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Review of A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, edited by David Davidar

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Reviewed by Renga, managing editor for Anthem Press, a contract publishing division of Newgen India.

Dostoevsky once proclaimed that all of modern Russian literature came from Gogol’s The Cloak (or The Overcoat in some translations). One can safely say that all of modern Indian literature, especially the short story, came from Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces is a collection of 39 of the best Indian short stories translated into English, starting from the nineteenth century till the contemporary. Some of these stories were originally written in English: R. K. Narayan’s (mentored by Graham Greene) A Horse and Two Goats, Khuswant Singh’s (the granddaddy of modern Indian literature) Portrait of a Lady, Ruskin Bond’s The Blue Umbrella, among others. Most of the translated stories are published in their original translations, and for some new translations were commissioned, the notable among the translators being Amitav Ghosh (whose Sea of Poppies was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2008), Khuswant Singh, A. K. Ramanujan (my favorite Indian poet), Arunava Sinha (whose translations of Bengali literature I simply adore), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (who translated Jacques Derrida’s De la Grammatologie), among others. Ranging across genres, the collection includes stories written in Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Malayalam, Odiya, Marathi, Rajasthani, Thamizh, Telugu and Kannada. Although all the stories are quintessentially Indian and rooted in as diverse a sensibility as can be seen only in India, each story evokes an affect so unique yet somehow universal, as the world’s great short stories always have.

Each of the 39 stories merits a review in its entirety; however, I want to write a few sentences about five stories from this eclectic collection capturing their essence. I select these five stories for reasons as varied as (1) randomly summoning the first five stories that come to my mind, (2) structure ranging from well-crafted and plotted stories to Chekhovian slice-of-life stories, and (3) admiring these stories more than the others. A different point in time and after re-readings, I might select five other stories. The first story will be Ishmat Chugtai’s The Quilt (Lihaaf in Urdu) for which the author was taken to court in Lahore in 1942 on obscenity charges, which were dropped as she successfully contested them. Sample this: ‘The next night when I woke up I found a fight being resolved in great silence between Rabbo and Begum Jan on the four-poster bed, and for the life of me I could not figure out what it was all about, and whether it was ever resolved. Rabbo cried great hiccupping sobs and then the slurping sounds of a cat licking a bowl could be heard. Terrified, I went back to sleep.’ Narrated by the young niece of an aristocratic Muslim housewife, The Quilt tells the story of the neglected and stifled housewife and her relationship with her chambermaid while the Nawab Sahib (the husband) had ‘one very strange pursuit’: ‘He only had students staying over at his home – fair, young boys with slender waists – whose expenses were borne entirely by Nawab Sahib.’ The Quilt was then and even now a landmark story in Indian literature for its suggestive depictions of homosexuality.

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and Vaikom Mohammed Basheer’s – two of my favorite Malayalam writers – The Flood and The Blue Light follow next. The Flood tells the story of an abandoned mongrel due to rising floodwaters that fiercely protects the humble tenements of its master, Chennan (a pariah or untouchable), from rescuers, thieves, a snake and even fresh-water crocodiles. This story reminded me of so many of Maupassant’s animal stories. No wonder T. Sivasankara Pillai is also known as the ‘Kerala Maupassant.’ ‘The hut collapsed after a while, and sank out of sight. And the loyal animal, which had stood guard over its master’s property for as long as it could, was gone as well. The crocodiles had it now. It was all over, the waters covered everything.’

The Blue Light tells the story of a struggling writer who rents a small house haunted by a female ghost, Bhargavi, who had lived in the house before committing suicide lovelorn. The unnamed writer, in the midst of his writing and listening to records of Paul Robeson, Pankaj Mullick, Bing Crosby and M. S. Subbulakshmi, falls in love with Bhargavi kutty. ‘Blue light! White walls, the whole room, drenched in ethereal blue light. That light came from the lamp, in which a blue flame blazed. Who had lit this blue light in Bhargavinilayam?’ Or is the love the other way around?

Sartaj Singh, the hero of Sacred Games (hugely popular now because of the Netflix series), makes his first appearance in Vikram Chandra’s Kama. Sartaj, about to be divorced from his wife, his college sweetheart, is famous in the Bombay papers for ‘encountering’ (gunning down) gangsters. He is not the kind of the comical and stereotypical Bombay cop caricatured in pop culture, but he is more like the Glenn Ford kind of cop in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. Although Kama is a noir story set in the corrupt and criminal underbelly of Bombay, it’s not a story without feeling. ‘She held him and he thought of the other man viciously. Look where she is now. Look. But who is the cuckold, which is the husband … But then he cried out in love, from the scalding oily embrace of her … He knew her pleasures.’

Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi was set in 1970s Bengal – a time of great sociopolitical upheaval fueled by the Maoist insurgency. Draupadi tells the story of Dopdi (the Santhali name for the Sanskrit Draupadi), a fearless naxal who is wanted by the police along with her husband for killing a local landlord. But unlike the Draupadi of the Mahabharata who is saved by Lord Krishna from being disrobed by the Kauravas, her Dopdi is gang-raped by policeman after her capture. ‘What’s the use of clothes? You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man? … Draupadi pushes Senanayak with her two mangled breasts, and for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid.’

David Davidar, the editor of this collection, in his erudite Introduction, quotes Vikram Chandra: ‘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.’ It is impossible to learn all the major Indian languages so as to ‘read’ the established literary works in these languages. English being an Indian language too (being around for several hundred years) enables reading these works, thanks to this wonderful and expertly translated collection. I still recommend this book to my friends who read, read as a necessity, and still gift this book to my close ones.