An old friend, a rare books collector, swears that one of the classic signs that you were entering middle age was that you would slowly swerve away from the novel, towards other, less strongly trumpeted forms of writing.
I assumed in my early 30s that I would steer my reader’s boat gently in the direction of non-fiction, but that is only partly true: Well into my 40s, it’s poetry and short stories that deliver the most satisfaction.
This is disquieting: Poets are sneered at for not producing bestsellers. They are supposed to lead lives of hedonistic obscurity, except for the rare ones who have the Nobel Prize thrust on them when they’re long past the point of enjoying the benefits of fame.
Some years ago, Deborah Eisenberg nailed the prejudice against short stories with typical accuracy: “There’s a certain attitude of condescension directed towards short fiction, as if nothing of real importance could be conveyed in less than x number of pages. I’ve certainly been made to feel that stories are a kiddie form, appropriate to women, as if stories were the equivalent of knitting socks for the men, who are out in the mines, actually doing something.” The truth is that short stories demand more of readers. Lorrie Moore said once that stories required concentration and seriousness — people could read novels 15 minutes at a time, but not short fiction. “The busier people get, the less time they have to read a story.”
They’re missing out. Two of the most rewarding reads of 2015 were short story collections, as is one of the most interesting debuts by an Indian writer in 2016. And with new translations of stories by writers as disparate as Ashapurna Debi (The Matchbox, Hachette), Naiyer Masud (Collected Stories, Penguin India) and Debi Prasad Mishra (forthcoming from Juggernaut in 2016), it is also possible to trace a history of the Indian short story across a rich variety of languages and traditions. Here are three writers whose recent short fiction stands out.
Kanishk Tharoor: “Tell me truthfully, the mahout leaned forward, are there no other elephants in Rabat?” In his first published short story, Elephant At Sea, about the journeys of an elephant gifted to a Moroccan princess by the Indian government, Mr Tharoor took what might have been a light piece of whimsy and gave both tales, the elephant’s and the mahout’s, unexpected pathos.
The rest of the dozen-odd stories in Swimmer Among The Stars are beautifully pitched, infused with an awareness of history (and history’s accidents) that go confidently beyond boundaries of nationhood and period. In one of his most effective stories, Tale of the Teahouse, he brings the dead to life – in a city about to be razed by the Khan’s army – briefly but memorably.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar: There are only ten stories in Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s collection, The Adivasi Will Not Dance (Speaking Tiger), some of them brief sketches. This is just his second book – The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Bhaskey, a novel, was published in 2013.
But going by this collection, Mr Shekhar is one of India’s most promising writers, his stories deft, compassionate and sharp-edged. The dedication is to Marang-Buru, god of the mountains and Jaher-Ayo, goddess of the forests, often lovingly regarded as older sister to the Santhals; Mr Shekhar, a medical officer in Jharkhand, places the reader in this terrain before you even start. He tells his tales as if you are walking down from the villages in the hills by his side.
His way of seeing is unflinching but not didactic. Mr Shekhar captures an album of people’s lives: The girl who might agree to do “work” with a Diku, an outsider, for two pieces of bread pakora; the swift replacement of myths of Santhal heroes with the competing and seductive myths of Cartoon Network; a world where the dahni, worshippers of the deities of the dark, and ordinary Jharkhand buses might slide by one another on the same road.
Mr Shekhar writes about sex – in Merely A Whore, in Blue Baby – like a veteran war correspondent, familiar with both the adrenalin and the destruction it brings in its wake. He does not rant about development – he is a fiction writer, not an editorial writer – but he ignites a slow, rising and complicated anger in the reader, a questioning of what “development” and change might mean, to the people being developed, changed.
Mahesh Rao: His distinctive voice was apparent from his first novel, The Smoke Is Rising, and One Point Two Billion underscores his ambition. The stories here cover a lot of territory – from a yoga centre outside Mysuru to a camp near Badgarh, across at least nine other Indian states. This is also psychically demanding terrain: A mass grave is found in a village near Sirohi in Rajasthan, pahalwans in an akhara pick a tougher fight than usual, the history of a particular woman revolutionary drops out of sight in a time of insurgency.
The range and breadth that he covers, the patent determination to soak up as much of contemporary India as he can, is vast, and would trip up a less skilled writer. But Mr Rao’s particular combination of chameleon talents – he slips easily in and out of the lives and skins of disparate people – and the way he maps the landscape of violence without slipping into violence porn, sees him through.