Ayo Kehinde’s Review of Selected Short Stories in Contemporary Indo-Anglian Literature
The Short Story as an Adaptable Genre: A Humanist Reconnaissance into K. V. Dominic’s (ed.) Selected Short Stories in Contemporary Indo-Anglian Literature. New
Delhi: Sarup Book Publishers, 2009. ISBN-978-81-7625-922-4. Hard Bound. Size-Demy. Pp. xviii+139+Index. Rs. 500.
This fascinating, well selected, critically introduced and pacesetting anthology of Indo-Anglian short stories consolidates a set of hitherto scattered works, in a number of anthologies, that are at the forefront of the sub-genre in India. The motivation for this volume as the editor, K. V. Dominic, points out, was the realisation that: “Though there are innumerable anthologies of Indo-Anglian poetry and critical studies, there have been very few collections of Indo-Anglian short stories. . . . The humble reason for editing and publishing this book is to promote and make known the budding writers to their own country men, and their sisters and brothers abroad” (Dominic, Editor’s Note v).
Consequently, Dominic has offered the reading public and lovers of Indian literature twenty-one classic short stories from master story-tellers, with keen, penetrating vision, across the country. Of the 21 pieces in the collection, fifteen were penned by male and six by female writers. This is an improvement on earlier anthologies where women writers were either totally bracketed out or given just very infinitesimal spaces. In his introductory remarks, Dominic comments on the lack of recognition accorded to the young writers of short stories in India. He seems to imply that this collection is one attempt at remedying that condition. The collection is refreshing for the inclusion of works by the wide range of writers who have made the emerging field of Indo-Anglian short story something to follow. Although the stories are different in tone, they are basically similar in thematic preoccupations. The relevance of the stories and the truth of their authors’ vision are inherent in and derive from their passionate and obstinate quest for a fill and responsible awareness of fundamental values.
Although telling powerful stories can sometimes be as easy as conveying the information, subtly introducing ironies, using correct diction and images, and even using the right point of view and characterization are what enhance and expand the author’s vision. The stories have very similar themes. For instance, the theme of socially repressed human beings struggling to exist in their societies recur in the likes of Chandrashekhar Sastry’s “XX”; D C Chambial’s “It’ll Rain Tomorrow”; Meena Kandasamy’s “Casual Contact”;”; Jaydeep Sarangi “Call from the Thatched Roof”; Aju Mukhopadhyay’s “The Moments of Life”; Chand Raj’s “That Kind of a Place”; Sunil Sharma’s “Beware! Migrants Are Coming!”; O P Dwivedi’s “A Lesson to Errant Son”; Rohini Muthuswami’s “Lakshmi”; Shyamal Banerjee’s “Search for an Unknown Good Samaritan”; Babitha Marina Justin “A Yuppie Diary: One Night at Godavari Hostel”; Farzana Quader’s “Her Story”; Debjani Chatterjee’s “Two-faced”; Prasenjit Das’s “In Search”; Drubah Singh’s “Catapult”; S P Dhanavel’s “The Fun Gun”; Anand Mahajan’s “A Third View”; Jaya Lakshmi Rao’s “The Right Mental Attitude: A Source of Pleasure”; and K V Dominic’s “The Twins”. P. Raja’s “The Wart” and Jayanti M Dalal’s “Tornado Strikes Twice” dwell on existential issues – bestiality in man and the attitude of human beings to bereavement- respectively. Some of the stories also prioritize didacticism, most especially Raja’s “The Wart”; Singh’s “Catapult”; Rao’s “The Right Mental Attitude: A Source of Pleasure”; and Dhanavel’s “The Fun Gun.” Commendably, all the stories give us true light on human nature.
No serious consideration of these stories can fail to perceive the central position and even the explicit character of the social awareness that runs through them. The social dimension of the stories manifests itself a conscious direction of the writers’ meditation towards the nature of the collective experience in their society and as a full engagement of their artistic minds with the immediate issues and problems involved in life as it is carried on around them. The relevance of the stories and the truth of the writers’ vision are inherent in and derive from their passionate and obstinate quest for a full and responsible awareness of fundamental values. The writers are unarguably endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers. Most of the stories demonstrate the rich and varied experience of life in India. In fact, the collection is for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of the Indian people and their lives that one cannot get from news headlines. The stories reflect the socio-cultural realities, most especially issues relevant to Indian society as a composite whole, with precision.
Magical realism, stark realism, existentialism, naturalism, traditional story telling, supernaturalism, and the like are present in this volume. The enduring strength of the stories lies in the writers’ sensitivity to men’s as well as women’s lives. The stories are at once entertaining and deeply instructive, not only about the socio-historical realities in India and the world, but also about such universal themes as love, marriage, work, family, privilege and governance. The selected stories offer a powerful testimony to the growth of Indo-Anglian short story tradition as a quintessential art form. The authors all have the two great gifts that are required to make a person a teller of tales. The first is faultless artistic economy, which shows in their razor-sharp prose employed in the stories. The second is the ability of the authors to place themselves in the different milieus of the society from the highest to the lowest.
A critical reading of the stories reveals that Indo-Anglian short story writers are multi-talented, coming from a host of professions, including teaching/lecturing, medicine, engineering, and the like. They are able to weave socio-political commentaries through the short story genre. This is with a view to foregrounding the moral and ethical failure of leaders in most postcolonial nations. One can conclude with magisterial sternness that Indo-Anglian short story is a legitimate kindred spirit of Indian literature and all postcolonial literatures in English.
In terms of spatial distribution and situatedness, this collection is unmistakably Indian, including the range or rhizome of issues that are addressed. Indian history, with its continuities and discontinuities, constitutes the fulcrum of the thematic preoccupations of the selected stories. For instance, most of the stories confront momentous national issues with intensity of thought, sharpness of vision and vehemence of commitment. The stories offer a biting satire of corruption and decadence in postcolonial Indian societies and the modern world. In most of the stories, the reader comes across generally cynical and bleak vision and worldwide confusion of human values projected through powerful images of a corrupt and decadent society.
Also, the representation of womanhood in some of the stories is reflective of the general social patterns constructed by any patriarchal society in the world. Some of the stories have feminist inclination, because they dwell on cultural and masculinist subordination of women. The woman suffers mental, physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of the male folk. Laudably, the writers do not just reflect on the issue of patriarchal suppression; rather, they refract it by demonstrating the importance of female solidarity as a woman comes to help her suffering colleague, thereby strengthening the hope of the subalternized women to liberate themselves (See, for instance: Rohini Muthuswami’s “Lakshmi” and Farzana Quader’s “Her Story”).
It is apt at this juncture to attempt a critical-humanist reconnaissance into some of the representative samples of the collection. For instance, the curtain raising story, P. Raja’s “The Wart,” exploits the rich resources of Judaeo-Christian sacred book of the Bible and thrives on the dexterous blend of allegory, myth, legend and history of mankind, most especially the subtle manipulation from the Biblical archetype – Noah. In the story, the writer uses layers of history, symbol and myth. He uses language with relish to dwell on the issues of inherent barbarity in human beings. The reader encounters a bewildering amalgam of pervasive symbols of moral collapse and original state of inherent barbarity. The story presents, in a thinly disguised allegory, the challenges presented to the humanity by biblical Noah. It dwells on what it means to be an ethical individual, and it is full of philosophical, psychological and religious insights into the moral and spiritual disposition of human beings.
“Beware! Migrants are Coming!” explores what happens when a powerless individual takes action on behalf of his/her conditions. It illustrates the desperation and consequent violent actions of some hopeless and neglected youths in a society. In the main, the story deals with and serves as a commentary on the conditions befalling some immigrants in post-Apartheid South Africa. To a great degree, this story speaks for those who are brutally murdered because of race or class. The story is a distinct response to a historical situation in South Africa, and it captures the fear and suspicion accompanying the upheaval in the post-Apartheid country. It proves that there is no acquiescence in the universe, and it depicts the awful prospect that awaits human beings if the facts of the experience represented by racial hatred are pressed relentlessly to their full implications. The story proves that identity of individuals and nations is the central problem of the twenty-first century. The youths of the cosmos of the story have forgotten that the criss-crossing boundaries of the contemporary world have rendered traditional identity forming machineries obsolete. In fact, it is a deliberate prod at the moral conscience and interest of us all. The only form of transcendence that makes any sense in the story is self-fulfilment through brutality and jungle justice. What is inferred from the brutal acts of the embattled youths is that the regulatory functions of most countries have been eroded. What is lacking is social citizenship, that is the right to welfare service. Therefore, the sovereign violence is a response to the loss of the legitimating power of the welfare functions of the countries. The writer of this story has a transnational imagination by taking a swipe at the inadequacies of some countries where interpersonal conflicts hold sway.
“A Yuppie Diary: One Night at Godavari Hostel” is a remarkable study in human character. It deals with few of the contradictions still haunting the ivory towers. It is particularly remarkable in the subtlety of the narrative techniques and achieves a certain sophistication of language and depth of understanding that are often lacking in many postcolonial short stories. It is a classical piece because it dwells on a specific episode in a school environment, leading to vivid articulated disclosures about life in a university campus. It foregrounds the narrowness of the youths in comparison with the greater tolerance of the elders. The story is contemptuous of the intelligentsia and disgusted with the way in which universities have been corrupted by various negative forces. This is shown to have badly affected their potential for transforming society.
One of the stories that capture my attention and sympathy the most is “Tornado Strikes Twice,” in which the author does an excellent job in using irony and vividness to make the reader understand the limitation and ethical implication of mercy killing. It conveys the cry of anguish which accompanies the exploration of limits–the limits of suffering, bereavement and deprivation. It throws analytical light upon an existential/social issue in the modern world–mercy killing. It also provides a valuable insight into the emotional responses of human beings to bereavement and loss of a loved one. High sense of artistic manipulations, elegant and straightforward style, and a strong emotional undercurrent make this story challenging, disturbing and enjoyable.
Jaydeep Sarangi’s “Call from the Thatched Roof” is a story that deals with a combination of rural and cosmopolitan issues. The author’s special forte is his cultivation of landscape and topography. The raison d’etre of his artistic oeuvre lies in his awareness of India’s geographical features and his participation in the development of consciousness in the society. The story is particularly remarkable in the subtlety of its narrative techniques, and it achieves a certain sophistication of language and depth. Through the framework of comparative analysis of milieus, the story presents a powerful diagnosis of the malady of contemporary urban societies.
Durlabh Singh’s “The Catapult” blends references to Indian socio-political life and concerns. The story occurs in a dreamlike, nightmarish manner. Realistic descriptions are artistically interspersed with grotesque but memorable occurrences. Through these feats, the tensions and contradictions in the present-day world are documented. The story is, in fact, a vehicle for the intensive exploration of modern experience. The didactic message in the story is the creation of a new order among the youths in the contemporary world–the unsettling consequence of disobedience.
“It’ll Rain Tomorrow” is a story about the psychological problem of the senior citizens (the aged). It is a story with a clear sense of direction, insight and intensity. It has something of an allegorical quality that places its relevance beyond its specific temporal, spatial and historical reference. It signposts an image of human nature, specifically at old age. The story captures the essential solitariness of people in old age. There is, indeed, a real sense in which, on the evidence of this story, confinement and family separation seem to have had the effect of making an old person sink into his/her deeper self. In his isolation, his/her mind seems to have reached a depth of despondency that in its particular intensity attains the quality of a metaphysical despair. The story convincingly foregrounds the feeling of an aged man and conveys such a note of incommensurable pathos.
K. V. Dominic’s “The Twins” offers a comparative psychosocial dissection of the attitude of man and animal. It lays bare human condition and the nature of humanity in the modern world. In the story, animal is both a subject and a trope for exploring interpersonal relationships and human experiences in the post-modern world marred by misanthropy, despair, cruelty, absurdity, urban terrorism, disintegration, infidelity, betrayal, misogyny and dissonance. The story is a mixture of the comic and the serious. What amazes the reader of this story is the Swiftian indignation at the current spate of man’s inhumanity to man and violence across the world. It is equally grounded in Wordsworthian romanticism.
Meena Kandasamy’s “Casual Contact is a tale of disaffection and denial of memory. It is also, subliminally, a story of remembrance and deep-seated experience. It captures the trains of thoughts of a determined woman criss-crossing few moments in her life. It chronicles imaginatively women’s condition, their betrayal, their exploitation, their ordeals, and their dogged determination in patriarchal societies. Rohini Muthuswami’s “Lakshmi” belongs to the tradition of short story with room for reversals. The story speaks of the downtrodden, neglected and overlooked by a prejudiced society, and it offers an ingenious way of narrating woman’s ordeals, telling, as it does, a story of failure, dehumanization and neglect. It dwells on the ability of the subalterns to stubbornly endure the harsh realities of the society. It also deals, in one way or another, with the vagaries and common viciousness of the malefolk against the womenfolk, most especially the destruction wreaked by patriarchal suppressors.
Prasenjit Das’s “In Search” dwells on self-aggrandizing drives that characterize governance in most postcolonial countries. All the arcane, arrogance, barbarity and absurdity of the frustrated and power-drunken are shown in a subtle fashion.
Many of the stories explore fundamentally relevant national issues which have universal import. Historical events have continued to have their impact on Indian literature; therefore, a host of the writers in this anthology are historical witnesses. They delve into the problem of fratricidal wars and conflicts that are ravaging and marring the image and development of most postcolonial countries. The writers recreate wars as a cataclysmic phenomenon. Most of the stories fictionalize numerous violent historical circumstances in India and across the world. However, they utilize an arsenal of storytelling techniques to make violence palatable.
The stories have very close intertextual links with a host of short-story traditions across the globe–Kathasaritasagara, the panchatantra, the Jataka tales, folklore, legends and the like. However, the stories in this collection are mostly built on strong indigenous foundations, and there is also the literary impact of the West, particularly of English short story. This anthology has also confirmed the validity of the perception that the new generation of Indo-Anglian short story writers are remarkably different in thematic preoccupations, vision, style, tone, mood, ideological dispositions and worldview from the older generation. Actually, the new generation of Indo-Anglian short story writers are very versatile in their thematic preoccupations and more global in their vision and style. The stories in this anthology provide abundant evidence of the contrasts and diversities which characterize Indo-Anglian short stories, not only geographically, but also ideologically and generationally. The stories are a marvellous and entertaining introduction to the rich diversity of pleasures that the Indo-Anglian short story can offer. Altogether, the stories are a pleasure to read; their enduring brilliance lies in the subtle choice of words for the subjects the writers treat. Most of the writers, in their creative endeavours, tap the resources of the orature in their culture. The maturity of their explorations of the oral tradition comes through in this anthology. The writers are in control of their medium, and their stories range from the playful to the satirical. The narrative is cross-woven with traditional idioms and language. Most of them recreate and celebrate Indian mythology and values. They offer a gripping insight into the human heart and the human condition, particularly in the context of socio-economic realities, most especially oppressions that are chiefly inflicted by the agents of terrorists and those suffered by women in traditionally patriarchal cultures. In fact, the stories provide a roadmap of events in India in every sphere of life.
In sum, this anthology proves a valuable addition to the shelves of collections of Indo-Anglian short stories. It has undoubtedly and adequately provided how adaptable a genre the short story is. For their superb breaths and tones, for their styles and subjects, these stories are exciting. The anthology has illustrated the diversity of techniques and conceptual emphases to be found within the category of Indo-Anglian short story. The kind of serious attention and finesse that goes into collecting these stories is an indication of the significance that Professor K. V. Dominic, a creative artist, a literary critic and a scholar par excellence, attaches to Indo-Anglian literature. This anthology has revealed that Dominic is an astute, deeply informed critic and theorist of postcolonial literature, in addition to being a quintessential scholar and a distinguished member of the literati. Anybody who wants to appreciate the literary direction in Indo-Anglian short story, in terms of its technique, styles and thematic preoccupations, must read these stories.
Dominc, K. V. Editor’s Note. Selected Short Stories in Contemporary Indo-Anglian Literature. New Delhi: Sarup Book Publishers, 2009. v-x. Print.