Briefly, with feeling

Sheila Kumar. April 19, 2015, DHNS
Lead review

First, the good news. They are all here: Tagore, Premchand, Manto, Chughtai. R K Narayan, Amrita Pritam, Ruskin Bond, Gulzar, Anita Desai. Thakazhi, Basheer, Paul Zacharia, Mahasweta Devi, Ambai, U R Ananthamurthy. Vikram Seth, Irwin Allan Sealy, Cyrus Mistry, Shashi Tharoor, Vikram Chandra. And the cherry on the icing? This compilation of short stories winds up with an unexpected gem from the pen of the relatively unknown Kanishk Tharoor.

Short story aficionados will have read at least a third of the works contained in this tome. But it’s a cert that they will be more than happy to read the same stories again, mining them for nuggets the tales may not have shown at first reading. In this category falls old favourites like Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf (The Quilt), Munshi Premchand’s Kafan (The Shroud), Basheer’s The Blue Light, Harishankar Parsai’s popular character Inspector Matadeen and Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi.

Now, anyone who uses the word ‘masterpieces’ in the title of his anthology could be said to be leading with the chin. For those who might want to retort with the use of words like ‘arbitrary selection’ (no merit in that plaint here, though), editor Davidar has this Chekov quote appearing at the start of the book in clear print: I divide all literary works into two categories. Those I like and those I don’t like. No other criterion exists for me. So, there you are. The reader is given no option but to sit back, crack open the book, and proceed to have a good time.

In an engaging introduction to the book, Davidar explains that ‘great literary short stories should have an electrifying impact on the reader because of their complexity, mystery, layering, and special effects’. Short stories attract readers because they can usually be read at one sitting. However, if I may suggest, do dip into the book a story or two at a time, it becomes a most rewarding read that way.

The second bit of good news is that the book is an absorbing trawl through the world of lascivious ghosts, callous drunks, village despots, people with different sexual appetites, wrestlers wrestling with moral dilemmas, grandmothers who unwittingly become the moorings for their grandchildren, unwed women, pragmatic childless women, dying children, tribal rebels on the run, marriages falling apart, a beautiful blue umbrella, Malayali nurses abroad, lustful interludes on trains, lust presented in its unvarnished, loud and demanding state, foreign vampires roaming the streets of India in a sensual daze, and yes, elephants in foreign lands. The one strong thread that links them all is their innate Indianness — in voice, flavour, language and emotions. The humour, a must for a compilation like this one, is by turns rustic, gentle, as well as raucous.

There are 39 stories in all and they span a wide arc of time as well as genres. The translations, without exception, serve up the stories with their original character seemingly intact. This is not surprising given that the translators are Amitav Ghosh, Geeta Kapur, Arunava Sinha, Rakhshanda Jalil and their ilk.

Nisha da Cunha’s Old Cypress lays bare the vulnerabilities of the human condition, tentative hopes balanced by crushing disappointments, before resigned pragmatism finally sets in. Vikram Seth’s story is set in rhyme and deals with venal political and bureaucratic manipulators of the hapless public, the latter being represented by a clutch (sorry, couldn’t resist that one) of animals. Vikram Chandra brings back his cop-hero Sartaj Singh in a long short story, a murder mystery with neat twists and turns and plenty of human foibles exposed.
Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s The Blue Light has the narrator in a most quirky relationship with the resident ghost, a youngish woman who died an untimely death. In Gold From The Grave, Annabhau Sathe depicts the utter wretchedness of dirt-poor villagers who take to grave-robbing to survive.

One surprise is the ghost story from the inimitable pen of Tagore; it has all the trappings of a great spine-chiller: eerie settings, eerie spirits, eerie laughter, hapless humans, hapless situations. Irwin Allan Sealy in Last In, First Out has a most unusual hero, a lion-hearted auto driver who takes the law into his own hands when confronted with a serial rapist. Then there’s some splendidly written erotica from the pen of Amrita Narayanan.

Some stories, like the one about the dog trapped in a house during a flood, the man who is forced to abandon the wife he loves because she is unable to bear him a child, and to marry another woman, the utterly villainous Bhakara Pataler, and Rowther the genial human calculator stay with the readers a long time after they close the book.

There you have it. A Clutch... is a lovely celebration of the short story. Oh, and the blue and silver-coloured cover, with a lemon and chilli totem dangling rather ominously from the top, is another delight, a visual delight. 
A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces
Edited by David Davidar
2015, pp 515, Rs. 695

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