on 7 November 2008
This book was published originally in 1989 and contained 17 short stories by as many authors. The revised edition came out in 2001 and added just three more pieces, by two older writers (Narayan, Chughtai) and a younger one (Dolas).
As far as could be determined, all the stories in the revised edition were published originally between the 1950s and the 1980s. The editors aimed to present some of the best examples of Indian short stories for this period, celebrating diversity and avoiding conformity to cultural stereotypes and expectations. They were covering a body of writing preceding authors like Rushdie, Mistry, Tharoor and Ghosh in the 1980s or those who followed.
The balance of stories was heavily in favor of vernacular languages: Marathi, Hindi, Bengali, Kannada, Malayalam, Punjabi, Oriya, Tamil, Gujarati, and Urdu. Four stories in the collection were written originally in English.
Older writers were also heavily favored. The earliest were Premendra Mitra (1904-88), R. K. Narayan (1906-2001), S. Mani (1907-85) and Raja Rao (1908-2006). Others included Bhisham Sahni (1915-2003), Amrita Pritam (1919-2005), Nirmal Verma (1929-2005), O. V. Vijayan (1930-2005), Sunil Gangopadhyay (1934-) and Anita Desai (1937-). The youngest writers were Bharati Mukherjee, (1940-), Devanuru Mahadeva (1949-) and Avinash Dolas (1950-).
Not included were even earlier authors like Senapati, Tagore and Premchand, or ones like Anand, Bandyopadhyay, Manto, Khushwant Singh, Ray, Abbas, Bond, Manoj Das, or Ambai. Tagore, Premchand and Manto were excluded intentionally because they'd already been published comparatively widely elsewhere.
The works in this collection had stylistic and thematic variety. Some of them felt fairly traditional in terms of realistic style and concern with poverty, oppression or heartbreak (Pillai, Mohanty, Gadgil). Several focused particularly on the experience of women (Pritam, Chughtai) or the Dalits and tribal people (Dolas, Mahadeva). Two dealt with partition (Narayan, Sahni). Sahni's story was interesting for the way it used passengers in a train compartment to demonstrate the consequences of the fear and suspicion accompanying the upheaval.
Other works were more varied in content or style (Murthy, Gangopadhyay, Verma, Mitra, Mowni, Vijayan). Murthy's overlong tale concerned a son who sought to understand his dying father, a lawyer who'd worked all his life for the wealthy, subordinating his own dreams. Gangopadhyay's was about a simple man from the country who ended up working in Calcutta but retained his naivety and simplicity. In Verma's story, the narrator traveled from Delhi to a remote town in the mountains to see a long-lost brother on family business. The narrator was living in the world, while the brother was apart from it as a religious ascetic. Though difficult to interpret, this tale blended references to Indian religious life and concerns, the narrator's restlessness and uncertainty, and an interesting structure that set up parallels between the brothers.
Some of the works could be categorized as magic realism. Mitra's, for example, occurred in a dreamlike place and was addressed to "you," who wandered into a mysterious region and almost got betrothed before returning to the city. In Mowni's tale, a man seemed to lose his identity briefly to another man. A striking story of this type was by Vijayan, who began publishing regularly from the late 1960s and was among those who broke with the tradition of realism. In his tale, a narrator observed the horrific growth of a wart. Realistic description was blended with grotesque but memorable developments and references to alienation, rebirth and God's perennial becoming. I hadn't read anything in Indian writing like it before.
The most difficult stories for me were a parable of some kind involving a Moslem tempted by Satan (Rao). And a story by Chughtai -- about a woman trying to marry off her daughter -- that contained a number of shifting characters and actions, beginning in the third person and introducing "I" halfway through.
Contrasting selections were the two pieces set abroad, wholly or in part: Rege's work from the 1960s or before, written from the point of view of an introspective, educated woman in the form of letters to a man just before and after World War II, showing her development into maturity while accompanying her father abroad. And Mukherjee's story set in New York City around the 1980s, written from the point of view of a successful doctor, a materialistic Indian emigrant.
The introduction in the anthology's revised edition didn't discuss the stories in terms of style or content, and said little about each author's significance. But it was worth reading for a discussion of issues like how writers expressed or questioned the national identity, the choice of which language to write in, and various trends of social protest.
In connection with these issues, various groups were mentioned, such as the Progressive Writers Movement, important especially in the 1930s and 40s, which was inspired by Marxism and wrote to effect social change. A younger generation writing from the 1950s, including writers in Hindi from the New Story movement such as Nirmal Verma, inspired partly by the European existentialists, who rejected idealism and rural landscapes, questioned national myths and expressed individual anxiety and ambivalence. The emergence of writers in various Indian languages on narratives of the Dalits and tribal people, such as Devanuru Mahadeva and Avinash Dolas. And since the 1970s and 80s, a growing number of female authors.
The editors of this anthology claimed their selections avoided cultural stereotypes, but in my opinion the collection could've done without the stories on snake charmers and wrestlers. It would've been interesting to read pieces that touched on a few other areas of life, like music or dance, or the world of managers or civil servants. The anthology could benefit from a further revision adding stories from the last two or three decades. Still, much in it was enjoyable and educational.
Another anthology of works from the vernacular languages is Best Loved Indian Stories of the Century, Vol. 2 (1999). Its pieces were published between roughly the turn of the century and the 1960s. Though also interesting, they were more traditional in setting and theme and less varied in style than the ones in the present collection.