Writers in English from South Asia(India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh) have found a niche in the contemporary literary scene. They have their own stories to tell regardless of which part of the world they have migrated to. Many live in the West, some straddle continents while others are content with living at home. Regardless, they share something that touches a familiar chord with South Asians across the world. That something is in the unique history and cultural aspects – the names of the characters, the locales(the dusty roads, the neighbourhood school, the smells, the roadside vendors, the colourful festivals and rituals), a colonial past, a conflict of tradition and modernity, a search for identity in a world of contradictory perceptions, the backdrop of religion and myth. This common thread binds most stories in English evolving from the region.
In story-wallah, editor Shyam Selvadurai(Sri Lanka) brings together a compendium of twenty six short stories from writers of the sub-continent – or connected to the sub-continent, by birth or through ancestors. It spans writers from different generations and of varying fame (from the very famous to the obscure). Not all the stories however rank in the same class. Kripal Singh’s “Jaspal” and Ginu Kamani’s “Just between Indians” seem quite trivial and can in no way be uttered in the same breath as some of the more profound pieces featured in the anthology. There are also a few oddballs that are not easily readable – Shani Mootoo’s “Out on Main Street’ due to a strong Carribean-Indian dialect first person narrative(although the story turns out to be quite funny once past the initial hurdle) and K.S. Maniam’s “Haunting the Tiger” due to an abstract theme and the seamless blending of past and present.
The rest of the lot are highly engaging, mostly enjoyable, and a few have the rare distinction of taking the reader beyond the everyday through great storytelling. In this top echeleon lie Salman Rushdie’s “The Courter”, Rohinton Mistry’s “The Collectors” and Romesh Gunesekara’s “Captives”.
Rushdie’s “The Courter” is a story of love transcending language, nationalities and mere physical longing – between their elderly ayah(maid) and an old east-European immigrant who’s the porter of their tenement in London. There’s also the underlying immigrant theme, with the family trying to get a grip on English living, and an undercurrent of racial disharmony, though not as strong as in Hanif Kureishie’s “We’re not Jews”(also a part of story-wallah).
“The Collectors” is a gem, the story of the friendship between a disillusioned doctor and a introverted young boy the age of his own spoilt child. In him he sees all that his own son is not, becomes protective and tries to infuse in him the philatelic hobby. It’s also a growing up story of the boy and a glimpse of the social and political times through the observent eyes of the writer. The setting of this story is a Parsi residential colony in Bombay – the source of a series of shorts from Mistry published under a different title – Swimming Lessons and other stories from Firozsha Baag, also published under the alternative title Tales from Firozsha Baag.
Romesh Gunesekara’s “Captives” tells the story of a hotel manager in desolate Sri Lankan jungles tending to the first guests of his hotel, a young, amorous American couple. Gunesekara’s narrative creates a haunting and poetic effect through the interaction of his characters – among ruins, myth, desires and isolation.
This review would be incomplete and unfair without the mention of a few other pieces that stand out as top-notch works – both in their literary quality and uniqueness of their themes. Anita Desai’s “Winterscape”, a story of generational differences and cultural gaps, Michael Ondaatje’s “The passion of Lalla” – a poignant yet humourous tale of a whimsical and buoyant woman with little regard for conventions and a penchant for gambling and liquor, Farida Karodia’s “Crossmatch” – an episode of expatriate Indian families in South Africa and their match-making adventure on behalf of their iconoclastic modern children, touching upon the often recurring theme of generational divide and culture clashes.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s “This Blessed House” is quite well known through her Pulitzer prize winning short story collection “The Interpreter of Maladies”, an example of well crafted fiction from the new generation of authors of Indian origin writing in English. It carries the theme of cultural identity of Indian Americans like most of her other works. Monica Ali’s “Dinner with Dr. Azad” is actually an excerpt from her novel “Brick Lane”, but surprisingly comes off quite complete as a short story.
The anthology, although omitting some prominent writers like Kushwant Singh and Ruskin Bond, manages to create a fairly successful concoction of the works of subcontinent authors dispersed across the globe and spanning generations.
© 2007 mystic-wanderer