Saturday, May 26, 2012

Themes in the Indian Short Story in English

The Review in The Hindu newspaper, February 9, 2010

Aesop’s Fables, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Boccaccio’s The Decameron and the Indian Jataka tales, the Panchatantra, Somadeva’s Katha-sarit-sagara are among the forerunners of the short story. The advent of its present form can be traced to the early 19th century and of its parent, the novel, to the 18th century. The brevity of its narrative, single action, and thematic focus naturally met with a wordwide reception and thus short fiction matured into an artistic genre, casting its net across the world. Murli Das Melwani’s book makes a historical survey right from the beginning to the present-day. Such a wide-ranging critical survey has hitherto not been attempted. He raises two weighty questions that merit our attention. First, has the Indian short story writer contributed anything of value to it? and second, has his work made the form more flexible, as say, Hemingway’s or Chekov’s did? Melwani subjects all short-story writers — 66 in all — from 1835 to 2008 to a close scrutiny. The stories are not discussed individually, though some specimens are close-read and locally analysed. But a writer’s entire collection is examined and evaluated, with conclusions drawn at the end.

Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, and Raja Rao, who represent the first flowering (1935-45) of this genre, responded to the nationalist movement, each in his own way — Mulk Raj Anand, the social activist, presenting a true vision of Indian life; R.K. Narayan, with his perception of the average as positive, exploring the nature of life and reality; and Raja Rao experimenting with form. The second flowering (1960-70) looked for answers to the question often raised in academic circles: can the Indian sensibility be expressed in English? Ruth Prawar Jabwalla’s “detached involvement with the Indian situation,” and Bhabani Bhattacharya’s professionalism and the easy readability of his stories supply some answers to that question. The 1970s more than fulfil the expectations of the ‘60s. The decade is marked by an endless variety in the handling of themes and variations, coupled with varying modes and techniques of narration influenced by Russian and American short fiction.

Galaxy of writers
We have a galaxy of writers — Keki Daruwalla, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Arun Joshi, Kamala Das and a host of others — participating in the ongoing process of openness in form, reliable and unreliable narration with multiple points of view, and shifting focalisation. The period between 1980 and 2008 reflects, in the words of Melwani, a “burgeoning creativity.” There are more women writers now than at any time in the past. Altering perspectives in man-woman relationships, alienation in modern life, and the impact of feminism and feminist theories on the academia have supplied meat and juice to a potential creative writer. As readership expanded across the world, Indian stories tended to get translated into foreign languages. The author is quite right in his assessment that the short story has covered a wider range of subjects with a larger gallery of characters and that the record of Indian life is more authentic in this genre than in the novel. The ‘little’ magazine that is most selective in choosing the material for publication — getting a story published in it is considered highly prestigious — has done much to improve the quality of this genre. Paperback print editions and online literary magazines too have helped a great deal in popularising this form. He suggests that instituting literary prizes and bringing out a collection of the best short stories every year will encourage new talent.

Melwani adroitly integrates his critical comments on the works with the short introductory remarks of each section on the evolving political and social mores of the times. On the whole, the book is absorbing and well-researched. It is a convincing, lively narrative history of the short story that still remains a developing literary form. We need more — and yet more — of such narrative histories that can discuss changes in artistic trends, materials, techniques, et al. The scope for the Indian short story is indeed boundless

Dr. Suroopa Mukherjee's Review in World Literature Today

Dr Suroopa Mukherjee's review in World Literature Today, Oklahoma, Sept-Oct 2008 issue

Murli Melwani's *Indian Short Stories: From Colonial Beginnings toPost-modern Tales* is a historical overview of what he describes as the"step child of literature", the Indian short story in English. As a genre short stories are neglected by both publishers and critics, though authors,including mainstream novelists have experimented with the form, mainly because of its brevity, and the free play it allows with themes, style and characterization.A short story can be philosophical, political, lyrical and subversive.

What Melwani suggests is striking; as a literary form it is especially suitable to deal with the wide range of Indian experiences, so that thematically it is more expansive and faithful to the nuances of a multicultural, diverse nation like India than the Indian novel in English.

At a time when the Indian novel in English is being noticed in the literary scenario, winning both awards and accolades, this seems a timely critical interjection.Melwani makes it very clear that he is not discussing individual stories, so that each chapter is period based and gives us brief pen portrait of authors and their works, ranging from established writers, to lesser known names, to those whom we discover for the first time.

To that extent there is nothing predictable in the choice of works and the way they have been placed in thehistorical, socio-political context. The analysis never palls because each author, and the list is comprehensive and wide ranging, is accompanied by sharp, insightful comments on different aspects of writing and reading.Normally this sort of capsule presentation of a particular period, covering a decade, can give a sense of sampling rather than providing an in-depth literary analysis; it is to Melwani's credit that he is both astute and incisive in his commentary, however brief they might be.

At times why he includes a writer can be a trifle whimsical, but his individual author analysis is rarely sketchy. Thus we get an interesting analysis of why Melwani feels Ruth Pawar Jhabvala is a better short story writer than a novelist. Sometimes he provides startling juxtapositions such as Jhabvala'suse of satire as compared to Kushwant Singh's satirical writing.We also get to know about Keki Daruwala's short stories, a lesser known aspect of the poet. The space that is given to authors can vary. So Anita Desai gets as much space as Hamdi Bey or Jug Suraiya. Some authors are barely mentioned in a catalogue style, which can be frustrating and can take away from the flow of the argument.

At times one gets the sense that key themes such as the politics of Indian writing in English is given too little space, though here again the analysis is sharp and insightful.Melwani's contention is that the question of Indian writing in English is asked 2 decades later, so that when Ruskin Bond and Bunny Rueben are writing short stories in English the question of authenticity is no longer a key issue.

However it is in the postmodern tales that Melwani becomes a little too predictable, and one begins to feel the absence of a more contemporary treatment of modern literature in relation to complex times. Many a time the analysis becomes too cursory, almost superficial, and the book ends up endorsing what it had claimed to challenge.

In the final analysis it would seem that the step motherly treatment given to short stories is largelybecause key writers, mostly novelists and poets, merely experiment with short stories so that it remains a side activity. A pity that a neglected literary form with enormous potential, which Melwani suggests in away that is often tantalizing and intriguing, can only arouse luke warm interest in the reader. The portrait gallery suggests mediocrity rather than real genius.This aspect has been brought into the argument but only with reference to individual writing rather than as a matter of critical contention. However Melwani successfully draws our attention to works that are less known, and to authors whom we tend to neglect. I for one would be tempted to pick up the works of Attia Hosain and Padma Hejmadi.

Reviewed by Suroopa Mukerjee, author of *Across the Mystic Shore*,Macmillan New Writing, 2006


“All things considered, then, the chief attraction of Melwani’s work remains the portfolio of writers and their short stories that his collection complies. This aspect of the collection is both wide-ranging and painstaking, brining to notice, among others, several obscure, forgotten or little-known works. In the process, it does enough to spotlight the short story genre as an extant and expanding archive deserving serious research. Ultimately, it is for this, that his book win recommendation.
Where Melwani’s distinction is clearing a trail on a road less travelled in Indian literary studies, the challenge for Nation in Imagination is quite the opposite.
Wasaifri, Vol.24, No2 June 2009

The following is the “CONTENTS”page of the book

Foreword by Dr Suroopa Mukherjee

Section I:THE BEGINNINGS. 1835- 1935
(a) Kylash Chunder Dutt
(b) Cornelia Sorabji(c) S.B.Banerjea
(d) Dhan Gopal Mukherjee,
(e) A.S. Panchpakesa Ayyar
(f) Shankar Ram

Section II:THE FIRST FLOWERING: 1935-1945
(a) Mulk Raj Anand
(b) R.K.Narayan
(c) Raja Rao
(d) Manjeri Isvaran
(e) Others(i) Khwaja Ahmad Abbas(ii) Ela Sen(iii) Louis Gracious

(a) Attia Hosain
(b) Khushwant Singh
(c) Others(i) G.D.Khosla(ii) S.K.Chettur(iii) Sachindra Muzumdar(iv) N.S.Phadke

Section IV:THE SECOND FLOWERING: 1960 - 1970
(a) Ruth Prawar Jhabvala
(b) Bunny Reuben
(c) The Gentle Voices
(i) Ruskin Bond(ii) Kewlian Sio (iii) Murli Das Melwani
(d) Bhabani Bhattacharya
(e) Others(i) L. Furtado(ii) Leslie de Noronha

Section V: BLOSSOMING: 1970 - 1980
(a) Padma Hejmadi
(b) Keki N. Daruwala
(c) Anita Desai
(d) Hamdi Bey
(e) The Voices of Youth(i) Jug Suraiya(ii) Vivek Adarkar
(f) Arun Joshi
(g) Kamala Das
(h) Manohar Malgonkar
(i) Shashi Deshpande
(j)Others(i) Sasthi Brata(ii) Jai Nimbkar(iii) Sujatha Bala Subrahmanian(iv) Raji Narasimhan(v) Juliette Banerjee(vi) S.B. Capoor(vii) Nergis Dalal

Section VI: AN EXTENDED SPRING: 1980 – 2006
(a) Vikram Chandra
(b) Nisha Da Cunha
(c) Lavanya Sankaran
(d) Radhika Jha
(e) Manjula Padmanabhan
(f) Shree Ghatage
(g) Diana Romany
(h) R.Raja Rao
(i) Temsula Ao
(j) Githa Hariharan
(k) Anita Nair
(l) Vijay Lakshmi
(m) Esther David
(n) Sangeeta Wadhwani
(o) Anjana Appachana
(p) Meher Pestonji
(q) Susan Visvanathan
(r) Amit Chaudhuri
(s) Sheela Jaywant
(t) Others(i) Anuradha Muralidharan(ii) Amardeep S. Dahiya(iii) D.V.S.R Murthy(iv) Deepa Agarwal


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