Keeping it short

Keeping it short

literary talk

Keeping it short

Short stories don’t have a market. If you want to be published, try writing a novel,” used to be the standard response from Indian publishers of English fiction for a very long time. Things changed only when Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer at the turn of the century for her first collection of short fiction, The Interpreter of Maladies. Just like the Indian novel in English acquired a new respectability, not to say marketability, with all the hype regarding the huge advance Arundhati Roy commanded for The God of Small Things and the cult status that was bestowed on the work after it bagged the Booker; Lahiri’s triumph changed market dynamics pertaining to short stories. Lahiri may be an American, but her Bengali roots and the Indian characters who navigate their existential dilemmas in her stories were enough to make the book an instant bestseller in the country of her parent’s birth.

There had been an earlier success. Vikram Chandra had put together a brilliant collection on love and longing in Bombay that won the Commonwealth prize in the late 90s. That achievement too contributed to some interest in the Chekhovian form and garnered much needed hope for the writers who preferred the shorter version to the novel. But, after the initial euphoria died down, Chandra’s masterly storytelling never got the due it deserved.

After Chandra and Lahiri, it was the turn of Lavanya Sankaran with her compilation of eight gems on Bangalore. The Red Carpet entered the book stores in the middle of the last decade, riding on the acclaim of well-known critics from the West where it was first published. That it had also commanded a sizeable advance added to the rediscovered allure of short stories.

Not that the short story was absent from Indian writing in English before Chandra, Lahiri and Shankaran’s collections came out. Ruskin Bond, the writer we all grew up reading in high school and have now passed on as a legacy to our children, has always favoured the shorter form. He continues to be as prolific as ever. The jury is still out debating whether Malgudi Days by R K Narayan is a collection of short stories or can be identified as a novel about Malgudi in modern parlance. Shashi Deshpande, another of the pioneering literary writers, has retained her fondness for the medium, despite an enviable output of novels. Her publishers have periodically brought out  collections of her well regarded short stories.

The late poet Kamala Das also crafted short fiction around her pet themes of sensuality and sexuality that found ready takers. But the unstated dictum always had been, if a writer wanted to get an anthology of short stories published, a critically acclaimed novel should have preceded that work. The respectability of being a novelist had to come before the aspiration of getting the shorter tales published.

Nothing surprising about that. The short story has always been something of a laggard. It took its time to evolve as a literary form and few are aware that it is only a few decades older than cinema. The origin of the abbreviated fables of course lies in the oral tradition that flows from time memorial, but it wasn’t until the phenomenon of middle class literacy in the 19th century and the corresponding patronage of the magazine culture, that the shorter form of fiction became accepted as a literary device in England. Writers were quick to appreciate the speedy publication and instant fan following that the new form guaranteed and quickly jumped on the bandwagon.     

If we go by the history of English literature, the first piece of short fiction that can lay its claim to be the precursor of its modern avatar has to be Walter Scott’s The Two Drovers that was published as late as 1827. Its influence spread to France, Russia and America, but back home in England, writers remained ambivalent. It was the novel that continued to have them in its spell. It was left to Robert Louis Stevenson, some six decades after the short story had made its debut, to make the form popular again in England.

Tracing the roots

The initial shunning of the shorter form of storytelling in its birthplace may have contributed to the misconception that the origin of the short story lies in the American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tale, although it came a good 10 years after Scott’s story got published in Chronicles of the Canongate. Hawthorne found a ready supporter in Edgar Allen Poe, the American writer and critic whose dark tales continue to haunt us hundreds of years after they were written. Poe not only decided to carry forward Hawthorne’s legacy but also attempted one of the first explanation around how the short story differs from its longer literary counterpart. He surmised the distinction lay in the reading of it, as the reader could finish a short story in a single sitting unlike a novel that demanded a lot more of time.

There may be confusion about which country pioneered this form, but there is no debate regarding the period when the short story became a literary force to reckon with. The end of the 19th century saw some of the finest practitioners honing the craft to weave immortal tales that could be contained within a manageable length. George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Balzac, Pushkin, Turgenev, Cooper... they were all getting preoccupied with the concise form made available to them to tell their stories and they in turn influenced a new generation of writers like Flaubert, Maupassant, O’Henry, Melville, etc., who were waking up to their mastery over the shorter version of storytelling.

Coincidentally, India was also discovering some of the best short story writers of all times during this period. There was Rabindranath Tagore and his poignant Kabuliwala among many others in Bengali. There was Premchand displaying his awesome mastery with his repertoire of 300-odd short stories in Hindi, apart from the novels he wrote. There was the venerable genius Maasti Venkatesh Iyengar in Kannada, whose stories have stayed with us years after they were written to help us negotiate the tricky terrains of life. It was as if every language and every culture of this diverse nation found its own genius storyteller to cater to this form.

Towering over all these national and international masters was one overriding influence whose contribution to the form and structure of short story has been acknowledged by writers and academics spanning across different generations. Anton Chekhov, the Russian doctor, may have professed medicine to be his wife and literature to be his mistress, but there is no doubt that it was in his short stories that he found literary sublimation. He started by writing stories for financial gain but gained foresight to understand that if the shorter form had to prevail, it had to discard many of the baggage of its puritan past.

He discarded the moralistic climax that the form had always been weighed down by since its inception, for a more spontaneous stream of consciousness style. Chekhov was of the firm belief that the job of the artist/ writer was to raise questions and not provide answers and solutions. This conviction of his blended well with his signature style to ensure writers who came after him were not bogged down by considerations of good triumphing over evil in one clichéd tale of ethical redemption after another.

It is difficult to imagine the scenario today but there was a time when the short story could make a writer rich in England and America. The publishing boom around magazines ensured those who drove the business were always looking for content and a story by a well-known writer in a journal could make all the difference where the sales of a particular issue was concerned. Saturday Evening Post reportedly paid $4000 to F Scott Fitzgerald to publish a story of his in the 1920s. In the current decade, that’s equivalent of $80,000. Times have changed and not even Lahiri, whose last collection, Unaccustomed Earth, enamoured the judges of a prestigious literary award so much that they handed it over to her without shortlisting any other work, could command such an exorbitant fee for a single story.
 
Wide range

But, of course, there is more to the short story than the economics pertaining to it. It is a highly sophisticated literary form. The craft involved in weaving a compelling short narrative has to take into account multiple factors ranging from clarity of theme to short time frame to limited characters. There was a time when the proverbial twist in the tale towards the end was all important to make the reader gasp in delight or disbelief, but thanks to Chekhov, Joyce and Hemingway, such dramatic flourishes are considered redundant today.

Any short story writer worth his salt knows that over the top endings serve to detract rather than add to the power of storytelling. ‘Less is more’ is a dictum most modern writers resolutely adhere to and this is as relevant to the short story as any other literary form like playwriting or poetry.

It also appears the event and plot based short story has had its day. The modern short fiction, as mentioned earlier, owes its structure to the framework provided by Chekhov. The story itself may escape the trap of a linear, straight forward narrative with a clear beginning, middle and an end, but it has to pack certain crystal clear lucidity in the narrative. Much of what transpires must appear to be internal to the main characters rather than a grand unfolding of any visible outward manifestation of conflicts as well as any signs of their quick fix resolution. In the ‘showing’ of the characters’ lives rather than ‘telling’ of their problems and dilemmas, the narrative gains strength as well as believability. The examples shared below, from the works of reputed Indian writers, testify to the range as well as the depth of the modern short story.

In Lahiri’s ‘Sexy’, that is part of her first compilation of short works, a young and naive American girl, Miranda, knowingly enters into a passionate affair with an attractive and married Indian man whose wife is away visiting her parents. Miranda worships her lover because he is the first man to call her sexy. She tries hard to make the relationship work by making gallant attempts to adapt to Indian ways, only to come crashing down to earth when an 11-year-old informs her that sexy means falling in love with someone you don’t know. It is only towards the end of the story that the reader realises part of the allure of the story lies in the names of the main protagonists. The philandering man is called ‘Dev’, whose opening line to the girl he is attempting to seduce, ‘part of your name is Indian’, is loaded with a certain cultural innuendo. From this obscure reference, are we to conclude the story is a mere retelling of the Krishna-Mira legend? And yet the layered narrative points to so much more that by the end of it the reader is totally with Miranda and the derivation ceases to matter.

Chandra weaves an exquisite saga of star-crossed lovers in ‘Artha’, one of the five spellbinding stories in his compilation, Love and longing in Bombay. That one of the lovers is a Muslim and the other Hindu seems to be as incidental as the fact that they are both men frequenting gay bars and the rocks on the seaside to neck clandestinely. Then one of them makes the mistake of recognising an underworld figure in a party and goes up to the goon to greet him.

The next day he disappears, leaving his distraught lover to embark on a futile search for him. The only thing he can carry with him in his quest are the words of a wrestler echoing in his ears, ‘sharir ek rang ka,’ that translates as ‘an uniform well toned body’. He fails to locate his paramour but comprehends that the words uttered by the wrestling coach of his lover can only mean the absence in his heart. In one deft stroke, the writer takes the narrative beyond the constraints of a trite and tragic love story and elevates it to a commentary on a city mourning the loss of its secular ethos after what happened in India’s throbbing metropolis in the 90s.

Sankaran adroitly brings all the contradictions of new and old Bangalore by setting one of her stories in the babble and bluster of the Ulsoor neighbourhood where archaic pastel pink houses stand cheek by jowl alongside newly-constructed designer multiplexes. The two main characters, a busybody Mr D’Costa from Old Bangalore, and the young mother-to-be, Rohini Kapur, from new Bangalore, despite living in the same locality may as well be inhabiting different planets. All of D’Costa’s attempts to penetrate the alien territory come to nought as Kapur’s world remains tantalisingly out of reach for him behind those enigmatic ‘Closed Curtains.’

Not that Lahiri, Chandra and Sankaran serve as the only reference for the modern short story in English by Indian writers. In the last few years, many more noteworthy talents have emerged. Kunal Basu weaved an intricate leitmotif of cross cultural yearnings in The Japanese Wife.  The work has been adapted into a film by Aparna Sen that many regard as her best.

There have been two startlingly original and utterly captivating compilations by debutant writers — Next Door by Jahnavi Barua and If it is Sweet by Mridula Koshy. Indian American writer Rahul Mehta’s Quarantine is a collection of quaint queer stories that skilfully evade all the homo erotic clichés one would expect from such a collection. But clearly, the one voice that towers over the rest by an exploration of a grimier subaltern India belongs to the cunning genius, Palash Krishna Mehrotra.

The 15 pithy stories in his collection, Eunuch Park, are stunningly subversive. It won’t be wrong to say they are in the same league as some of the masterpieces created by Hubert Selby Jr and J D Salinger in an earlier era. Mehrotra toys with his readers, engaging them with his quaint style one moment, and devastating them with strange but believable plot twists in the next. All the time garnishing his tales with dollops of wicked humour.

The born-again form is also seeing a resurgence, thanks to the various anthologies that contain stories by different writers. Everyone appears to be having a shot at short fiction, from the more serious writers to doctors to actors to management professionals. Any shared space can give birth to a set of stories around it, right from a university campus to urban spaces to those aiming for a literary companion in their India travels. There is a compilation out there to please every reading palate. Not to mention a competition to lure every aspiring first time author longing to see his work in print. 

The publishers are no longer saying that there is no market for the short story. They can’t afford to anymore.

Story time

quest are the words of a wrestler echoing in his ears, ‘sharir ek rang ka’. He fails to locate his paramour but comprehends that the words uttered by the wrestling coach of his lover can only mean the absence in his heart. In one deft stroke, the writer takes the narrative beyond the constraints of a trite and tragic love story and elevates it to a commentary on a city mourning the loss of its secular ethos after what happened in India’s throbbing metropolis in the 90s.

Sankaran adroitly brings all the contradictions of new and old Bangalore by setting one of her stories in the babble and bluster of the Ulsoor neighbourhood. The two main characters, a busybody Mr D’Costa from Old Bangalore, and the young mother-to-be, Rohini Kapur, from new Bangalore, despite living in the same locality may as well be inhabiting different planets. All of D’Costa’s attempts to penetrate the alien territory come to nought as Kapur’s world remains tantalisingly out of reach for him behind those enigmatic‘ClosedCurtains.’   

Not that Lahiri, Chandra and Sankaran serve as the only reference for the modern short story in English by Indian writers. In the last few years, many more noteworthy talents have emerged. Kunal Basu weaved an intricate leitmotif of cross cultural yearnings in The Japanese Wife.

There have been two startlingly original and utterly captivating compilations by debutant writers — Next Door by Jahnavi Barua and If it is Sweet by Mridula Koshy. Indian American writer Rahul Mehta’s Quarantine is a collection of quaint stories that skilfully evade all the homo erotic clichés one would expect from such a collection. But clearly, the one voice that towers over the rest by an exploration of a grimier subaltern India belongs to the cunning genius, Palash Krishna Mehrotra.

The 15 pithy stories in his collection, Eunuch Park, are stunningly subversive. It won’t be wrong to say they are in the same league as some of the masterpieces created by Hubert Selby Jr and J D Salinger. Mehrotra toys with his readers, engaging them with his quaint style one moment, and devastating them with strange but believable plot twists in the next. All the time garnishing his tales with dollops of wicked humour.

The born-again form is also seeing a resurgence, thanks to the various anthologies that contain stories by different writers. Everyone appears to be having a shot at short fiction, from the more serious writers to doctors to actors to management professionals.

Any shared space can give birth to a set of stories around it, right from a university campus to urban spaces to those aiming for a literary companion in their India travels. There is a compilation out there to please every reading palate. Not to mention a competition to lure every aspiring first time author longing to see his work in print.

The publishers are no longer saying that there is no market for the short story. They can’t afford to anymore.

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