This is a re-edited post from January, 2012.
About two years ago along with most of the book blog world I was not into short stories at all. I felt that they did not give me enough of a world to enter and that they left you hanging. With this prejudice in place I went decades without reading ten short stories. Then I to my great joy discovered what a wonderful literary form the short story can be. In the last two years I have read nearly 1000 short stories. A good short story in just a few pages can take you into worlds very different from your own or can help you understand yourself better. A good short story can do more with a plot and characters than many long novels. I cannot prove this and I know most book bloggers are just “not into short stories” but I now know I was missing out on some of the world’s greatest literature, some real wisdom and just a lot of fun. I will never recommend a work of literature because it is something one is “supposed to read”. If I do not think a work can be read for enjoyment as well as art I will not endorse it to others.
A good short story does often require more work on the part of the reader than a novel in that you have less to work with and must be a more active reader. Short stories go back further in the literary culture than novels, much further to pre-literate days. They go back to the very start of what we like to call civilization and helped create the world’s major cultures and religions.
No literary tradition has older roots than that of India. I will always admire Edmund Burke for telling the English Parliament that they had no right to rule India, a culture much older than their own. Today I am going to do a post on getting started in the Indian short story. I make no claims to expertise and am purely self taught in literary matters and history.
The Indian short story has opened up a marvelous new world of authors, cultures, traditions, history and languages for me. The Indian short story is in a way many different sub genres. Some of the short stories I will post on were written originally in English, some in Bengali, some in Urdu or Punjabi. Some of the authors were as rich as kings and might as well have been kings in fact. Some come from the Dalit, Untouchable caste. Some are Muslims, some Hindus, some Sikhs, some atheists, some Buddhists and some Christians. Some are deeply cultured educated by private tutors and speak and write several languages. Some barely made a living. Several of the stories are about the 1947 Partition of India. Most of them deal in one way or another with the colonial experience, just like older Irish short stories do. Most of the writers are men but there are some great women writers on my list, I think.
Every story I will post on can be read online and I will provide a link. I personally hate to read a post on a short story knowing I have no real way to read it. My postings are always done as much as I can to help the millions of readers like me who live where there are no public libraries. I will post on the stories more or less starting with the authors furthest back in time. I will share some things about the author’s life and cultural importance and then tell enough about the story to hopefully make some people interested in reading them.
“The Story of a Muslim Woman” (1941,six pages)
An Amazing Look Into the Future
The first Asian Nobel Prize winner was Rabindranath Tagore who won in 1913 for his vast output of poetry and short stories. Tagore (1861 to 1941) was born in Kolkata, Indian into a family whose wealth and life style can now only be seen in movies. His father owned an estate so huge that at one point in his life Tagore traveled through it on a luxurious barge and was met on the river bank by tenants paying token rents to him. Tagore was educated in classical Indian literature and at age eight began to write poetry and ended up reshaping the Bengali Language. His moral authority became so great that he was able to write the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh,. He is considered prior to WWII and perhaps even now the most widely read Indian author both in the west and in India. He wrote a lot of very much loved short stories, mostly in Bengali. His stories are almost like parables and read like they could be from the wisdom books of any of the great religions.
“The Story of a Muslim Woman” is the very last short story that Tagore completed. It was completed in 1941 but not published until 1955. I do not know why it took so long to be published but it seems almost like a total prophecy of the events horrors caused by the 1947 partition of India and even the Bangladesh War for Independence in 1971.
The story opens in the home of an affluent of family. The niece of the husband is in the care of their family because her parents are dead. The wife hates her and wants her put out of the house, whatever it takes. She feels a beautiful young girl will attract rapists and thugs to their household. Daily life in the region had gone
to conditions of near anarchy and their was no real leadership anywhere.
These words say much about the history and lot of women in India:
“ Kamala was very beautiful, though her parents were dead. The family would have welcomed her death too; but that did not happen. Her uncle Banshi brought her up with great affection and extreme caution till now.
However, her aunt would often complain to her female neighbours, “Look, her parents left her to add to my burden. Nobody knows what can happen to her any moment. I’ve children of my own, and among them she’s like a burning torch of destruction. She can’t escape the evil gaze of wicked fellows. She alone will sink my boat. For this reason I can’t sleep at night”
Her aunt wants her dead but she does at last receive an offer to become the second wife of a wealthy man of the same caste as her family. The offer is at once accepted even though women want to be first wives, not second, third or fourth. Her aunt is just so happy to be rid of her.
In order to get to the house of her soon to be husband she has to pass through lawless countryside. Her caravan is attacked and she is kidnapped by bandits. As she is quite beautiful she is taken as bounty to the home of the bandit leader. The bandit, a Muslim, allays her fears and tells her she will be allowed to live in peace in his house. She and everyone knows she can no longer marry a Hindu and will be considered a disgrace to her family and caste. In the culture of the time, if a woman was raped it was considered her fault, she was damaged property and would often end up thrown out of her own house and family. Her family would never believe that a Muslim leader would protect her and keep her totally safe in better fashion than her birth family ever would.
The house of the Muslim chief has apartments for eight wives. He allows the woman to live in peace totally unmolested. There is even a temple dedicated to Shiva which allows the woman to practice her religion. He never attempts to force himself on her and does not allow her to be disrespected in any fashion. In time she falls in love with a man from the leaders family. She repudiates her old faith and her caste saying she has found her destiny in her new home. She is proud to become a Muslim woman and falls in love with a man of her own choosing. (spoiler alert)-
As the story closes, years have gone by, the woman is along on a raid on a caravan. She discovers that in the caravan is her cousin, the daughter of the aunt who hated her and wished her dead. As a gesture of the sincerity of her face, she allows the young woman to proceed on her way to her arranged marriage to a man she has never met.
I can see this story as perhaps at one time offending the core audience of Tagore. That he would write such a story in 1941 shows deep wisdom and an incredible insight into the future of India.
“Karma” (1957, 5 pages)
Colonialism of the Mind
Khushwant Singh (1915-Hadali, Khushab, British India-now Pakinstan) is one of the best known Anglo-Indian writers. At ninety six years old (I think he still has a weekly newspaper column) he is one of the premier Anglo-Indian authors. He was born into a Sikh family and initially pursued a career as an attorney. He was driven to begin writing in a reflective often acerbic way about life in the Indian subcontinent by his experiences of the 1947 Partition of India. He was very traumatized when just prior to the Partition of India he encountered a platoon of soldiers of his faith who boasted to him that they had just completely massacred a peaceful village of Muslims, men, women and children.
“Karma” is very acid, almost cruelly funny story about Sir Mohan Lal, a man who is portrayed as being in love with the British and every thing about their culture. He can be said to be an Indian version of “Uncle Tom”. He sees anything from India as stupid, dirty and inefficient compared to an English counterpart. This contempt extends to the people of India and his own wife. You can almost feel the bloated way he insists to himself that he is “Sir Lal” and he is sure the English see him as their equal. He and his wife are going on a train trip. His wife does not feel comfortable in the first class cabin that Sir Lal insists he must ride in so she rides in the back in second class. Two English soldiers board the train in the first class section. They are very annoyed when they see Lal in the compartment. He tries to speak to them but they cannot figure out what he is saying (the English soldiers are from the bottom rank of society based on their dialect). The soldiers look upon him almost as if he were a monkey trying to speak English. Then one of them says “throw the nigger off the train”. The next thing “Sir Lal” is seen face down on the train platform as his astonished wife looks out on him from second class as the train pulls away.
“The Stench of Kerosene” (1960, 5 pages)
Stories of the Real Lives of Women in the Punjab Region of India and Pakistan
Amrita Pritram (1919-2005-She was born in Pakistan) is considered the first prominent Punjabi woman writer. She wrote poems, essays, novels and short stories. Her work is highly regarded in both India and Pakistan. Punjab before the partition of India was in Northwestern India. There is now a Punjab state in both Pakistan and India. The Punjab region is home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations. There are around 100 million speakers of Punjabi today. Some of the worst impact of the partition of India was felt by the Punjabi people whose homeland was divided up by two countries. When India was partitioned Pritram moved from Lahore in what is now Pakistan to India. She was of the Sikh faith and this is why she moved to India. She won many literary awards and is known as the voice for Punjabi women. She married and divorced. She worked for several years for All India Radio (AIR) and edited for 33 years a literary magazine. She was also fluent and wrote in Hindi. Toward the end of her life she became a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an internationally known spiritual teacher.
“The Smell of Kerosene” is set in the rural area of Punjab. The central characters are a happily married couple and the man’s mother. All of them lived together, as was the normal practice. The couple met by chance and the man at once felt love for his future wife. She told him to go to her father and arrange a marriage which he does. Seven years go by and the couple have no children. They are very happy and accept this. The mother- in- law does not. In the eight year of marriage the mother- in- law finds a second bride for her son in the hope she will have a grandchild. The man feels nothing in his heart for the new wife but she does become pregnant. (spoilers ahead) His first wife is heartbroken even though the husband tells her he is married in his soul only to her. Every year the first wife went on a trip to see her old girl friends from before her marriage. This year her husband has a very bad feeling about this and begs her not to go. She does not return when expected. A friend comes to the house and advises them that the wife dosed herself and her clothes in kerosene and set herself on fire. Shortly after this the second wife has her baby. The baby is presented to the husband. He screams that the baby has the stench of kerosene about him and clearly will never accept the child.
“Stench of Kerosene” can be read HERE
Mulk Raj Anand
A Pioneer Anglo – Indian Author
“The Tractor and the Corn Goddess” (1938, 6 pages)
Mulk Raj Anand was a founding father of the Indian novel in English. He along with R. K. Narayan Ahmed Ali and Rajo Rao was one of the first writers from India to gain an international readership in English. Anand (1905 to 2004-99 years-Peshanar, India) after graduating from college in India went to England to receive his PhD. While at Cambridge (the university of choice for Bloomsbury) he became friends with people like E. M. Forester and George Orwell. He was a passionate admirer of Gandhi and a strong supporter of the movement for Indian independence. His first novel, Untouchable (1935) brought him world- wide acclaim as the Charles Dickens of India. He was a friend of Pablo Picasso. His literary output was very large including several novels, lots of poetry and numerous highly regarded short stories. He was a strong force for good in the world.
“The Tractor and the Corn Goddess” is a fascinating story that tells us a lot about how the ordinary Indian felt about his English rulers and the coming of western technology to rural India. I really liked the treatment of the conflict of Indian religious traditions and the British Raj. It also shows the very conservative attitudes of many that in effect worked to keep the British in power. I will tell a bit of the background setting and the plot but I really hope this story will be widely read. As the story opens, the leading landlord in the area has died. His oldest son, who has been in Europe studying (in theory!) and falling into what the residents of the area see as decadent ways is now the major land owner. He proposes something very radical. That he will give most of the land to a collective owned by the people who work the land. The richer people in the area are all totally opposed to this idea and horrified by the suggestion of large scale social change. The people in the area really get upset when the son buys a tractor. Everyone is at first horrified by it and sees its plowing as a blasphemy toward the Corn God. Also they are concerned with the long- term implications for the livelihood of the people in the area when they learn it can do the same amount of plowing in one day that it would take 100 men using the traditional methods. There is a lot in this story I have not relayed.
You can read this story at Google Books. Just do a search for Mulk Raj Anand
Caste Discrimination in Elementary Schools
A Story by a Leading Dalit Author“Scorn” by Bama Faustina (2004, 3 pages, in translation from Tamil)
Bama Faustina is one of the first Dalit Tamil writers to achieve international attention for her work. I confess I did not know what the word “Dalit” means when I first encountered it. A Dalit person is one whose ancestors were members of discriminated-against castes. The Indian government has classified about ten percent of the populace of India as being of Dalit descent. (The common western parlance for this is “untouchable”.) Caste discrimination is illegal in Indian but it is still very widely practiced, especially in rural areas. Members of Dalit castes by practice and custom live among themselves and face great prejudice. There are 3000 plus recognized castes, 49 of them are considered Dalit castes.
Seventy five percent of Christians in India are of Dalit caste background. When Christian missionaries first entered India, they had their best success among the poorest of people, the untouchables. I know this is a very complicated and sensitive issue which many prefer to sweep under the rug, but writers like Bama Faustina are bringing international focus on the problems of Dalits. Oxford University Press has published translations of her novels and she has also published a successful collection of short stories. She is a teacher in Uthiramerur. She is a Roman Catholic.
“Scorn” opens with a child and his mother arguing. The boy, he seems about 10, does not want to go to school today. He wants to go into the forest with his mother who works as a charcoal maker (once a very common occupation for members of Dalit castes in a country where most people still cook on charcoal). His mother tells him that she and her father are working very hard and sacrificing to send him to school so he will not have to be a street sweeper, a charcoal maker, or house boy. She wants to know why he does not want to go and he will not give her a straight clear answer. She finds out from her neighbors (everybody on her street are Dalits) that he was beaten by higher caste children at school because he forgot his lunch box and ate food (with permission) from the lunch box of a higher caste child. When he went to complain to the teacher, the teacher beat him and said he is was just an ignorant Dalit that does not even know the customs of his country.
The next day the mother and the boy’s father go to the school. The father was terribly upset by what happened. He accepts that he has always been treated as the lowest type of person by accident of his birth but he will not accept this as the fate of his son.
The next day the parents go to the head master of the school to complain. They are told that what happened to their son is their fault. If they had only taught him his place in life this would never have happened. The parents begin to talk to other parents on their street. They find out that one time money was missing and they searched only the Dalit children. The headmaster even tells them that the Dalit children at school are always assigned clean up duties as cleaning up after their betters is part of their heritage. The headmaster tries to be nice about this and says, meaning it as a compliment, “Well the children from your street are just naturally made for clean up work”. Here is how one teacher explained it all to the head master:“Kattari ran and hugged his father and started crying. Meanwhile, a teacher came to the headmaster and said something to him. At once the headmaster told the headman of his street, “Let them be. Why should you beat a dog and earn the burden of sin? Why do you want to deal with them at all? Just touch these people and they’ll make trouble. These people are not like they used to be. Let them be.”One of the very saddest aspects of discrimination is that children of discriminated groups begin to believe it is true. There are even terrible TV commercials run here in the Philippines (by big international companies) selling skin whiting cream for early teenage girls. “Scorn” is a simple story that puts a whole world in a few pages. It was translated from Tamil by Sarsa Rajagopal). I suspect it took real courage to write it. For sure it is worth the minute or two it will take you to read it.You can read it online at The Little Magazine.
A War Between Cousins in 1500BC
A Story Inspired by the Mahabharata Epic
“Before the Stars Could Foretell” (1998, 5 pages)
Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay (1899-1970, Jaunpurin, Uttar Pradesh, India) is best known for his creation of what some would call the Sherlock Holmes or Father Brown of India, Byomkesh Bakshi. After graduating from college, he obtained a
law degree. He began to publish literary works while in law school. In 1938 he moved to Calcutta to be a screen writer for the film industry. By 1958 his works were such best sellers that he became a full time writer. He is famous for his historical tales set in the Bronze and Iron Age in Northern India. He drew
on the great epics of Indian literature and gave them a human face.
“Before the Stars Could Foretell” is set in Northern India, around 1500 BC at the time of the Kurukshetra War. The precise details of this war
are lost to us but Bandyopadhyay does a good job of making it come back to life for us. As the story opens we meet two very good friends who led an army against their neighbors and defeated them. They are such good friends that each one wants the other to have the honor of being king of the area the conquered. They came up with a very interesting way to divide up the ruling of the kingdom. One friend would start out as king and pass the title to his friend on the next lunar eclipse. The friend who is not king will act as head of the army. All goes well in the kingdom for a while until there is a revolt in the southern territories. The general takes the army to fight the rebels.
One of the friends returns with a captured princess. This infuriates the rebels and they renew their fight. The general leaves the princess in the care of the king and asks him to instruct her in their language (as of now they cannot speak to each other) as he intends to marry her. The princess is very intelligent and quickly learns the language. She argues that it is against their mutual traditions and law to abduct women. She is told, in a remark that is a commentary on some of the still prevailing customs of the area, that there is nothing wrong with abducting a woman if you intend to marry her!
There is an interesting and fun twist at the end I will not spoil it for potential readers.
This is a well told story. It is hard to do a short story as historical fiction as you do not have a lot of space and time to set the background but Bandyopathyay does a good job of making the past come to life for us.
You can read the story HERE
“Three Men” (2000, 4 pages)
Sumil Gangopandhyay (1934) was born in Faridpur in what is now Bangladesh. He currently lives in Kolkata (Calcutta) in India. He is considered a leading novelist, travel writer, children’s book author and is best known as a poet. He writes in Bengali and English. He was educated at the University of Calcutta. He has had a long a very distinguished literary and professional career. In 2008 he became director of the National Academy of Letters in India. This is a government funded but administratively independent organization whose purpose is to promote literature and the maintenance of the diverse languages of India. He is known partially through his being mentioned in a famous poem by Allen Ginsburg.
“Bangladesh is often, fairly or not I do not know, listed as among the most corrupt countries in the world.) The three men in the story are an ordinary worker, his manager, and the general manager. Tapan, the worker, has begun to feel more and more self-contempt for his role in the corruption of the company. The company was recently involved in a press scandal in which it was documented they withheld baby food supplies in Bangladesh for two weeks in order to make consumers pay much more. This in a country where millions are on the edge of starvation and low value diets in infants cause terrible future problems. Tapan, not in fact a perfect employee himself-he often misses work with no call in for example-is going into his boss’s office to follow up on a denouncing letter he has written in which he gives his resignation. As you might guess the conversation does not go well. Tapan then demands as seems to be his right, to speak with the general manager. As he waits outside the general manger’s office he is advised by someone who does not know why he is there that he will from now on be getting a clothing allowance. Tapan starts to think about his wife (he just got married a year ago and supports his aged father) who wants a house of their own soon.
As he enters the office the general manager tells him he can come in next week to pick up his final paycheck but if he continues ranting in the office he will have him thrown out by security. As the story ends Tapan begs for a second change. Before leaving for the day, he stops in the company comfort room. He spits in his own image in the mirror.
“Three Men” (written originally in English) is a moving story about a man with a consciousness of right or wrong trapped in a web of corruption.
R. K. Narayan
“An Astrologer’s Day” (1947, 6 pages)
A Story by a Genius of the Form.
R. K. Narayan (1906 to 2001-Chennai, India) was an immensely prolific highly influential author. He was one of the very first authors from India who wrote primarily in English and was one of the very first Indian writers to be read widely outside of India. In addition to fifteen novels, he published in his life- time five collections of short stories. Many of his short stories were set in a small town he created.
“An Astrologer’s Day” takes place in a small town in India in 1947. In 1947 India gained its independence from the British Empire and was a time of immense change and turmoil. In the world of “An Astrologer’s Day” it might as well be 947 or even 47 for that matter. Our central character left his home village many years ago, under a cloud of trouble we at first do not understand. He has the ability to convince others he can see into the future through reading a client’s astrological chart. He marries and sets up a shop in the market by a highway in which he tells fortunes and gives advice. He has learned to listen very carefully to his clients and ask a few opened questions that give him enough data to seem to have a mysterious knowledge of the lives and future of his clients. He knows he is a fake but he has learned to give his customers what they want and he has a family to support. Here is a great sample of Narayan’s prose style and description of the method of the fortune teller:
He had a working analysis of mankind’s troubles: marriage, money, and the tangles of human ties. Long practice had sharpened his perception. Within five minutes he understood what was wrong. He charged three paise per question, never opened his mouth till the other had spoken for at least ten minutes, which provided him enough stuff for a dozen answers and advices.
One day a stranger challenges the astrologer to look into his past and future. He gets everything right without even asking the man any questions. How he does this provides a wonderful ending to the story that really surprised me and for that matter shocked his wife when he explained to her how her was able for once to really know the truth without being told it.
“An Astrologer’s Day” is a really good example of why I like short stories. In just a few pages Narayan brings to life for me a world very remote from my own experience while allowing me to project myself into the world of the story. I liked the way the astrologer is honestly a fake! The story only takes us back 64 years but it gives us a look at a a very old culture.
“An Astrologer’s Day” can be read Here. It is a very good story well worth the few minutes it will take you to read it.
“The Quilt” (aka “Lihaf” 10 pages, 1944, translated from Urdu by M. Asaduddin) by Ismat Chughtai عصمت چغتائی
A Ground- Breaking Story by the Greatest Female Urdu Short Story Writer
Ismat Chughtai (1915 to 1991-Pardesh, India) was born into a very traditional and conservative Muslim family. Chughtai earned two
degrees in spite of her own parent’s opposition to education for women.
Most of the female, and nearly all of the male authors of the time of the writing of “The Quilt”-1944-advocated only the very slowest changes to the social order as it regarded the rights of women. Chughtai was seen at the time as a radical advocate of women’s rights. For example, she opposed the requirement of the veil for Muslim women and advocated equal educational rights for women. Her writings have been banned as too radical in some countries.
“The Quilt” is an amazing and shocking story for the time and place it was written. It is about a lesbian relationship set in a time when this could result in stoning to death. It is told in the first person by a young woman who was given in married by arrangement while she was at most fifteen or so (normal practice at the time) to a much older wealthy man. Her family expects her to get pregnant soon and fatten up while living a life of forced leisure in the female section of the house. The young woman soon finds out her husband prefers the company of beautiful young men.
The shocking conclusion in the story is slowly and artfully built up to. I do not want to give away any more of the plot of the story. (There is a link to read it online at the end of the post.)
Chughtai was tried for obscenity for this story and found innocent. Even though no words are used in the story that could not be in a children’s story, “The Quilt” does have a lot of erotic power. It is a story about the
effects of long time neglect and loneliness.
You can read “The Quilt” online HERE
“Bitch” by Mrinal Pande (2004, 3 pages)
A Wonderful Story by a Leading Hindi Advocate of the Rights of Women
Mrinal Pande (1946, Madhya Pradas, India) has had a very distinguished career as a print journalist. She is currently the editor of a major newspaper and has her own TV show. She has served on numerous commissions on the rights of women and children. She has taught at several major universities. She is the daughter of the very famous writer, Shivani (on whom I will, I hope, eventually post). She is married and has children. She published her first short story when she was 21 and basically has been writing ever since then. She writes in both Hindi and English.
“Bitch” (written in English) at once caught my eye as I was looking through the many short stories online at The Little Magazine. It is about a conversation a between a woman who hosts a TV show (as the author does) and her maid about an article they saw in the newspaper about a four year old girl whose parents married her to a dog in order to ward off the evil eye from their family. You can read it in just a minute or two. It told me a lot about how ordinary Indian women seem to feel about marriage. The maid can speak a bit boldly as she is herself a grandmother. (The maid likes her employer because she does not follow her around as she cleans or inspect her bag when she leaves. I just finished The Help last night and this story could be out of an Indian version.)
The TV commentator is trying to tell her maid what a shameful even illegal thing the parents have done in marrying a four year old girl to a dog. The maid thinks it is perfectly OK and feels a dog is a step up from most men. I really liked this exchange:
““But don’t you see it is illegal? The police —”
“The local police.”
“No, no, why should the police bother?”
“Because you can’t marry off a girl before she’s eighteen. It’s the law.”
“So? She’s not married to a man.”
“Gauri, don’t you see? Her parents could still go to jail for this.”
“Who will speak against them? The dog?” Gauri collapses in laughter.
“It is no laughing matter,” I say. But I, too, am laughing.
“Oh Ma, at least he won’t come home drunk and beat her. Or arm-twist her family for a wrist-watch or a bicycle, or get her pregnant as soon as he can, and then run off with another woman. A son of a bitch is better any day, Ma, any day, than the son of man.”
“But the girl…”
“What about the girl? She looks happy. She must have eaten her fill of sweets, been dressed in new clothes. What more can a girl want?”
“But why should she be married to a dog before she knows what marriage is all about?”
The maid then begins an account of the terrible events of her marriage.
“Bitch” is a really fun, beautifully written story that packs a lot in its few pages. I liked the spirit and admired the strength of character of the maid and her ability to keep laughing.
You can read it online HERE
The Indian Short story has opened many new worlds of learning and sheer delight for me. It is an inexhaustible reading area that can take us as deep as we want to go. For some of us the stories are about lives very different from our own, others will see their lives and ancestors in these stories. In these stories you can profit from the profound wisdom of Tagore( Yeats was in awe of him and Einstein discussed metaphysics with him) or laugh at the cynical stories of Khushwant Singh. You can learn a lot about the lives of women from the hilarious story of Mrinal Pande about a four year old girl whose parents married her to a dog. If “Kerosene” by Amrita Pritram does not shake you up a bit, have yourself checked over. Then there is R. K. Narayan. He really is a genius at the short story. You can enter for a little while in the lives of Dalits, it won’t be easy, or if you would rather, you can imagine you are a 15th century Maharajah.