Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Documenting the Short Story. Reviewed published in The Statesman dated June 8,2008

As the name suggests, the book under review is about short stories written in English by Indian authors. Murli Melwani has traced the growth of the short story in its historical and cultural context. He feels this genre has been treated as a side activity by novelists and hence neglected by critics. Melwani examines how much of the traditional story telling is preserved and how much of the form, refined in the West, has been accepted. According to him, this genre enjoys a few advantages over the novel.

The intellectual, isolated from the life of the masses, can record his isolation and unrelatedness better. A view, that may not be shared by others. While documenting the short story from early beginnings to post-modern times, Melwani's treatise features writers, inconsequential to the ordinary reader, but, who perhaps could throw some light on anecdotes of Indian life for students of literature and sociology. Thus, apart from a few others, Cornelia Sorabjee's The Love and Life behind the Purdah finds a place in the early section.

Translated stories have been excluded, so Tagore's work doesn't feature here, but Melwani pays obeisance to him, admitting his influence on Indian writers to be all-pervasive'. The freedom struggle, Gandhi and Gandhian way of life, fables, beliefs, the middle class, the rich and the poor, the Bengal famine form the backdrop for the stories, so, Melwani is perhaps right when he says this genre shows India in all its entirety.

The founders, Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao are dealt with in some detail. He is frank in appreciating as well as disapproving. He condemns Anand's verbosity and pompous diction. Of adapting English to express vernacular idioms, he says, it is a successful means of conveying the flavour of regional speech when used moderately. R.K. Narayan's repeating situations and characters in different combinations, irksome to some, is appreciated by Melwani. He also praises Narayan for remaining detached in all his stories. Raja Rao's experiments with form interest him.Numerous writers, both men and women from the South, whom one doesn't normally encounter, are covered by Melwani.

One agrees with this author when he says, more women are writing short stories now, than at any other time. He features a great many of them. Ruth Prawar Jhabavala, Attia Hossain, Ela Sen, Padma Hejmadi, Kamala Das, Sujatha Bala Subramanian, Raji Narisimhan, Juliette Banerjee, Nergis Dalal, Susan Viswanathan, Shashi Deshpande, Jai Nimbkar, Anita Desai and a host of others are presented by Melwani. He shows us how these writers brought renewed life and extended subject matter to the Indian English story. Their work is of a remarkable standard and variety, and they contribute to the modern consciousness, both Indian experience of a changing social structure and the pattern of daily living. Both exotic and common place.This study of women writers provides a useful guidance to further reading.

Melwani is among those very few who realise the importance of anthologies. This is the only way little known writers, whose stories may not be inferior in any way to that of their better known counter parts, can draw the attention of readers. Along with popular writers, lesser known, too, find a place in this treatise which is in keeping with the true spirit of a historical survey. Writers of Indian origin who live abroad are mentioned in passing, for this book deals only with Indian writers of this subcontinent, both living and dead. In the closing chapters of this book, Melwani seems to be in a mighty hurry.—

Reviewed by Neeta Sen Samarth The Stateman.
(The reviewer is a freelance contributor)

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