two male friends holding hands, a common-enough sight in India.

I found all the stories except one to be very realistic. “The Whale” by Nazir Mansuri has, to use the editor’s description, an “undertow of seething sexuality”. There’s Lakham, in his mid-twenties, half-Portuguese, very well-built and blond and Rani in her late thirties with a full figure and ebony complexion. Rani’s husband has been missing for many years – either dead or living in Africa with another woman. Lakham is in the business of killing whales and I didn’t really find the descriptions of the whale hunts to be very realistic. Nevertheless “The Whale” is very well written and I’m sure it will be enjoyed by many.

Each of the 13 stories carries an introduction by Editor Choudhury. Never more than half a page, in some cases even less, these introductions are a superb display of fine writing combined with astute knowledge of the subject matter. When introducing Senapati’s “Asura Pond”, Choudhury tells us that it is “sly and salty and wheedling, nipping here at the hypocrisy of village social life, there at the greed of British colonialism, Senapati’s prose here illuminates the village pond (to this day often the source of water for domestic use in rural India) as a space where all the currents of village life, from myth to gossip, fishing to bathing, the worldly and the divine, come together.”

Choudhury also confidently tells us, as part of his introductions, that Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay is arguably the greatest of Indian short-story writers, that Nazir Mansuri is one of the best of contemporary Gujarati writers and that Gita Hariharan is one of India’s most distinctive practitioners of fiction in English. One may or may not agree with these assertions, but one is left in no doubt that Choudhury is very comfortable occupying the editor’s chair.

A superb read, one that should be found in every Indian book-lover's shelf.


Anonymous said...

I think your idea of good writing is pretty much off the track if you expect realism where none is required. In Mansuri's story, what was important was not how they killed the whales. If it was, PETA would also have received mentioned. No, that's not it. It's the tribulations of the characters that matter more to the author - and any author for that matter.

You have some learning to do where reading literary works is concerned.

Winnowed said...

I did not say that Mansuri's story isn't literary. It is. it is also well-written. It isn't realistic and yes, this is a story where realism is needed. Mansuri makes a whale hunt by a lone fisherman with rudimentary equipment sound so very easy and simple.