What might it be like to encounter a country and its landscape not through a travel guide, or a book tied to facts, but through the eyes and the imaginative universe of its greatest storytellers?
India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion is just such a book: a celebration of not only the centrality of place and landscape to the making of literature, but also of the enormously diverse world of Indian storytelling. Here are more than a dozen stories by Indian writers, each one set in a different part of the country, that are strongly marked by a feel not just for characters and narrative, but also for place. Collectively, they provide a sense of the country that will delight both the wandering traveller and the armchair one.
See Kashmir’s fabled vistas through the eyes of Salman Rushdie, as he takes you to the scene of a stricken household and a grand theft in Srinagar. Go back four centuries in time to the Taj Mahal with Kunal Basu, as the humble accountant of his story becomes, in a past incarnation, the architect of one of the world’s most resplendent monuments. Enter; with Vikram Chandra, the secret vortexes of power in Mumbai, where a small-time thug fences some gold bars he has stolen and then decides to find out what pleasures his money can buy.
Journey with Krishnalal, Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay’s silver-tongued salesman of medicated oil, as he goes up and down the trains around Kolkata, the city he loves. Sit down with Fakir Mohan Senapati by the village pond, a source of water, news and Both the riches of Indian writing in English and Indian writing in translation are given their place in this anthology, put together by Chandrahas Choudhury, one of the country’s best young writers and literary critics.
Both the Riches of Indian writing in English and Indian writing in translation are given their place in this anthology, put together by Chandrahas Choudhury, one of the country's best young writers and literary critics. Supported by an essay on Indian literatue by the eidtor and a foreword by the novelist Anita, Desai, India: a Traveller's Literary Companion is not just the crystallization of a theme, but also an idead short introduction to modern Indian fiction.
Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist and literary critic based in Mumbai. He is the author of the critically acclaimed noverl Arzee the Dwarf (Harper Collins, 2009), which was shortlisted for the Commonwelth First Book Award and named by Time Out as one of its best books of 2009. He is also the book critic of the Saturday newspaper Mint Lounge, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the Sunday Telegraph, the Observer, Foreign Policy and Pratlipi.
The premise for this collection is both curious and original. The fiction brought together between the covers of this book has been charged with presenting geographical location. This is generally the purpose of “travel writing” and it is to that, or to “nature writing,” that we turn when we want landscape—or any space— -made visible to us. Fiction may do this but not necessarily. Instead of landscape, it is characters, their speech, thoughts, and actions that take precedence, the landscape providing a backdrop like a set in the theatre. Rarely does the set engage us above the sounds and actions produced by the figures on stage. Rather, it provides us with suggestions regarding the background of the characters and their actions. And in theatre it can even be dispensed with altogether and the play may still produce the required effect if the script and the actors are powerful and evocative enough.
So it is, too, in fiction. There are stories in which background is a powerful presence in itself, even an inextricable part of the narrative, and there are stories that dispense with it in favor of the other elements of story.
But here we have a collection of stories that will present, we are told, audaciously: India. So the reader is turned into a traveler, and the book being read into a “companion.” Do these stories fulfill this goal? When the subject is India, one would think such an enterprise is so daunting as to appear almost impossible, for India is not only a country made up of so many different ecosystems—easy enough to convey—but of so many languages, each with its own tone and rhythm, so many flavors, so many religious and cultural specificities, that to impose any coherence or convergence upon them is somehow to falsify them.
Fortunately, the writers of these stories were given no such intimidating instructions. They were all writing the short stories and novels that they wished to write, the ones that grew out of their own experiences and perceptions of their worlds. So their spontaneity is intact—very important, this—and they do not convey any impression that the writers labored to produce a portrait of a certain geographical area. Instead, they engage with characters, their speech and actions, just as any writer of fiction does; and the geographical area, along with its social, linguistic, and cultural distinctions, evolves naturally out of the narrative.
‘The stories are categorized according to the regions in which they are set, regions which share some broad commonalities—the north, the south, the east, and west, and India’s often-neglected northeast—and, in presenting the lives lived in these areas in all their disorderly, discordant, irrepressible variety, also initiate the reader into an appreciation of both nature and culture in their many Indian forms.
In the stories we have from the north, 0_urratulain Hyder writes of the social snobberies created by a shifting social structure in an urban environment where everyone is trying to outdo the others, and Kunal Basu portrays an office worker who creates for himself a richer world of his imagination. From the east we have two stories that are set in a world so rural and isolated as to seem to belong to the remote past, but a third, by Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, is filled with the hustle-bustle of urban lives. In the northeast, the characters created by Mamang Dai have a more spacious natural world in which to breathe, and the landscape is a presence in itself. From the west, we have one story that is rich with the labour and the hazards of the sea and seafarers’ lives, another that presents the seaside as a pleasure resort for idle lives, and a third tale that is harsh with the melodrama of criminal acts and criminal minds. Ihe south too yields stories with totally different moods and intentions: one a kind of picaresque, another portrait of a very traditional society, and a third of a misfit and outsider to all tradition.
Composed at different times over the last hundred years and teeming with the kind of local detail that is the mark of a sensibility that loves a city, a village, a landscape, and sees in it the whole world, these stories by diverse hands are a kaleidoscope of the traditional and modern, the urban and the rural, the wealthy and the impoverished—a revealing glimpse into the many India’s encompassed by that fathomless word “India.”
Much of the pleasure of storytelling comes from all that is left unsaid—from the things for which we readers are given a direction, but not an end. So too, so much of what we feel for the world of a story derives from the flavour of the local—from a turn of phrase, a glimpse of a patch of earth, a memorable detail, that is absolutely specific to the worldview of a particular character or culture.
When, for instance, Chandrakant, the youth leaving his village for the first time in Jayant Kaikini’s story “Dots and Lines,” feels the wind on his face on the train to Bombay and imagines that the same wind “had just blown the tarpaulin off the night-halting bus on the banks of the Gangavati before reaching this place,” this image makes us see Chandrakant in two places at the same time. Not only does the idea of the wind from home catching up with the train going away from home encapsulate Chandrakant’s longing for what he has left behind, the specificity of the image of “the tarpaulin of the night-halting bus” being ruffled by that wind registers very strongly on our own imaginations: it is one of those flares of detail that make fiction burn brighter than other kinds of prose writing.
Similarly, in Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay’s “Canvasser Krishnalal,” we are told of Krishnalal, the itinerant seller of medicated oil, that “he would ply like a weaver’s shuttle, from Shiyalda to Barasat, from Barasat to Shiyalda.”‘This detail not only makes Krishnalal seem like a mechanized object himself, operating upon the world with the same regularity and constancy as that of a season or the trains, it also suggests the man’s jaunty temperament—it might be a metaphor thought of by Krishnalal himself. We understand, from such details, why Eudora Welty thought that while fiction’s reach, its themes, were universal, the power of a story was “all bound up in the local.”
This anthology brings to you a basket of such stories, plucked out of the gardens of literature from India’s many languages: works that are intended to bring you closer to the Indian landscape and the Indian imagination in all its variety, even as you enjoy the universal pleasures of storytelling. About half the stories here were written in English, and the other half are translations, each from a different Indian language. Indeed, the most striking feature of Indian literature when seen as a whole—a source of its strength and variety, but also of the difficulty in navigating it—is that it is multilingual to a degree not matched by any other national literature in the world.
Even if we exclude classical languages and contemporary dialects, we find ourselves before a field divided up among at least two dozen languages. As with any other language, each one of these languages represents not only a particular matrix of sounds and grammatical structures but also a distinct imaginative universe, with its own myths and beliefs, its own social structures, Its own view of history and time.
Thus we arrive at the paradox: because of its profusion of languages, most of Indian literature is a foreign country even for Indian readers, who at their best can be no more than trilingual or quadrilingual. I myself speak English, Hindi—which is the closest that India has to a “national” language—and my mother tongue Oriya, and, I am ashamed to admit, can only read and write in the first two, although I can sing you a number of devotional songs in the third.
Unsurprisingly, as English is the language of university education and also the favored language of the Indian elite, a link language between people whose first languages are different from each other, and also the language that links India to the world, it is Indian writing in English—a realm in which much exciting work is being done—that receives the most attention both at home and around the world. Another factor inhibiting the appreciation of the literature from other Indian languages has been the paucity of good translations into English. ‘These are the conditions that led Selman Rushdie and Elizabeth West to controversially declare, in their 1997 anthology Mirror— work: 50 Years of Indian Writing 1947-1997, that “the prose writing. . . created in this period by Indian writers working in English, is proving to be a stronger and more important body of work that most of what has been produced in the i6 ‘official languages’ of India,” and that “Indo-Anglican’ literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution India has yet made to the world of hooks”
This is a contention—as I hope this book will demonstrate—that is being disproved rapidly. But the point remains: 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. It is my hope that some of the stories in this volume showcase the best of what is currently available of Indian fiction in English translation, and arouse in you, the reader interested in India, the desire for a more sustained encounter with writers whose work is every bit as good as their better-known counterparts who compose in English.
As with other anthologies in this series, the stories here are arranged on a geographical basis, almost laid out on a map. Each of the five regions in which I have divided the country could potentially have been the subject of an individual book, but here I have limited them to two or three stories each. ‘Where the stories are set in a specific city or town, those have been named; otherwise the general region or state in which the story is set has been provided. I have tried to make sure that the book gives a sense of the different realities of urban, small-town, and rural India, from the world of upper-class Delhi represented in Qurratulain Hyder’s “The Sound of Falling Leaves” to the village people gossiping and squabbling by the pond in Fakir Mohan Senapati’s “Asura Pond.”‘ The stories also gesture at the diverse primary allegiances of Indian people, whether it is to the city (Bandhopadhyay’s Krishnalal), the guild (Nazir Mansuri’s fisherman, Lakham Patari), caste (Phanishwarnath Renu’s villagers), or the tribe (Mamang Dai’s heroine, Nenem). ‘The works brought together here are both old and new: the early east was first published in 1902, while the ink is still not dry on the most recent one. Some of the writers here are legendary figures known to, even if not always read by, readers all over India; others represent the new generation, and are slowly making a reputation for themselves. I have made some notes on aspects of their craft and style in the individual introductions to the stories.
Not the least of the pleasures of the stories brought together here is that, while rooted in a particular world, they often hum with the stirrings of distant worlds that have made India such a diverse and fecund civilization. ‘The architect of the Taj Mahal in Kunal Basu’s “The Accountant” looks at an architectural plan “drawn not simply from Hindustan but from Isphafan and Constantinople, Kabul and Samarkand—from the whole world.” In Nazir Mansuri’s “The Whale,” a trader in a port village on the west coast of India ferries “lime, dates, onions, and garlic to Basra, Iran, and Africa” till one day he never returns. Now these stories, too, go out into the world— many of them are being published outside India for the first time—and it is my hope that wherever they go, they will provide the same pleasure that they have given at home.
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