One ought to be very suspicious of a title that screams The Best Asian Short Stories. While “best” is presumptuous, “Asian” is too ambitious. While “best” is open to debate in all contexts, what is “Asian” anyway? Asia is so big that none of the authors’ names except the ones like Shashi Deshpande might ring a bell for Indian readers. The stories come from Singapore, India, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan and several other locations. The collection is quite a challenge to make sense of.
So one could begin with an assurance that India is taken care of because the Indian numbers will resonate with Indian readers and the way they live. The bits about Partition, Sindhi diaspora, Kashmir, South-North divide, poverty, or domestic violence are nicely ticked off. But the stories are not categorised. So, these Indian points of connections come and go on a diverse landscape. The heart goes out to these foreign, unfamiliar sites — men working as rope engineers washing tall buildings, students smuggling match boxes to make an extra buck for their education, riders working at night delivering burgers and going to far off places to get petrol at a cheaper rate, women starving to become air hostesses.
Misery and deprivation haunt most locales. What binds most of these pieces is a take on life. One says that “life is like walking on a tightrope.” Another says, “Life is not neat. It goes wherever it wants to go, dragging you with it, like the owner on the other end of a dog leash.” Or that “life went on regardless of how you felt about it.” As another character puts it, “Stories seldom end with full stops, as they do in books. In life, they end with commas.”
One character says, “Being poor is a curse. I am not willing to be a mere spoke in the wheel of civilisation pedalling to the pleasures of the others.” While the statement could come from anywhere, it is not too difficult to imagine that the pleasure being talked about here is what the West parades as freedom, choice and luxury. One student aspires to see the world and have a good time.
One story says, “When away from modernity, get creative.” Asia is that creativity. For all its tolerance and acceptance of McDonalds, it lives in situations where there is no toothpaste! A student tells another: “you change your lifeline with your headline.” These Asian situations reiterate that “creative thinking and hard work cannot be wrong.”
Several stories in the volume deal with education as a gateway to a better life and a greater sense of freedom and achievement. ‘Big Mother’, ‘Chitrangada’, ‘Ladybugs Fly from the Top’ and ‘Damp Matches’ develop different situations and achievements around what education can do for the poor and the powerless.
Love is caught up between this race for survival and greed for more. The rich guy who has a “trophy wife” knows it is not his personality that she loves and the mechanic has promised himself that he would clarify at the outset if his relationship that he doesn’t have any money so that she loves only him.
Then there are glimpses of multicultural contacts in a few stories. An Indian from Taiwan meets a Chinese woman born in India. An Indian mother visits her son in Japan and her interactions with the Japanese amuse him. A Pakistani couple is horrified that their son has married a white, older divorcee mother. During their stay in the US, they befriend an Indian Sikh couple settled there.
But who is an Asian anyway? A migrant stuck between two neighbouring countries says, “I’m nobody. I belong nowhere. I’m everybody. I belong everywhere.” While the situations and characters in this volume could be from anywhere, the specificity of Asian history and geography hover over the stories. A boy drowns to death on his way to England, a garment factory collapses in Bangladesh, Indo-Bangladesh border issues, the handing over of Hong Kong to China or the presence of Australian army in Malaysia to fight against communism colour the way Asians face their environment.
A six-year-old girl nibbles at her dead mother’s flesh. As an adult, she advises her niece, “We ran away once, and we will run again. There’s no shame in escape. We have to do what we can, to preserve ourselves.” This attitude redeems the anthology at hand. Most of the stories depict these situations that must be escaped from. The ambitious title The Best Asian Short Stories survives scepticism and the collection becomes a convincing project.