Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A short story is a collaboration between a writer and a reader. An Interview In Indian Book Reviews

By Shana Susan Ninan

Murli Melwani is the perceptive author of Themes In The Indian Short Story In English: An Historical And A Critical Survey. Below is an email interview of his. Keen and crisp observations mark his answers.His remarks are insightful.

SSN: Besides Indian short stories in English being under-projected, what were your reasons to do a critical survey of the same?

MM: The reasons are both literary and personal. First, the literary. Look at all the cultures and sub-cultures we have in this huge country. You need flexible literary forms to convey the essence of these patterns of life. After poetry, the short story is the most flexible of literary forms. A short story can be anything the writer makes it. Something as fragile as Liam O’Flaherty’s sketch of the first flight of a black bird to something as heavily carpentered as Somerset Maugham’s plotted stories of atmosphere, interplay of motive and incisive characterisation. Conveying an unusual or a particular ethnic experience is best done by writing, to use Jane Austen’s phrase, on a “little bit – two inches wide –of ivory”. The short story is that two inches of ivory.

Also, collections of short stories have a tendency to disappear as easily from public memory as they do from library shelves. People are talking about Madhusree Mukherjee’s* portrayal of the Great Bengal Famine, but who remembers Ela Sen’s collection of short stories today?**. The famine occurred in 1943. Ela Sen’s book came out in 1944. Ela Sen’s portrayal is so very authentic. Almost as if she was walking among the starving skeletal figures.

The personal. I made a career change: from a college teacher in India to an exporter in Taiwan. In those days Taipei had only one English book store. Most of the books were on English as a second language! The conversation by and large centered round business charts, figures, targets. I needed to give myself an intellectual lifeline. H.E.Bates’s The Modern Short Story came to my rescue. This book gives us the author’s personal assessment of a number of great short story writers in England, Ireland, America and Russia. This book was my inspiration for a long-term project. I love short stories. I found there was very little critical work on Indian short stories in English. I asked myself, why not pioneer an historical and a critical survey? I got over collections of short stories from India. Made notes for the twenty five years I lived in Taiwan. I put the notes together when I moved to the U.S. The book came out in late 2009.

SSN: What gives short stories their richness? As in, when compared to other forms of writing.
MM; A number of qualities. Suggestiveness, for one. Brevity, for another. Compression, for a third. A short story is really a collaboration between a writer and a reader. The words are the code. The pages are the transmitter. The reader’s imagination is the transistor that receives the waves and reconstructs a whole. It is this elasticity of the short story that makes it such a great form.

SSN: Having been a short story writer yourself, was it easier to critically survey such a topic?

MM: Definitely. I could see how the short story writer was trying to create a character. Assume the author’s aim was to bring alive a character by means of her gestures: at one point he could show her smoothening back her hair with a casual brush of the palm; at another, using her hands to make a point. A skilful writer can suggest the atmosphere of a rainy day by indicating the dampness that permeated the walls. The point is I could read the writer’s intentions.

SSN: What was the inspiration for the cover of your book?
MM: When my publisher asked me what I’d like to emphasise on the cover, I told him to try to depict the traditional and the modern existing side by side. The co-existence of tradition and change are a fact of Indian life. How can short stories writers not tacitly or implicitly acknowledge them? The publisher’s artist did the rest.

SSN: What is the reception of Indian short stories in English abroad, not just the countries with a large Indian population?
MM: To be honest, collections of short stories sell less than novels. The American universities that offer Asian studies carry them. Mostly stories are eye openers for Americans. “There’s hardly anything about caste in this book.” This from a review of Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay. I would not know the situation in other countries.

SSN: Internet, social networking sites and ‘little’ publishers have given a renewed impetus to short stories. Do you think this’ll inspire up and coming writers?

MM: Without doubt. Just pull up e-zine sites. Look at these two online magazines Zoetrope and Narrative. In 2008, Penguin India brought a selection Blogprint: The Winners of the Sulekha.com-Penguin Online Writing Contest. I believe www.sulekha.com received over a thousand entries for the contest.

SSN: Qualities that a short story writer should possess.
MM: A very difficult question. I’ll try to answer it, anyway. He should compress language. He should suggest, rather than pencil in, character. He should hint at, rather than paint the setting. The theme should be self-evident, rather than stated. Raymond Carver’s stories are good models of a short story writer’s craft.

SSN: Any existing short story you think you should’ve written and why.
MM: I wish I could have written Padma Hejmadi’s The Uncles and the Mahatma. It’s a gem of a story. Why? Because it has richness of theme, a touch of comedy, finely etched characters, a deep understanding of Indian tradition.

SSN: Anything else you’d like to comment on.
MM: Two comments, if you will allow me. One, Women writers in India continue to amaze me with their unusual perspectives and experiences. A recent example: the stories by women in Shinie Antony’s anthology, Why We Don’t Talk. Two, I am pleased at the growth in the number of publishers in India in the last few years. This means more openings for writers.


*in her book, Churchill’s Secret War. Tranquebar

**Darkening Days. Sushil Gupta & Co


Critical works on Indian Short stories are very rare, although the genre of short story is practiced by a large number of writers. Murli Das Melwani has done a great service to the academic world by offering his valuable historical and critical survey of the Indian short story from the earliest writer, K.C.Dutt (1835) to the latest one, Nikika Laloo Tariang. Though the genre of short story is neglected as if it is a step-child of literature, it provides a wealth of diversified material to the researcher, who is sophisticated in his approach. As Melwani rightly suggests, the vision of short fiction is diversified, mosaic, piecemeal and kaleidoscopic. Hence it offers a challenge to the researcher, if not to a common reader, to discern the hidden patterns of thought, behaviour and culture. Far from parroting the Western critical concepts, Melwani rightly goes to the Indian roots of the genre like the Jataka Tales and Kathasaritsagara and juxtaposes them with the Western masters like Maupassant, Chekhov and others. After offering a perceptive introduction to the theory of short story from a global perspective, he traces the growth of it by briefly discussing all the major Indian short story writers of different decades.

The chapter on the beginnings of the Indian short story during 1835-1935 is very valuable as it offers information on writers like Cornelia Sorabji, S. B.Bannerjea, A.S.P. Ayyar and Shankar Ram, who are not sufficiently known to modern scholars. The first flowering of the short story writers (1935-1945) is attributable to the celebrities like Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and Manjeri Iswaran. The following chapters introduce the other short story writers, who are not easily visible in critical works, like Leslie Noronha, Nargis Dalal, Rishi Reddy and others. He has covered the works of writers published up to 2007. He must be congratulated for giving a legitimate place for these writers in the history of Indian English short fiction. But the present reviewer is surprised to notice that his own two short story collections like The Thief of Nagarahalli and Other Stories (1999, 2008, short listed for the Commonwealth Fiction Prize for the Best First Book from Eurasia in 2000), and The Rebellious Rani of Belavadi and Other Stories (2001) are conspicuously missing from Melwani’s otherwise excellent survey.

The greatness of Melwani’s survey is to be found in the fact that he has given the award of recognition to almost all the Indian English writers of short fiction; that he has made very insightful and candid remarks about the general qualities of each short story writer and particular features of important short stories of the same writer; and that he comments on the major concerns of each decade seen in the stories of the writers of that decade. On the whole, Melwani has shown how the short story has moved from fantasy to realism, from the supernatural to the social and from the religious to the secular and psychological dimension. He rightly pays homage to the little magazines and small publishers, who have nourished the genre of short story in India to a great extent. Similarly he deplores the absence of attractive literary awards and prizes in India exclusively meant for Indian English writers, especially short story writers.

Melwani’s book is happily free from the fashionable, trendy, stodgy, Western critical jargon and may be enjoyed by the academic scholar as well as by the common reader alike. He deserves our heart-felt congratulations for his hard won insights, which are a product of life-long dedication and cogitation and not of the hasty conclusions of a Ph.D. scholar. The book provides abundant material and direction to the M. Phil and Ph.D. scholars, who will be eagerly looking for fresh topics for fruitful research. One hopes that Melwani keeps on revising and updating his valuable book every year.

Reviewed by
Basavaraj Naikar
Professor & Chairman,Department of English
Karnatak University, Dharwad 580 00

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)

Review published in BR International, March 2008 issue.BR Int'l is published in Hong Kong

Indian English Stories is a critical and historical survey of the Indian short story in English. As a genre the short story has generally been neglected by Indian writers, publishers and critics. Murli Melwani makes an unconventional claim in his book and follows it up with very cogent arguments. He claims that the short story form is more flexible than the longer form of the novel and therefore capable of reflecting a broader spectrum of Indian experience than the novel. Considering that India is a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society, I find merit in that argument, especially at a time when India is emerging as a powerful player on the world stage. With greater interaction between Indians and foreigners, the area of experience is bound to widen, thus providing newer themes for writers. The plasticity of the short story form will be able to capture and convey the new experiences.

I find Melwani’s approach to his subject matter in this book refreshing. He does not merely study individual stories or writers. He studies the short stories of well known as well as lesser known writers against the political, social and cultural background of the times. He examines how the political, social and cultural events influence particular writers and how the contemporary events are reflected in the writers’ work.

The foregoing sentence may give the impression that this book is a social tract. It is not, because the main focus in the book is the literary quality of a particular short story writer’s work. Melwani studies a writer’s approach to characterization, atmosphere, theme, dialogue and style in the context of the larger events.

The first short story in English was written in 1835, shortly after Lord Macaulay’s bill introduced English as the medium of instruction in India. The book divides the era from 1835 to the present day into different periods: 1835-1935, 1935-1950, 50-60, 60-70, 1980-2006.The author uses this method of classification to blend a historical survey with a critical study.

Between 1835 and 1935, the writers proudly documented the customs and traditions of Indian life. These writers prepared the way for the giants who between 1935 and 1950 corrected the impression of India and its inhabitants created by the colonial writers and portrayed India as it really is.

The emphasis shifted in the fifties to other subjects with satire being the predominant approach. In the sixties, seventies and eighties the themes expanded exponentially and every aspect of Indian life and nuance of experience provided themes for the short stories.

The language in which such analysis is presented is anything but bookish. Melwani has an easy, conversational style, which draws the reader into the narration.

Murli Melwani writes in the Preface,” Reading the stories I have discussed in my book gave me hours of pleasure. If my book can convince the reader to turn to the stories themselves, my pleasure would be increased manifold.” Indian English Stories is a virtual story-tasting fest. The fest will whet the palates of a legion of readers; there is no reason why Murli Melwani’s “pleasure” should not” be increased manifold.”

Reviewed by Amar Vaswani, Atlanta,USA

Review published in The Indian, September 2007 issue. The Indian is published in Hong Kong

Murli Melwani, in his book, Indian English Stories, reverses some commonly held perceptions about the Indian short story in English.

The Indian novel in English has long been held as the preeminent mirror to Indian life. Fine, Melwani says, that is true so far as certain broad themes, like the colonial experience, the place of faith in Indian life and two or three others, are concerned. What about the nuances of everyday living, the little dramas that are enacted in the privacy of our thoughts and relationships, especially since Indians are expected to, outwardly, conform to certain norms and patterns of behaviour. Indians basically enjoy inner freedom; to think, feel and act as we like in the privacy of our lives. Only the short story, with its brevity, its concentration and sensitiveness, can capture these moments. The short story form thus has dealt with a wider area of experience than the novel.

By the time Murli Melwani has finished surveying the themes, the backgrounds,the characters and approaches of the dozens of writers who practiced this form between 1835 to the present day, the reader, certainly the present reviewer, accepts this truth.

Indian English Stories is the first comprehensive study of the Indian short story in English, from both a historical and critical perspective. Melwani’s approach to the study of the short story form differs from the conventional one. The usual approach is to discuss a few individual stories of a particular author. What Melwani does is to take the whole body of an author’s work and look for patterns in it. If he finds one, he points it out; if not, he does not impose one.

The author, to use a cliché, begins at the beginning. He starts with the first ever story written in English by an Indian, way back in 1835. He comments briefly on the work of most of the writers who wrote for the next 100 years. Most of the writers of that period wanted to show off India, documentary-style, to their Western readers.

The big names came in the 1930s- Mulk Raj Anand with his social concern, R.K. Narayan discovering comedy in the round of daily life, and Raja Rao with his experiments with language and form.

In the fifties Khushwant Singh made his appearance; his stamina remains undiminished today. His contemporary, Attia Hosain, captured the poignancy of Partition in finely chiseled stories.

The sixties boast of writers like Ruth Jhabvala, Bunny Reuben, Ruskin Bond( prolific even now) and Bhabani Bhattacharya.

In the seventies there was a sudden burst of creativity. Authors like Anita Desai, Keki Daruwalla, Padma Hejmadi, Kamala Das, Manohar Malgonkar, Shahsi Despande and others explored new themes.

The young writers of today have continued this trend. Prominent among them are Vikram Chandra, Nisha Da Cunha, Lavanya Sankaran, Shree Ghagate, Githa Hariharan, Anjana Appachana, Meher Pestonji, and Susan Visvnathan, to mention a few among a talented gallery.

Melwani’s manner of writing is easy and informal, conversational almost. His approach differs from author to author. He allows the stories to make their impact on him; he records the impressions these made on him. This is in contrast to the conventional practice of judging a story with certain established literary princples

Indian English Stories is a great introduction to a genre of writing which is largely ignored. Murli Melwani’s enthusiasm for its practitioners is bound to be infectious. It has certainly led this reviewer to make a resolution: to certainly read the authors discussed in the book. I believe it will affect other readers in a similar manner.

Review published in Muse India, Issue # 21,Sept-Oct 2008

Review by
By Shaleen Kumar Singh, Jul 26, 2008Budaun, India, drshaleen111@yahoo.co.in
Indian English Stories — A review

Though we have seen in past few years innumerable books of criticism on Indian English Poetry and Fiction being published, there has remained a dearth of books of criticism on short fiction. Murli Melwani’s critical and historical survey of Indian English stories, covering a broad spectrum from colonial beginning to Post-modern times, addresses this dearth. Indeed it is the first comprehensive study of this genre.

India has been the land of stories. The Jataka Tales and the Panchatantrastories continue to be read even today. The Katha Sarita Sagara, the largest collections of stories in the world, has been the inspiration for the Arabian Nights and others tales which traveled to Europe via the Middle East.

In the beginning the writers proudly documented the customs and traditions of Indian life. Between 1835 and 1935 we have a succession of writers with this aim. Cornelia Sorabji, Dhan Gopal Mukherjee, A.S. Panchpakesha Ayyar, Shankar Ram, among others, prepared the way for the giants who wrote between 1935 and 1950.

Among the giants, Mulk Raj Anand corrected the impression of India and its inhabitants created by Kipling and other Western writers. R.K. Narayan highlighted the drama of everyday life. Raja Rao incorporated elements of Indian folk tales in his stories.

In the fifties, Khushwant Singh observed Indian life with a satirical eye and Attia Hosian conveyed the horrors of Partition in restrained prose.

In the sixties, Ruth Jhabvala captured the foibles of Indians with a foreigner’s objectivity. Bunny Reuben introduced cinematic techniques to the short story. Ruskin Bond found moving moments in common lives. Bhabani Bhattacharya captured exotic aspects of Indian life.

In the Seventies Anita Desai brought the intensity of her novels to her stories. Keki Daruwalla set his stories in unusual locales. Padma Hejmadi wrote about life in South India. Jug Suraiya and Vivek Adarkar were the voices of youth at the time. Arun Joshi wrote parables of Indian life. The subject of Manohar Malgonkar’s stories was the army. Kamala Das brought the sensitivity of her poetry to her stories. Shashi Deshpande dealt with the questions of a woman’s lot and place in Indian society.

The writers who came in the eighties, and continue to write today, have branched out into newer territory. Life in the city - Bombay in the case of Vikram Chandra, Bangalore in that of Lavanya Sankaran, Calcutta in the case of Amit Chaudhuri - is very much the subject of scrutiny. Nisha Da Cunha writes about the states of women’s minds. Shree Ghatage examines the demands of tradition, family obligations and personal freedom on an individual. Gay life is the subject of R. Raja Rao’s stories. The exploration of new areas of India and the heart goes on in the stories of Githa Haiharan, Anita Nair, Sangeeta Wadhwani, Anjana Appachana, Meher Pestonji, Susan Visvanathan, and others.

Melwani is optimistic about the future of Indian English short stories. The richness of ideas and themes will provide more and more opportunities for story writers to pen stories of significance, beauty and power. Melwani’s book is a seminal work which will, in future, guide the critics to give the short story the same respect and study as they do to Indian English Poetry and Fiction.

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