The idea to write a critical and historical survey of the Indian short story in English was born when an impression and a thought came together.
The book The Modern Short Story by H.E. Bates made a lasting impression on me. In his book, H.E. Bates surveys the development of the short story in England, France, Russia, Ireland and America in a relaxed style that your everyday Joe can relate to.
The paradox of Indian life is that, because of tradition, there is outward social and cultural conformity. The richness and variety lies below the surface, in the dramatic, lyrical and tragic moments of individual lives. When we focus on the broader patterns, we get books like, to give a recent example, the series of novels about IIT life; when we try to capture the nuances below the broad pattern we get the richness of the stories edited by Shinie Antony in Why We Don’t Talk.
The fact that there existed a number of books of criticism on other genres of Indian writing in English – the novel, poetry, drama – and that there was little criticism of consequence on the short story presented both a problem and an opportunity. The problem: there was nothing that could serve as a standard to follow or to counter. The opportunity was to be a pathfinder. Interestingly, the character in Chinese for problem and opportunity is the same.
The Chinese character became my baton. I took on the ambitious task of reading and critiquing as many collections of short stories written in English by Indians as possible.
I started with what is claimed to be the first “work of Indian fiction in English”: A Journal of Forty Eight Hours on the Year 1945 by Kylash Chunder Dutt published in D.L. Richardson’s Calcutta Literary Gazette dated 6th June 1835.
My study was interrupted when I decided to make a mid-career change and move from Shillong to Taipei, Taiwan, to run an export company.
Taiwan was not classed as an “Asian Tiger” for nothing (one of four, along with Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea). The lifestyle in the charged commercial atmosphere can best be described as running to stay on the same spot. Business charts, figures and targets formed the staple of conversation and thought. I had fears of becoming one of those battery operated robots I exported.
What prevented the threatened robotisation was my decision to revive my study of the Indian short story in English. Taipei in those days had just one English book store that sold books mainly on how to learn and teach English.
I bought the books for my study, collections of short stories by Indian authors, when I made my annual trips to India.
These collections formed the diet that sustained me on a bookless island. There were a number of occasions when I ran out of reading material in my area of interest. I’d wait for friends travelling to India on business or for a vacation and give them lists of books to bring back.
I kept a work-book in which, along with my travel schedules, grocery lists and trips of inspection to factories, I jotted down notes about my impressions of the books I read.
I did this for the twenty five years I lived in Taiwan. Does two and a half decades seem like a long period of gestation for a book? Yes and no. Yes, at times when my business commitments seem to crowd my plate. No, when I saw it as the wonderful rejuvenating diversion it was. Let me put it this way, my commitment to my project was like a long marriage. In such a marriage there are ups and downs but the quality of the relationship remains unaffected.
When I moved to Dallas in 2007, I had the leisure to turn these notes into a book: Themes in the Indian Short Story in English: An Historical and a Critical Survey. The book was published in late 2009.
Although my study stops with collections published till 2008, the Indian short story in English continues to blossom, especially with the number publishers multiplying in recent times.
I had the common reader in mind when I chose to adopt a non-academic approach, without footnotes, cross references and other methodological features. The irony is that the book has appealed, instead, to students, teachers and research scholars in India. I’m fine with that. I’m also happy that the book has received heart-warming reviews in newspapers and journals.
My book may not make it even as a footnote in the history of literary criticism of Indian Writing in English, but I’m satisfied that the objective I set myself was endorsed by a respected literary journal founded in 1984. The reviewer in Wasafiri,The Magazine of Contemporary Writing, London, Vol. 24, No 2 commented: “Melwani’s distinction is clearing a trail on a road less travelled in Indian literary studies.”
First published in Indian Book Reviews, 2nd May 2012