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Villages Beyond The Railhead

An anthology of Indian stories picks gems from the hinterland, where old hungers meet new needs and where the possessed react to modern standards

Villages Beyond The Railhead
Villages Beyond The Railhead
Tell me a Long, Long Story: 12 Memorable Stories From India

Edited By Mini Krishnan
Aleph Book Company | Pages: 336 | Rs: 699

The injunction in the title, ‘Tell me a long, long story’, is satisfyingly fulfilled in this anthology. It seems to be the culmination of a passion project of the editor, Mini Krishnan. She has selected remarkably well-written long stories and placed them in such a sequence that the reader can go from story to story as if they are beads on a chain.

The collection carries the reader through the length and breadth of India and covers issues that confront vulnerable sections of society. At just that mom­ent, when the reader starts wondering if all the stories that are worth telling are sad tales set in rural India, Krishnan presents a humorous Tamil story, Gopikrishnan’s A Place to Live, on the travails of a middle-class man in a Chennai chawl. Unfortunately, the hum­our seems to have lost its potency in translation, but the story carries within it indications that readers of the original Tamil story must have laughed along with the narrator in his recollections of the difficulties of communal living necessitated by sky-high rents in metropolitan India.

In Chetan Raj Shrestha’s story, a metaphor for obliviousness, the protagonist carries on with life without realising Sikkim has ceased to be a kingdom and is an Indian state.

Of the dozen stories, about two seem to have lost something in translation. The others have, at the very least, gained a wider readership due to their being translated into English. The only story which was originally written in English is Chetan Raj Shrestha’s The King’s Harvest, and it also represents one of those regions of India about which most Indians know almost nothing—Sikkim. The story is a beautiful metaphor for obliviousness. The protagonist carries on with his life without realising that Sikkim has ceased to be a kingdom and has joined the Indian republic. The powers-that-be benefit from his ignorance and life seems to go on for all concerned. It is just that the reader is left gasping at the unfair deal. And more so due to the story being placed right next to Mahasweta Devi’s immensely powerful tale of exploitation, Seed. The protagonist of Seed is first co-opted into the machinations of the feudal overlord and then silently brews a rebellion, which explodes in a productive reclaiming of land and livelihood.

Bolwar Mahamad Kunhi’s Period of Mourning (originally in Kannada) leaves the reader lamenting for the protagonist—a young widow consigned to a life of celibacy and unfulfilled desire whereas K.R. Meera’s The Deepest Blue (Malayalam) impresses the reader with its celebration of a woman’s confidence in her sensual powers. Meera’s story seems to be a retelling of the seduction myths from the Puranas—this time from the perspective of the seductress.

Then there are other tales of love and desire—a nostalgic recollection of the awakening of desire in Nirmal Verma’s Signs, a young man’s rebellion against misogynistic feudal practices emerging out of his first exposure to desire and love in Ismat Chughtai’s Lingering Fragrance, and a young man’s fantasy turning into a nightmare in Kamalakanta Mohapatra’s The Witch (Oriya).

There are some tales of obsessions which also reflect life’s varied lessons. The cruellest of these stories is Chinni, who tragically fails to quell her hunger in Kolakaluri Enoch’s Hunger (originally in Telugu). Chinni’s chutzpah and tragedy illustrate a Telugu proverb which can be translated as ‘the lady who couldn’t fly onto the attic flew to heaven’. Like most proverbs, this too has more than one interpretation—while being a sharp comment on ability, it is also a salute to cou­­rage. The quirkiest story is Shripad Narayan Pendse’s Jumman (Marathi), in which the protagonist learns to experience emotions owing to his adoption and loss of a pet. Habib Kamran’s Kashmiri story Bulbuls, too, is a tale of humans learning valuable lessons from the animal kingdom, but it also doubles as a good allegory on the ill-effects of interference from alien parties. This story, first published in 1994, could be arising out of the situation in Kashmir. Another story which records its immediate political context is Waryam Singh Sandhu’s The Fourth Direction, published in 1988 during the peak of militancy in Punjab. The editor has thoughtfully provided a note on each story for the serious reader to place it within its temporal context.

Each story in this collection is remarkable for the storyteller’s mastery of the craft. Mini Krishnan’s selection seems to be anchored in her recognition of the expertise each writer displays in the form of the long short story. It is an excellent tribute to this form of short fiction and a useful, eminently readable anthology of Indian stories.

(Usha Mudiganti teaches English at Ambedkar University, Delhi)

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