Of tales untold

This compilation put together by Suresh Kohli is an interesting mix of short stories translated from various Indian languages. In his introduction, apart from stating his selection process, Kohli describes the short story as an “ever-pregnant maiden, whose offspring could be found in various regions, learning and unlearning the idiom in Indian languages”.

Each story here is representational of the cultural milieu of its location and so the reader gets a varied insight, as she turns the pages of this book. Even though the stories are purportedly short, the authors manage to pack in a wealth of ideas. For instance, in “Mritunjay”, which has the backdrop of a revolution, there is mention of the plight of an educated man “to be akin to that of a white cow” because “he had to bear on his head the burden of many of the sins of uneducated society”. The Malayalam story, “A Narrow Place”, deals with the impact of the first encounter with death, on a young boy.

Whilst one Bengali tale, “Burnt Turmeric” brings out the superstitious beliefs in a village society, another, “Farewell”, touchingly unravels the triumphing of humanity over suspicion, even though it ends most tragically. As the story unfolds, a Hindu and a Muslim, who are caught in the midst of communal riots, bond as they share stories of their lives and fears.

“Caretaker”, the Dogri story by Padma Sachdev, could certainly be a woman’s pick. It instinctively unveils the fears and insecurities of a soutan or second wife, and finally reveals her strength of character in her acceptance. “The Bed of Arrows”, an Oriya tale, seems to apply the stream of consciousness approach, as an ailing wife ruminates about her husband and his many betrayals, as she sinks deeper and deeper into the morass of her failing health. Male-female dynamics are also intuitively dealt with in stories like “Neither Song nor Fiction”, “Come Rain, Come Sunshine” and “Values Realised.”

The poignancy is telling in “Values Realised”, when the story ends with the wife’s concluding, “Not now, even after hundreds of years, would there be any change in the nature of the relationship between a man and a woman and the delicate difference that lies between their attitudes to each other.”

The compilation is not lacking for humour, as Manohar Malgaonkar’s, “A Pinch of Snuff” takes a pot-shot at the hypocrisy and pomposity of those in power. The Kashmiri tale, “A Cock-Fight” by Amin Kamil, is also full of tongue-in-cheek humour, as two neighbours compete with each other over their acquisitions — a rooster in each home! Those who have undergone driving lessons in overcrowded cities, with a reckless teacher to boot, will undoubtedly identify with the Tamil story, “Happy New Gear”.

Bhisham Sahni’s, “The Boss Came to Dinner” deals with kowtowing to one’s boss but is heartbreaking in its irony and pathos, about the way in which an old parent is ordered around.

But the pick of the selection would be its only autobiographical one. “Green Sari” by R K Narayan is the longest piece and touches upon many aspects of this author’s life. Starting from the way he goes about choosing his bride (defying astrological portents), to his financial constraints as a freelance writer before he makes it big in the writing arena, Narayan’s anecdotes can only inspire. Wonder though if today’s readers will identify with Narayan’s dignified and Gandhi-like stance of “how I spurned the idea of earning more than was needed”.

Narayan writes about his freelance reporter days with a great deal of humour, as when his most eloquent descriptions are “compressed into two lines” by the Editor! It is interesting to learn about how his novels, starting with Swami and Friends, found publishers in the United Kingdom.

The involvement of the Nobel Laureate, Graham Greene, in recommending Narayan’s books, cannot be discounted. Narayan brought in a feminist angle when dealing with Savitri, his protagonist in The Dark Room, and speaks of man being her “constant oppressor”. He writes, “Man assigned her a secondary place and kept her there with such subtlety and cunning that she herself began to lose all notions of her independence, individuality, stature and strength.”

The fascinating insights provided by this compilation have as much to do with the versatility of the featured authors as they are to do with their cultural rootedness. Kohli is to be applauded for his selection. Some of the stories could have benefited from a little more careful editing, though it does not in any way detract from their essence. With the resurgence of the short story as a literary form, this compilation could open up vistas for readers both within and without the country.

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