Twenty classic short stories from master writers across the country.
This superb collection contains some of the best Indian short stories written in the last fifty
years, both in English and in the regional language. Some of these stories – ‘We Have Arrived in
Amritsar’ by Bhisham Sahni, ‘Companions’ by Raja Rao, ‘The Sky and the Cat’ by U.R. Anantha
Murthy, ‘A Devoted Son’ by Anita Desai – have been widely anthologized and well known. Others,
like Premendra Mitra’s ‘The Discovery of Telenapota’, Gangadhar Gadgil’s ‘The Dog that Ran in
Circles’, Mowni’s ‘A Loss of Identity’, O.V. Vijayan’s ‘The Wart’ and Devanurn Mahadeva’s Amasa’,
are less familiar to readers but are nevertheless classics of the art of the short story.
This new and revised edition includes three additional classics: R.K. Narayan’s ‘Another
Community’, Avinash Dolas’s ‘The Victim and Ismat Chughtai’s ‘The Wedding Shroud’.
The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Short Stories is a marvellous and entertaining introduction to
the rich diversity of pleasure that the Indian short story – a form that has produced masters in
over a dozen languages – can offer.
Twelve years have passed since the first edition of The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Short
Stories was published; long enough for the selected stories t0 withstand the test of time. This
new edition adds three important authors who were not included in the original table of contents:
Ismat Chughtai, Avinash Dolas and R.K. Narayan.
The primary objective of this anthology is to offer some of the best examples of Indian short
stories written in the last fifty years. It should be admitted that not all of these stories are
the most contemporary examples of Indian fiction. Some were written several decades ago and one or
two are now considered ‘classics’. Younger writers certainly need to be translated and collected
but the purpose of this anthology is to present a general selection of writers, old and new. To
anyone who is familiar with modern Indian literature, the three most glaring e omissions g` would
be Rabindranath e Tagore, Premchand and Saadat Hasan Manto. We have chosen not to include their
works because they have been widely published and would seem to represent a distinctly separate
generation from the authors in this collection. These e twenty writers were all born within this
century and the bulk of their work comes from the period following
Independence. Though several of these stories have been anthologized before, to the best of our
knowledge, none have shared the covers of the same book. We chose these stories ` for their
literary merits alone and were gratified to find that the final list of authors reflects a
diversity of languages and regions. Several well known authors have not been included. This is not
because we judge their work inferior but because their strengths may lie in other genres, such as
the novel, or because the existing translations of their stories were unsatisfactory.
The fiftieth anniversary of Independence generated an outpouring of literary analysis and
criticism on the subject of Indian literature. Both at home and abroad a variety of journals
devoted special issues to the subject, compiling lists of ‘promising’ contemporary writers and
making optimistic predictions about the future of fiction in India. It would be fair to say that
more than ever before the subcontinent is enjoying a resurgence of interest in its writing and its
writers. The international success of novelists such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Gita Mehta,
Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy, has led to a renewed focus on Indian prose, even amongst the
generally Eurocentric ranks of multinational publishers.
In the course of the jubilee celebrations, a number of questions arose regarding post—colonial
writing in India. For anyone who has read even a sampling of the literature, most of these are
familiar issues which have been part of literary discourse since 1947. However, with the
perspective of fifty years, these
questions have acquired a contemporary resonance and immediacy. The first question that presents
itself is whether a national identity can be asserted through literature and how various Indian
writers compose their own visions of nationhood. Unlike British authors such as Rudyard Kipling or
E.M. Forster, who had a penchant for Indian exoticism, the challenge for writers of the
subcontinent is to create a known and familiar landscape that does not perpetuate orientalist
imagery and myths. The second question is a persistent one, centered on the issue of language.
Writers invariably select and limit their audience through the language they employ and in India,
more than any other nation; this is a crucial problem, with sixteen major languages from which to
choose. English, first introduced to the subcontinent by colonizers, has been adapted and
assimilated into Indian culture and many writers have succeeded in making it uniquely their own.
At the same time there is an active and ongoing literature in each of the regional languages. The
third question involves the use of fiction as a medium of social protest. In the decades following
1947, as India exercised its independence and established its institutions, a chorus of voices was
raised in opposition to the political and social structures that were created. Just as they had
earlier joined in the protests against British rule, many writers were quick to criticize
political oppression, the existence of widespread poverty, and the exploitation of lower castes,
women and minorities. These three questions are by no means the only important issues relating to
post—colonial literature in India, but they are significant catalysts for debate.
Asserting a national identity
Long before India gained independence from Britain many South Asian writers had already freed
themselves from the shackles of colonialism. It is, of course, absurd to assume that with the
handover of political power at midnight on 15 August 1947, Indian literature also experienced a
synchronous moment of freedom. Writers seldom march in lock—step with the nation and the term
‘post—colonial’ must therefore be flexible enough to include those writers who had the foresight
to anticipate, and in some cases precipitate, the demise of British rule in India. By the same
token, however, it must be recognized that when we speak of post-colonial literature, this does
not automatically imply liberation from all forms of exploitation and oppression. Literature, and
the writers who make it, often labour under a variety of political, social, linguistic and
critical constraints. Simply because a nation is free doesn’t mean that words begin to flow
Yet India’s ‘tryst with destiny’ does have momentous significance for literature. Of the
twentieth century fiction writers who were involved in the Indian freedom struggle, Rabindranath
Tagore is perhaps the best known. His short stories and novels, as well as his poetry and plays,
gained a worldwide audience. After he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 he came to
represent India’s literary voice abroad. Tagore wrote in both Bengali and in English, often
translating his own work. With a prose style full of scriptural cadences, he affected an idyllic
classicism that is often assumed to be a distilled vision of India, informed by an aesthetic
sensibility rooted in upper middle—class Bengali culture.
Early twentieth century writing in India soon gave way to a more restless and politically charged
form of fiction. The Progressive Writers Movement was inspired by a Marxist world view and a
belief in class conflict. Unfortunately these writers were often didactic and only a few of them
were able to turn political rhetoric into genuine literature. In this regard the poets amongst
them were more successful than the fiction writers, though Bhisham Sahni and Ismat Chughtai stand
out as exceptions. Many of the Progressive Writers were involved in the freedom struggle but they
also recognized a further need for revolution throughout Indian society and felt a kinship to
leftist writers around the globe.
Independence also brought with it Partition and the division of India and Pakistan cast a tragic
shadow over the subcontinent. Even as they shared in the elation of their countrymen, many writers
turned their attention to the violence and turmoil that accompanied mass migrations across the
newly demarcated borders in Punjab and Bengal. Sectarian riots, looting, rape and bloodshed
tainted the new-found sense of freedom and stained the fabric of the nation. Saadat Hasan Manto is
the writer most often associated with the literature of Partition. His Urdu short stories
catalogued the horrors of Partition but also searched beneath the surface of this violence,
dredging the murkiest depths of human nature for answers to the bloodshed which occurred in 1947.
Though he died soon after Independence, Manto is clearly one of the first and foremost writers of
the post—colonial generation. In his fiction and in his life he embodied the darkest side of this
experience. As a Muslim, forced to move from Bombay to Karachi and Lahore, he lived as an exile in
Pakistan and died a broken and dispirited man, not unlike some of the characters in his stories.
During the immediate aftermath of Independence many Indian writers felt obliged to define and
articulate a national identity. Literature, like everything else in the country, was seen as a
means towards achieving success as a nation—state. The belief that India was a homogenous culture
led to efforts i at blending the literatures of India into a unified whole. The Sahitya Akademi, a
governmental institution that was established to promote Indian literature, through annual awards,
translations and publications, attempted to bring together India’s regional writers under a common
umbrella of nationhood. l Whereas the politicians were still basking in the afterglow of freedom,
a younger generation of fiction writers in the early fifties began to question many of these
national myths. Hindi writers of the Nayi Kahani (new story) movement veered away from
self-conscious efforts at creating national stereotypes. Inspired, in part, by the writings of
European existentialists, they rejected the misty idealism and rural landscapes of their
predecessors, pursuing the issues of alienation that existed in the rapidly expanding cities of
India. Nayi Kahani writers such as Nirmal Verma carefully dissected the anxieties and ambivalence
of individual identity in the face of anonymity and change.
The authenticity of language
The freedom movement in India, with its slogans of national unity and integration, inspired
proponents of a single national language. Amongst writers and intellectuals in north India efforts
were made to promote the use of Hindi throughout the country. For obvious reasons this met with
widespread and vehement resistance. Hindi itself was an artificial language cobbled together out
of Urdu and colloquial Hindustani, with a generous sprinkling of Sanskrit to give it an aura of
legitimacy. In the northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Hindi
was close enough to local dialects for it to be accepted. But elsewhere in the country,
particularly in Tamil Nadu, there were language riots and vehicles with Hindi licence plates were
burned in protest. Efforts to impose the language throughout India were eventually halted and each
state or region was permitted to retain its own linguistic identity, though Hindi found a
permanent place in the bureaucracies of New Delhi and, most significantly, on All India Radio and
Sixteen major languages are now recognized by the Constitution of India and countless dialects
make for a variegated tapestry of linguistic traditions. Each ‘of these languages has its own body
of literature, not only in fiction, but also in poetry, drama and oral narrative. The challenges
of translation are formidable and English has become, to a large extent, the common medium of
literary exchange. The presence and dominance of the English language obviously poses a problem in
post—colonial discourse, one that has obsessed a number of critics, though it has become something
of a moot point amongst the writers themselves.
The most prolific and probably the best known writer of Indian English is R.K. Narayan, whose
novels portray the quiet, enigmatic life of a town called Malgudi. Most of the characters in his
novels and short stories are small time businessmen, householders and government clerks. With a
gentle but satirical sense of humour he creates fictions of intricate subtlety that appeal to
readers all across India. In many ways, Narayan has created the closest thing to a quintessential
Indian town. Malgudi is a place that everyone will recognize but which nobody can find on a map.
As for his choice of language, Narayan was one of the first Indian writers to claim English as a
language that belonged to the subcontinent. In an essay, ‘English in India: The Process of
Transmutation’, written in 1964, he had the following to say:
English has proved that if a language has flexibility, any experience can be communicated through
it, even if it has to be paraphrased rather than conveyed, and even if the factual detail, as in
the case of the apple pie, is partially understood. In order not to lose the excellence of this
medium, a few writers in India took to writing in English and produced a literature that was
perhaps not first—rate; often the writing seemed imitative, halting, inept, or an awkward
translation of a vernacular rhetoric, mode, or idiom. But occasionally it was brilliant. We are
still experimentalists. I may straightaway explain what we did not attempt to do. We are not
attempting to write Anglo-Saxon English. The English language, through sheer resilience and
mobility, is now undergoing a process of Indianization in the same manner as it adopted US
citizenship over a century ago, with the difference that it is the major language there but here
one of the fifteen.
Several new anthologies have appeared to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Independence but
undoubtedly the most controversial is a book called Mirror work: Fifty Years of Indian Writing,
edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West. This collection, presented as a panorama of
post-colonial fiction, has resurrected the question of language with a table of contents that
includes only one writer whose work was not originally published in English. Saadat Hasan Manto is
the lone exception and though the significance of his work is unquestionable, he remains the only
representative of India’s other’ languages.
One does not have to read between the lines to understand the motives behind these glaring
omissions. In his introduction to Mirrorwork Salman Rushdie makes no - apologies for his choices:
. . . . prose writing-—both fiction and non—fiction—— created in this period by Indian writers
working in English, is I proving to be a stronger and more important body of work than most of
what has been produced in the so called ‘vernacular languages’ during the same time; and, indeed,
this new, and still burgeoning, ‘Indo—Anglian’ literature represents perhaps the most valuable
contribution India has yet made to the world of books.
This pronouncement is clearly intended as a challenge to the critics in India who have attacked
Rushdie and other Indian writers of English for their choice of language. Rushdie goes on to
identify his targets so that there is no confusion in the matter: For some, English—language
Indian writing will never be more than a post—colonial anomaly, the bastard child of • Empire,
sired on India by the departing British; its continuing use of the old colonial tongue is seen as
a fatal flaw that renders it forever inauthentic. ‘Indo-Anglian’ literature evokes, in these
critics, the kind of prejudiced reaction shown by some Indians towards the country’s community of
‘Anglo—Indians’—-that is Eurasians.
The impetuous exclusivity of this anthology is ironic because most of the critics whom Rushdie
seems to be attacking, have very little credibility in India today. The issue of English as a
medium of creative expression was certainly a contentious problem over thirty years ago, when R.K.
Narayan addressed the subject, but most Indian readers now take the language for granted. English
has come to be recognized, thanks in part to Rushdie’s own novels, as a perfectly authentic Indian
language. By striking a defensive and iconoclastic posture, through this collection, the editors
of Mirrorwork have succeeded in raising an all but moribund issue and dignifying a discredited
school of thought with an unnecessary and ill—timed response.
Thankfully, most literary criticism in India has moved forward from the narrow-minded school of
linguistic protectionism. Far more level headed critics have emerged, such as Meenakshi Mukherjee,
one of India’s most articulate and perceptive literary scholars. In an essay titled, ‘In Search of
Critical Strategies’, she discusses the dilemma of Indian writing in English.
If I were to write a novel in Bengali I would not be called an Indian writer in Bengali, but
simply a Bengali novelist, the epithet Bengali referring only to the language and not carrying any
larger burden of culture, tradition or ethos. No one will write a doctoral dissertation on the
Indianness of the Bengali novel. But the issue of Indianness comes up with monotonous frequency in
any discussion of novels written by Indians in English . . . Seeing India as a symbol both in
physical and meta- physical terms comes more naturally to the novelist in English than to the
other novelists who take their India somewhat for granted and often deal with it piecemeal rather
than in its totality. What it means to be an Indian » is not a question that troubles the Marathi
or the Bengali writer overmuch.
The table of contents in this anthology proves that English is certainly not the only literary
language in India. Far from it; and for each of the authors represented here there are probably a
dozen others who have not enjoyed the national and international exposure which translation
Stories of social protest
India has a long history of social upheaval and discontent but during the last fifty years the
subcontinent has experienced greater conflict within society than ever before. The works of many
Indian writers reflect the problems that have led to these conflicts as well as individual and
collective acts of social protest.
In very different ways, these writers call for some kind of
social change. The Progressive Writers Movement of the thirties and forties believed that
literature does not merely mirror society but is an active agency for change. These writers and
their successors were dedicated to the transformation and reconstruction of society. Change in
India, except for the upper middle classes, has been slow in coming. The poor remain poor. Women
continue to face oppression. Untouchables, harijans, dalits or tribals, by whatever name you call
them, are still outcasts within Indian society. Religious, communal and ethnic violence has grown
worse since Partition. Political repression and corruption exists at every level of government.
This is not to say that there has been no progress at all but if we look at some of the
significant events of the past fifty years, whether it be the government’s response to the
Naxalite movement in the mid—sixties or the declaration of the Emergency in the seventies, it
becomes apparent that real change has been thwarted by those in power.
As a genre, short stories are not often associated with social protest. More often it is poetry
and drama that stand behind the literary barricades. However, in the case of many prose writers in
India, fiction does serve as a voice of discontent and provides the same emotional impact of a
protest poem or a play. Prose also offers a descriptive range that allows the writer to fully
communicate the injustices which the story seeks to expose or overthrow. At the same time it would
be naive to say that novels and stories, in and of themselves, have had any measurable social or
political impact in India. For one thing, their readership, amongst the oppressed population, is
limited by barriers of poverty and illiteracy.
The emergence of a number of Dalit writers in different Indian languages, including Devanuru
Mahadeva and Avinash Dolas, represents the narratives of former untouchables and tribal peoples.
That writers such as these should choose fiction as a means of expressing their anger land
aspirations is in itself significant. These stories give voice to the historic inequality and
exploitation of India’s underclass. Though an earlier generation of authors chose i the problem of
caste as the theme of their stories, most were middle—class or upper-caste writers. Their
sentiments may have been well placed but they could never really speak for the people they
described or enter into the community of their characters.
It is also important to point out that, until recently, the majority of post—colonial writers in
India were men. This literary patriarchy wrote about the social problems faced by women such as
dowry, child marriage, or the treatment of widows, but these issues were often couched in
patronizing stories that did not seriously question the inequality of women in Indian society.
Ismat Chughtai was an exception, using satire and humour to expose and criticize social injustices
that were often misunderstood or overlooked by her male contemporaries.
Anita Desai, one of the few Indian women writers to break into print during the 1970s, has made
this point very clearly in an essay on gender in Indian literature.
Although enunciation comes easily enough to Indians, and so does worship, criticism is an acquired
faculty and I Indian women have never been encouraged—on the contrary, all their lives have been
discouraged—from harbouring what is potentially so dangerous. Accept or Die has been their dictum.
It is a creed that could not last and is now being unlearnt . . . The effects 0f that dire male
dictum have been particularly horrible ones— however unjust and unacceptable life seemed, women
were not supposed to alter them or even criticize them; all they could do was burst into tears and
mope. This is surely the reason for so much tearfulness in women’s fiction - a strain now dominant
and now subdued, but ever present, as many critics have pointed out, of nostalgia and regret . . .
Anita Desai’s own writing has gone along way towards reversing some of these male dictums. In her
short stories and novels such as Clear Light of Day she presents the narratives, of women speaking
in their own voices, without the tears and tantrums. A number of women writers have been published
in the past two decades, redressing some of the imbalance that existed before. Along with feminist
presses, most mainstream publishers in India and abroad continue to add contemporary Indian women
writers to their lists.
After half a century of independence it is encouraging that the voices of Indian writers remain as
varied and eccentric as they are. Even as the clamour of the fiftieth jubilee dies away, what
should be celebrated are the diversity of fiction and the unpredictable nature of literature,
which does not conform to national or cultural stereotypes and expectations. Synthesis,
particularly when it is advocated by politicians or publishers should never be a concern for
Indian authors and perhaps even the term ‘post—colonial’ has exhausted its parenthetical limits.
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