Open Essay

The House of Stories

David Davidar is a novelist, publisher, editor and anthologist. He has been an attentive reader of Indian fiction for nearly forty years
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A literary journey that began from the jasmine-wreathed verandah of ancestry reaches the expansive and exhilarating world of the great Indian sensibility

When I was a boy, I spent summer vacations with my maternal grandparents in a small town near the southern tip of the country. My grandparents lived in a cottage with whitewashed walls, a red-tiled roof, and brown windows. A jasmine creeper, with tiny flowers, bright as stars, climbed across the trellised front verandah, shading the interiors of the house, and ensuring it never got too hot, even when temperatures soared outside. On the verandah was an old-fashioned planter’s chair with extendable armrests. I spent most of my days sprawled in this chair, eating fat, crisp banana chips, and reading books that my grandfather procured for me. It was the start of a literary journey that has lasted about five decades now.

My grandfather, or Thatha as I called him, was a strict disciplinarian, and I was genuinely afraid of him—although to my knowledge it was only once that he threatened to thrash me with his walking stick. Tall and gaunt, he would set off every morning in starched white drill trousers, a clean white shirt, cufflinks, black shoes shined to a mirror finish and sola topi, to the school that he was the headmaster of. He believed that little boys were meant only to be seen and not heard, and should only speak when they were spoken to. As he spoke to me only in English, and as my spoken English was extremely poor (I could read and write English fairly proficiently, but until I was four or thereabouts I spoke no language but Tamil; this gradually became a kind of English-Tamil patois until high school, after which English became my first language), there wasn’t a great deal of communication between us, even if I’d been able to summon the courage to speak to him. However, my grandfather gave me the gift of literature because every weekend he would bring me a few books from his school library. These tended to be abridged, simplified classics of Western literature—The Count of Monte Cristo, Lorna Doone, Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer, A Tale of Two Cities and so on. I found several of them quite absorbing but often mystifying—the names, the customs and the mannerisms of the characters in the books were frequently bizarre. Much as I wanted to, I could hardly discuss these oddities with my Thatha, so I would simply swallow the stories whole.

My grandmother, my Ammamma, a serene and beautiful woman, whom my sister and I doted on, provided an altogether different diet of fiction. Whenever I pestered her for a story, she would tell me tales that were rooted in family lore, or folk tales from the region. I did not need my grandmother’s stories to be interpreted for me as they took place in situations and locations that I was familiar with. The stories I liked the best either featured ghosts, or, sometimes, Satan. I found them extremely gripping, even chilling. Cohorts of the Evil One included pigs with backward turned hooves, beautiful women with jasmine flowers in their hair (but whose feet didn’t touch the ground), or horrible old women with giant splayed feet who would squat on the windowsills of the dying. I noticed that the only way to detect the presence of Satan was to focus on the feet of those whom he had possessed, so I went through a phase of looking at people’s feet before I would look them in the face.

Besides these two streams of stories, my parents (especially my father, who worked for a British company, and was an unabashed Anglophile when he was younger) would give me books by Beatrix Potter and, as I grew older, tales of British public-school life like Tom Brown’s School Days. This led me to books like Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ series and the Billy Bunter stories by Frank Richards (the pen name of Charles Hamilton) in my school library, from which I graduated to adult fiction from around the world, thanks to an English teacher who managed to instil in some of her students a genuine love of good books. But there was also a fourth stream of fiction that I immersed myself in—Tamil pulp fiction, as well as tales from the Hindu myths and epics, which my schoolmates would tell me. This was not an unusual experience for Indian children from my socio-economic background.

In his seminal essay, ‘Telling Tales’, the great poet, linguist, scholar and translator, A. K. Ramanujan, writes about the traditions and sources of Indian stories that were available to the average middle-class Indian child: ‘Even in the most anglicized…families or in large cities like Bombay and Calcutta, oral tales are only a grandmother away, a cousin away, a train ride away, and mostly no further away than the kitchen.’ He talks about the European stories that he read in books, the Tamil stories that were narrated by a grandmother, an aunt or a cook, and Kannada stories which he heard in friends’ houses:

As we grew up, Sanskrit and English were our father- tongues, and Tamil and Kannada our mother-tongues. The father-tongues distanced us from our mothers, from our own childhoods, and from our villages and many of our neighbours in the cowherd colony next door. And the mother tongues united us with them. It now seems quite appropriate that our house had three levels: a downstairs for the Tamil world, an upstairs for the English and the Sanskrit, and a terrace on top that was open to the sky, where our father could show us the stars and tell us their English and Sanskrit names…

We ran up and down all these levels. Sanskrit, English, and Tamil and Kannada (my two childhood languages, literally my mother’s tongues, since she too had become bilingual in our childhood) stood for three different interconnected worlds. Sanskrit stood for the Indian past; English for colonial India and the West, which also served as a disruptive creative other that both alienated us from and revealed us (in its terms) to ourselves; and the mother-tongues, the most comfortable and least conscious of all, for the world of women, playmates, children and servants. Ideas, tales, significant alliances, conflicts, elders, and peers were reflected in each of these languages. Each had a literature that was unlike the others’. Each was an other to the others, and it became the business of a lifetime for some of us to keep the dialogues and quarrels alive among these three and to make something of them. Our writers, thinkers, and men of action—say, Gandhi, Tagore, and Bharati—made creative use of these triangulations, these dialogues and quarrels.

A large number of us can draw upon two or three literary traditions, others may have been schooled in more languages or fewer, but one of the reasons Indian literature is so diverse and rich is because of the multiple languages and sources in which it is rooted and created. The country has 24 national languages (including English and Hindi) and the 2011 census recognized 1,635 ‘mother tongues’. Of these, thirty were spoken by more than a million native speakers, and at least fifteen had long-standing literary traditions. This polyphonic, incredibly complex environment has given rise to some of mankind’s most remarkable storytellers.

To this must be added the fact that we’ve had a lot of practice in the art of telling stories. Our earliest stories were told over 2,000 years ago. Although purists might point to, say, the parables in the Brahmanas as possibly the earliest stories we can lay claim to, even if we started with the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Panchatantra and the Jataka tales, all of which were composed within a century or two of each other, ours is an incredibly old literary tradition, pre-dating those of practically every other civilization on the planet, with the exception of the Egyptians and our neighbours in West Asia (the Babylonians of ancient times). The first stories in Sanskrit were followed by tales told in Pali, Tamil, Prakrit, and as we move into the medieval period, Kannada, Telugu, Persian and Urdu.

Some scholars have divided Indian literature into the Great Indian Tradition (pan-Indian and Sanskritic) and the Little Tradition (local literature, folklore and so on) but others reject these classifications. Ramanujan says in his essay, ‘Where Mirrors are Windows’, that the only way to look at our literary roots and traditions is to see them as ‘indissolubly plural and often conflicting but…organized through at least two principles (a) context-sensitivity and (b) reflexivity of various sorts, both of which constantly generate new forms out of old ones’.

This plurality is one of the things that makes the Indian literary tradition unique. Another aspect of our stories that is seen virtually nowhere else in the world is the fact that our oldest tales, dating back a couple of thousand years, are still in circulation, in prose, in verse, in street theatre, television, the movies and in online forums of storytelling.

In the future, as the Indian writing tradition matures and grows in confidence, we will see an ever-decreasing tendency to seek ‘approval’ from cultural arbiters other than our own peer groups—in other words, we will gradually grow out of the dreadful syndrome known as ‘cultural cringe’ that so many former colonies have to deal with. All this would seem to project a bright future for Indian literature in the twenty-first century. There are many obstacles that will need to be dealt with—the decline in reading habits, newer and newer forms of entertainment, a lack of resources for writers besides a small group of publishers who are increasingly under siege, and so on—but I’m an optimist when it comes to the power of stories to survive and thrive. Our stories will grow richer, more distinctive, and show us the real India for centuries to come.

As this is not intended to be an essay on Indian literature as a whole, but a brief introduction to the modern Indian short story, I am going to jump ahead to the second half of the nineteenth century when the first modern short stories made an appearance. There was one very specific difference in technique between the older forms of Indian literature and the new forms. Ramanujan explains: ‘No Indian [literary] text comes without a context or frame, till the nineteenth century… One might see “modernization” in India as a movement from the context-sensitive to the context-free in all realms.’

R. K. Narayan, one of the world’s greatest writers, tells an amusing story about creative writing in general, and the short story in particular. He writes: ‘Once I was present at a lecture on creative writing. The lecturer began with: “All writing may be divided into two groups—good writing and bad writing. Good books come out of good writing while bad writing produces failures.” When touching on the subject of the short story, the lecturer said: “A short story must be short and have a story.” At this point I left unobtrusively, sympathizing with the man’s predicament.’

The story is amusing but when you come down to it, the short story is devilishly difficult to define if you exclude length as a criterion. Dictionary definitions are banal in the extreme. Here is one example: ‘A story with a fully developed theme but significantly shorter and less elaborate than a novel.’ If you were taking a creative writing class, your instructor might tell you that your story would need to have the following elements—exposition (the setting up of the story, its backdrop, main characters etc.), conflict, plot, theme, climax and so on. If s/he was of a Chekhovian bent of mind, s/he might tell you to write a ‘slice of life’ story that was relatively loosely constructed when compared to tightly plotted stories that hinged on events and turning points. There are many other categories that short stories are classified under but these do not need to detain us. Let us instead take a quick look at the origins of the modern short story, and how it spread around the world before speeding ahead to the focus of this introduction— the modern Indian short story.

The short story began to flourish in several parts of the world at about the same time—the nineteenth century. The United States had great practitioners of the form, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe (who wrote an essay about short fiction that practically every creative writing course will point you to called ‘The Philosophy of Composition’); France had prolific and excellent story writers such as Guy de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet; in Germany the brothers Grimm published their retold fairy tales; and in England, writers like Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells and Conan Doyle put out not just literary stories but some of the first modern detective stories and science fiction tales. Modern European and American short fiction followed in the wake of books by writers like Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales was published in the fourteenth century) and Boccaccio (The Decameron) as well as the great epics of European classical literature like The Iliad and The Odyssey. The single greatest leap forward in the evolution of the short story in the nineteenth century is attributed to a writer many think of as the father of the modern short story, Anton Chekhov. Chekhov’s precursors themselves were among the best modern writers of fiction the world has ever seen, notably Nikolai Gogol, whom the novelist and essayist Vladimir Nabokov considered ‘the greatest artist Russia has yet produced’. One of Gogol’s contemporaries, the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, went further when he famously proclaimed: ‘We all come out from Gogol’s “Overcoat”.’

The British writer William Boyd is effusive in his praise of Chekhov. He writes in Prospect magazine:

Why is Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) routinely and correctly described as the greatest short story writer ever? All answers to this question will seem inadequate but, to put it very simply, the fact is that Chekhov, in his mature stories of the 1890s, revolutionized the short story by transforming narrative. Chekhov saw and understood that life is godless, random and absurd, that all history is the history of unintended consequences… By abandoning the manipulated beginning-middle-and-end plot, by refusing to judge his characters, by not striving for a climax or seeking neat narrative resolution, Chekhov made his stories appear agonisingly, almost unbearably lifelike.

As the nineteenth century bled into the twentieth century, the short story continued to flourish in every corner of the world, driven by increasing rates of literacy, the growth of literary magazines and supplements, especially in the Western world, the packaging and marketing of famous authors as superstars, and so on. It continued to morph into newer and newer forms as the decades went by.

In our country, the modern short story made an appearance almost simultaneously in several languages beginning naturally enough with Bengali. The writer and translator Ranga Rao credits the first modern short story to Poornachandra Chattopadhyay who published ‘Madhumati’ in 1870 (Poornachandra’s older brother Bankim Chandra published Rajmohan’s Wife, the first Indian novel in English). Rabindranath Tagore soon established himself as one of Bengal’s finest short story writers; in Hindi, Munshi Premchand wrote hundreds of stories, many of which appeared in Hans, the literary magazine he published; and, in Oriya, the writer Fakir Mohan Senapati published some landmark stories. Throughout the twentieth century, most of the major literatures in the land threw up great practitioners of the form—Saadat Hasan Manto in Urdu, Kalki in Tamil, Gurzada Appa Rao in Telugu, R. K. Narayan and Raja Rao in English, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer in Malayalam, and dozens of notable writers in every corner of the country. Their stories reflected their region, their upbringing, and their (often) cosmopolitan reading. A number of India’s pioneering short story writers had a common element in their stories—they were often extremely political in nature. It couldn’t have been otherwise in a country trying to free itself from a predatory and oppressive colonial power, while at the same time grappling with a huge variety of hellish social evils. George Orwell writes eloquently about the power of writing that is overtly political: ‘I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally’. Stories without humbug. Stories that are full of life. Many of the stories in this book would fit that description. Others exemplify what William Boyd said of the form:‘Short stories are snapshots of the human condition and of human nature, and when they work well, and work on us, we are given the rare chance to see in them more “than in real life”.’

Time now to address two contentious issues that have simmered for decades. Let me deal with the easier issue—the authenticity or otherwise of Indian writing in English. I think it is fatuous to consider Indian writing in English unauthentic for two reasons: (1) Those of us who write in English do so because that is the language we are most comfortable with (‘our father-tongue’) and it makes us no less Indian, nor our reality any less Indian and (2) English has been an Indian language for many hundreds of years now, and is as rooted in this soil as any of the other ‘Indian’ languages that arrived from beyond our borders. Vikram Chandra, one of our best story-tellers, built up a fine head of steam on the issue a few years ago. Here’s a brief excerpt of what he had to say:

Indians have lived in many languages simultaneously for thousands of years. Did the great Sanskrit playwright Kalidasa speak Sanskrit at home? Maybe he did, and maybe he spoke a Prakrit. We’ll never know for sure. But we do know for certain that the Bombay poet Kalidas Gupta, whose takhallus or nom-de-plume is ‘Raza’, was born in Jullunder, Punjab, in a Punjabi-speaking household. Raza first wrote in Farsi, then in Urdu and English…

I was born into a household that on a census form would undoubtedly be tagged as ‘Mother Tongue: Hindi’. But I called my mother ‘Mummy’ and my father ‘Daddy’. They spoke to me in Hindi sprinkled with English. Sitting on my mother’s lap, I read newspapers in English. English was everywhere in the world I grew up in, and continues to be an inextricable thread in the texture of every day I live in Bombay and in India. English is spoken on the playgrounds, and we tell folk tales in it, we riddle each other and joke with each other in it, and we make up nonsense verse and nursery rhymes and films in it. Along with many other languages, it is spoken in the slums, on the buses and in the post offices and the police stations and the courtrooms. English has been spoken and written on the Indian subcontinent for a few hundred years now, certainly longer than the official and literary Hindi that is our incompletely national language today... If Hindi is my mother-tongue, then English has been my father-tongue. I write in English, and I have forgotten nothing, and I have given up nothing.

Just as absurd as the notion that Indian writing in English isn’t a major strand of Indian literature is the idea that there isn’t anything of consequence taking place in Indian languages other than English. Every major language in this country has writers who have created indelible masterpieces. Every major language has had its fair share of innovators and writers who have pushed creative boundaries as far as they can go. Many of these masters find a place in this anthology.

The major problem that will persist for the foreseeable future where Indian literature is concerned is this—great literature created in one language is often inaccessible to readers in other languages and there doesn’t seem to be any practical way to deal with the problem. I will talk here only of the difficulties of translating literary work from the other Indian languages into English (as I have no real knowledge of the problems faced by publishers, readers and writers who are trying to translate works into their own languages). Let’s start with the fundamental problem—the impossibility of making an exact translation that reproduces every nuance and wrinkle of the story in the original language, but that is at the same time a smooth read without awkward, clumsy passages in the language that the book or story has been translated into. This is something the world’s greatest translators, to varying degrees—whether it is Gregory Rabassa in Spanish or A. K. Ramanujan in Tamil and Kannada—are agreed on. The best they can do is what Rabassa (whose translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude won Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s unqualified admiration) puts in the following way: ‘There’s a musicality that underlies a book, and I think that if you can move that into English, you can catch it and you’ve got it.’

In this country, compounding the problem is the fact that very few translators who are capable of making outstanding translations actually ever do so—it is simply not worth their while, either in terms of recognition or monetary compensation. Unfortunately, for as long as sales of translations remain small, as has been the case for decades now, it is hard to see this situation becoming better. Maybe if a large-hearted philanthropist— without an agenda and a real interest in Indian culture— decided to fund world-class translators to work with writers in the various Indian languages, to sculpt great translations of our finest stories into other languages, things might improve, but until that happens, we’ll just have to muddle along as best we can. What this means, in real terms, is that we will need immensely talented writers and translators to voluntarily undertake to translate books or stories. And we will need more organizations like Katha, which has done extraordinary work in the field of translation, to spring up. It would also help if government organizations tasked with publishing translations imposed more quality control on the books they put out.

Just one last comment about the selection before I wind down. What was it that I was looking for in the stories? Why did I like these ones, and not others? At first glance practically every form of short fiction is represented in this selection—humorous sketches, carefully plotted stories, domestic dramas, Chekhovian slice-of-life stories, stories that revolve around a single unforgettable character, ghost stories, vampire stories, erotic stories, fables, satire, adventure stories, stories that can be read by both young adults and adults, science fiction, fantasy, political stories, stories within stories… But if you look closer you will find that the majority of the stories have a vivid sense of place and an exceptionally strong voice. Many of them are rooted in classical Indian forms of story-telling or unselfconsciously use Indian myth and legend in their narratives. In addition, they possess in great abundance the Indian sensibility I was referring to earlier. There is nothing ersatz about these stories. In them, you will encounter an India that is sharper, clearer and imprints itself more deeply on your consciousness than anything you will find in real life. This is what serious literature is meant to do, and that is the hallmark of these stories across genres.

For the past few months I have been building a memory palace. This is a mnemonic device invented by the Romans and Greeks centuries ago to help people retain masses of information. If you’re a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, you have probably seen him construct a memory palace to organize clues to help him track down a killer. The concept is simplicity itself. All you will need to do is imagine a structure in your mind to which you attach whatever information it is that you want to remember. My memory palace is modelled on an actual palace—the opulent former residence of the Maharaja of Mysore that I remember from a visit when I was in college. I have a hazy recollection that it sprawled over acres of land and had a lot of white marble in every room; I didn’t much care for the waste-paper baskets made of elephant feet and the numerous shikar trophies on the walls, and on the floors. My memory palace, unlike the maharaja’s palace, has onyx wastepaper baskets and modern Indian masters on the walls (cost is no object, naturally). Also, unlike the actual maharaja’s palace, this one has an unlimited number of rooms. Some of the rooms are dimly lit, and the others are dark (which indicates that there is no activity going on within them). When I enter any of the rooms that are faintly illuminated, the entire room blazes with light. At the same time the room begins to hum with activity, with various characters engaged in all manner of actions. Each of the lighted rooms represents a favourite Indian book, story or poem—collected on a long journey that began with the absorbing and mystifying books I read on my grandfather’s jasmine-wreathed verandah. It is the place I call home.

(This is a shorter version of the introduction from A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present, edited by David Davidar; Aleph; 544 pages; Rs 795)