Fifty reasons to read ‘The Greatest Indian Stories Ever Told’

Anthology edited by Arunava Sinha offers possibly the best and widest selection of short fiction from 16 languages

GN Bureau | August 2, 2023


#Rabindranath Tagore   #Premchand   #Short Story   #Language   #Literature  


The Greatest Indian Stories Ever Told
Edited by Arunava Sinha
Aleph, 528 pages, Rs 999

What is it about the short-story form that makes it so popular? Isn’t the novel the real thing? A short story or short fiction is, after all, a derivative version of that, as indicated by the adjective. It’s fiction, but a shorter one. Yet, not all readers have the time, energy and inclination to read 250+ pages -- and some of the better ones have the page count in four digits. A short story, on the other hand, can be enjoyed in an evening, after dinner even on a busy day. That convenience is held as the chief among the factors that attracted readers to short fiction since the late nineteenth century. The rise of popular periodicals in the twentieth century (‘The New Yorker’ is a classic case) brought the short-story form to a larger readership.

India has had a rich tradition of what the French call ‘contes’, tales. ‘Kathasaritsagar’ is the greatest example, and then there are folk tales too, such as those collected in ‘Singhasan Battisi’. However, when it comes to the modern short story, the kind associated with Maupassant and Chekhov, the first one is said to be Purnachandra Chattopadhyaya’s ‘Madhumati’, (in Bengali, 1870). Soon the genre was popular in all Indian languages.

Over the period of about 150 years, hundreds of memorable and popular stories have been written in 20-odd main languages. Some of them have been cultural cornerstones, and even people who are not known to spend their free times with books quote from a Premchand story or refer to a Tagore character. Manto’s stories have taught more people about our recent history than any history text could have. The Indian short story, in short, is a rich treasure trove.

A reader, then, faces the problem of plenty. They need good anthologies. For a cross-country representation, these unfortunately need to be in English: even if much nuance could be lost, it would place all Indian readers on a common platform. There must have been many such anthologies earlier than the Penguin edition of 1989, but that’s the one that immediately comes to mind as the earliest. ‘The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Short Stories’ (Revised edition: 2001) was edited by Stephen Alter and Wimal Dissanayake, and had a perfectly workable representative selection, beginning with ‘The Discovery of Telenapota’ by Premendra Mitra. There was ‘The Wedding Shroud’ by Ismat Chughtai and there was even the Gujarati master storyteller, Chunilal Madia. The size, however, was an issue. There were barely 20 twenty stories, in 350-odd pages.

For a better, more ample collection, the reader had to wait till 2014, when David Davidar edited 'A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present’. It had nearly double the number of stories, 39, facilitating enhanced selection. (It also had a wonderful introduction, giving an overview of the form in India since 1870, not to mention an arresting cover and appealing production.)

He then edited a companion volume of sorts, ‘A Case of Indian Marvels: Dazzling Stories from the Country’s Finest New Writers’ (2022), showcasing contemporary and emerging talent. Yet, it seems, Davidar, who heads Aleph, was not content with these two volumes, as many magnificent stories were left out. Thus, Aleph launched a series of books devoted to the best stories from regional languages, ‘The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told’, and so on. It has covered eleven languages so far and three more volumes are coming soon.

The series then created a new catchment to fish for further marvels and there was a possibility of a fresh anthology of the greatest stories. Arunava Sinha, well known Bengali-English translator, is the editor this time. The bouquet (as suggested by the highly pleasing cover art by Bena Sareen) has fifty stories; forty-three of them from fifteen regional languages, mostly sourced from the Aleph’s ‘Greatest Stories Ever Told’ series, along with stories originally written in English.

“And so, this selection of stories does not emphasize the quality of being the ‘greatest’ in terms of each individual story, but in terms of the complete set,” Sinha writes in his introduction. “It is, I would argue, the diversity and the variances that enable this selection to stake a claim to being called the greatest modern Indian stories ever told. To re-emphasize, the stories here have not made their way into the volume on their individual strengths—which are, frankly, unquestionable—alone, but also because each of them contribute a piece to the puzzle that is the literatures of India.”

Any selection, like any list, however, is subjective and provokes readers to debate inclusions and exclusions. The previous Aleph anthology had Tagore’s ‘The Hunger of Stones’ (in Amitav Ghosh’s translation); this time Tagore is represented by ‘The Kabuliwallah’ (in Sinha’s translation). Then why not have something else from Ruskin Bond, rather than repeating ‘The Blue Umbrella’? From Munshi Premchand’s ‘The Shroud’ and Premendra Mitra’s most anthologized masterpiece to Kanishk Tharoor’s ‘Elephant at Sea’, the repeats could have been avoided to offer readers something more. Mohan Rakesh, the pioneer of the Nai Kahani movement in Hindi which also influenced the literatures of many other Indian languages, is missing. And so is Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’, whose ‘Maare Gaye Gulfam’ was the basis for a most unusual Hindi film (‘Teesri Kasam’, 1966). Naiyyer Masud, some believe, took off from where Kafka and Borges left off, but he is yet to be canonised.

These are, of course, quibbles. ‘The Greatest Indian Stories Ever Told’ is indeed the answer to a short-story fan’s prayers. Early masters, contemporary greats, younger talents… A look at the contents page can make one giddy. Here is the author part of it:

1 SIDDIQ AALAM
2 AGYEYA
3 VAIKOM MUHAMMAD BASHEER
4 SHAHNAZ BASHIR
5 MANNU BHANDARI
6 SUBRAMANIA BHARATI
7 RUSKIN BOND
8 CHALAM
9 SARAT CHANDRA CHATTOPADHYAY
10 ISMAT CHUGHTAI
11 MAMANG DAI
12 VIJAYDAN DETHA
13 MAHASWETA DEVI
14 DHUMKETU
15 K. S. DUGGAL
16 A. M. GAUTAM
17 RAMNATH GAJANAN GAWADE
18 MAMONI RAISOM GOSWAMI
19 QURRATULAIN HYDER
20 KALKI
21 KAMLESHWAR
22 DAMODAR MAUZO
23 BAMACHARAN MITRA
24 PREMENDRA MITRA
25 GOPINATH MOHANTY
26 K. M. MUNSHI
27 DINANATH NADIM
28 M. T. VASUDEVAN NAIR
29 R. K. NARAYAN
30 DHEEBA NAZIR
31 THAKAZHI SIVASANKARA PILLAI
32 MUNSHI PREMCHAND
33 AMRITA PRITAM
34 SUNDARA RAMASWAMY
35 BHABENDRA NATH SAIKIA
36 VILAS SARANG
37 LAXMANRAO SARDESSAI
38 KAVANA SARMA
39 MOHINDER SINGH SARNA
40 ANNA BHAU SATHE
41 FAKIR MOHAN SENAPATI
42 VIVEK SHANBHAG
43 KHUSHWANT SINGH
44 KRISHNA SOBTI
45 RABINDRANATH TAGORE
46 KANISHK THAROOR
47 SHASHI THAROOR
48 O. V. VIJAYAN
49 SADAF WANI
50 PAUL ZACHARIA

There are, thus, fifty reasons to relish this great collection. And not one to miss it.
 

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