On 30 March 2022, Aleph Book Company announced the launch of its children literature imprint. Stephen Alter’s edited volume of Great Indian Children’s Stories is part of the inaugural offering. The other two are Shobha Tharoor Srinivasana’s delightful It’s Time to Rhyme and Ruskin Bond’s Miracle at Happy Bazaar.
This is a fine anthology. It makes for a lovely gift. Also, the collection of stories heark back to a more secular and diverse past of India that we were/are proud of — it touches upon its soul. Today, it still exists but we need constant reminders that this is still a very strong feature of our nation. It is a great way to inaugurate this children’s literature list but it is also a fine balancing act as this is also how canonisation of a genre begins. Selection of good stories by established writers/translators. In all likelihood, this was a relatively “easy” volume to put together since the copyright permission was manageable. Some of these stories have been previously published in other volumes of short stories published by Aleph. Ideally, given that Aleph is increasingly getting known for its excellent list of short stories, then perhaps an anthology consisting of a wider selection of short stories for children could have been created. Perhaps in a similar fashion to the seminal volume of Indian short stories, David Davidar’s (ed.), A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present. Aleph publications such as The Owl Delivered the Good News All Night Long or Teaching a Horse to Sing: Tales of Uncommon Sense from India and elsewhere are a great selection but not enough. One expects Aleph to set a high standard in children’s literature just as it has done for trade literature.
Nevertheless, I liked Great Indian Children’s Stories.
Award-winning writer Sayaka Murata has sold more than 2 million copies of her book Convenience Store Woman and it has been translated into more than 30 languages. After which she published the English translation of Earthlings but in Japanese she has written over ten novels and many short stories. Life Ceremony is her first collection of short stories. As with Murata’s previous English publications, the translator is Ginny Tapley Takemori.
Sayaka Murata’s fascination with science fiction as a young girl has resulted in a unique form of storytelling. It is impossible to tell at times if the stories are set in the present times or in the near future or in an imaginative realm. “Present times” because some of the stories in Life Ceremony can be disturbing but also the actions of a cult group. Nothing can be put past human oddities. Murata has a knack of exploring human emotions to certain basic situations such as an engagement ceremony, attraction between couples, marital relationships ( hetero or same sex is not the point), procreation, love etc. But it is the angles that she explores — the traditional Japanese ceremonies that are upturned on its head such as the title story which is about a “life ceremony”. It is meant to be a wake but with a difference. Cannibalisation is encouraged where the human meat of the dead is prepared for a feast. Everyone tucks into the hotpot, the stir fry and much else that is prepared with human meat. Guests are then encouraged to find their partners amongst those seated around the table and copulate for the preservation of the human race. The children born are usually left at a centre where they are well looked after. Otherwise, parents can bring them as well though it is never clear who the father is. By today’s standards this is a bizarre concept that is very recent, less than thirty years, but no one in society finds it unethical or immoral.
Life Ceremony ( published by Granta) brings together many of Murata’s themes — social taboos, exploring sexuality, gender, love and of course, conforming to Japanese traditions. In “A Clean Marriage“, the asexual relationship of a married couple while they had multiple sexual partners outside the marriage is explored. It is not as if it is a polyamory concept but that the couple were prepared to cohabit but not necessarily be each other’s sexual partners until they decide to have a child. When they do have to have sex, they take the help of medical experts! Social and cultural taboos are explored in the “A Magnificent Spread” and “Eating the City”. The list is endless. But it is the manner in which Murata challenges the reader to think out of their comfort zones and explore imaginatevely the “what if” angle. “A First -Rate Material” is about transforming parts of the human anatomy such as bones, teeth, hair and even skin into furniture and other decorative items. The skin can be converted into a form of material that can draped like a veil or a curtain. Creepy!
A question that begs to be asked is what does the translator Ginny Tapley Takemori feel like while engaged in these translation projects? How have the stories changed her as a translator? Has working closely with Sayaka Murata influenced her translation craft? There is a surreal magical element to the quality of these stories that possibly existed in the original stories but the translator is the medium who conveys the very spirit into the destination language. The very Japanese-like nature of conformity and obedience remains at the core of the stories.
Life Ceremony is an incredible book. It leaves the reader incredulous. It is what stories are meant to do —pull the reader into the story but also make them think of the immense possibilities. It is going to be a very long time before the reader’s ability to see hair, human skin, bone, frozen foods, chemically-engineered food, fusion food, parallel realities, gendered conversations and relationships can return to an even keel. The stories in this collection are read easily once the reader’s moral compass is firmly put away. There should be no scope for judgement upon the actions of the characters or the fantastically wild imagination of Sayaka Murata.
Life Ceremony is worth reading once it is available in July 2022.
This is the story of a lily that refused to bloom one season because she was dislodged from her accustomed position in the garden bed and crammed into an ornate pot so that she could be entered in a forthcoming flower show. For this rare beauty, it was an act of violation of her natural rights because she believed that she belonged on the earth, untrammelled by the confines of a pot, not matter how beautiful or ornate it was. She was sad and angry at first because she could not understand why she had been treated so. Every seasons she gave of her best; her blooms were radiant, long-lasting and even mysterious with her unusual colour-combination. She also missed her companions in the garden bed from whom she had been so forcefully separated. She felt she was condemned to a prison, away from the freedom of the open spaces around her. What she did not know at that time was the fact that ever since her mistress realized how rare a beauty this unusual flower was, she became obsesessed with the idea of winning the first prize in the annual flower show organized by the Ladies Flower Club and has thus callously ordered this exquisite beauty’s dislocation from her natural habitat.
…inside the dilapidated shed, Snow-Green stood proud and happy in her pot for the first time in years, with her last=breath efflorescence. There were dewey sparkles like tears on the petals in this ultimate show of splendour as though a misty-eyed little girl, holding her breath in protest, had relented and was at least breathing easy and smiling. In paying this final tribute to a friend and mentor, the resurgent beauty was honouring the sacred pledge she had given him. And a benign peace seemed to emanate from her to envelop all around her.
Award-winning writer, Temsula Ao’s The Tombstone in my Garden: Stories from Nagalandis a collection of five stories ( Speaking Tiger Books). Each very different from the other. Unexpectedly so. Many short stories collections tend to blend into one another in terms of authorial style but in this case it is not so. Ranging from the rise in communal violence in the north eastern parts of India to stories that have a very strong folklore element to them, the stories are astonishingly mesmerising. In all the years that I have known Temsula and have been reading her stories, she never ceases to surprise the reader with her vast repertoire of storytelling skills. Her most extraordinary gift is being able to tell the story in the mode that befits it best rather than adhering to a rigid storytelling structure. So if “The Saga of a Cloth” requires a gentle pace intermingled with narrator’s voice or “Snow-Green” has a very distinctive folk lore and modern setting or “The Platform” that is a mix of reportage and journalistic storytelling or the title story being the interior monologue of a woman, Temsula Ao offers it all to the reader. She does not seem to hesitate in mixing forms to suit the content as long as it has the desired effect upon the reader. In this case, the variety of styles work.
The Tombstone in my Garden is a gorgeous read. Buy it.
This is a Muslim Syed girl from a family where liberties for women were thought odious. My father forbade us to attend school and purdah was our bounden duty. My parents passed away when I was three years old and a paternal uncle persuaded our grandmother to educate us. She relented, keeping a lidless eye on each of us.
My third sister was bright and obstinate, with great love for books. She listened intently to every story, which slowly became an obsession. At only three, she forced Nani to enroll her in a school. As time went by, she read, and with her passion came to a gradual swell.
Several magazines — Shamaa, Jamalistaan, Ariyavarat, Kaamyaab and more — could be found in our house. I leafed through them, attentive OR clutching on to every word. The groceries were wrapped in pages torn out of magazines and I read every line on them. They were more exciting than journals. I took them into obscure corners to scan through the incomplete stories. It felt like all the knowledge in the world was mine.
I have a Master of Arts degree and the impulse to know every word ever written soars as despeerately as it did when I was a girl in the fifth standard. However, my passion was tied to our situation. To us, money was a lofty reverie, like a gulp of the sun. The desire to go to markets, exploer bookshops and buy literature caved before our meagre means.
I could not buy a book. When I asked for one, she refused and said that such books were unsuitable for girls from aristocratic families. Nani had vowed to keep us away from them … .
…Books were my source of light and warmth.
… A book was always with me. My novels snug in school books, I basked in their language and immersive imagery through the exams too. …
…books became my refuge and my friends. In school, my performance was seen as exemplary and pleased teached accepted my many requests for books from the library. These became the happiest days of my life. I would go through a book in two hours and would immediately pick up another one.
….In Hyderabad, the rules of our library were rigid and the shrunked stock of books hit me the hardest. Once a week, a girl could get one book at a time. …. One morning, I was humming in class and a girl at the opposite desk said, “Wajida, please sing a little louder.” My were were fixed on Munshi Premchand’s Godaan in her hand. “On one condition,” I replied. “What?”
“I will sing for you if you lend me your book,” I negotiated.
She agreed. I sang.…
The next moment, her book was in my hands. Soon after, books flowed to me. I sang to get them and girls from other classes began making similar deals with me — books for songs. I was relentless. The world spread out in an immense space, crowded with writers and varied themes. The ones I read in my harsh circumstances brought smiles and pride. However, as I write these lines, I am sad to think that this, like a sip of air, was a trivial scale.
Wajida Tabassum’s ( 16 March 1935 – 7 December 2011) was an Urdu writer. She was known for her “audacious and semi-erotic stories and her formidable power of storytelling”. She was born into an aristocratic family but her parents lost their wealth and died very young too. By the time she was three, Wajida Tabassum was an orphan. Her maternal grandmother, Nani, brought up the eight children. These were tough times and they were poor. Wajida Tabassum was a voracious reader with a flair for writing and she put it to good use by contributing short stories to magazines. Soon, she was being spoken of and as she mentions in her autobiographical essay, “Meri Kahaani” ( My Story), that soon the very same relatives who had earlier shunned them, were now readily acknowledging her.
Sin is a collection of nineteen short stories translated by Reema Abbasi ( Hachette India). It also marks the first time that Wajida Tabassum’s stories are being translated into English. According to the translator, the four sections in thevolume deal with “dark, debauched and tragic aspects of life and are structured on the theme of the ‘deadly sins’, namely, lust, pride, greed and envy. The stories are translated competently though at times certain Urdu words could do with a little more explanation through the context. Unfortunately, I did not maintain a list while reading but kept wondering about the meaning of the words. Having said that, the stories are well translated. Structurally to place “My Story” in the middle of the book is a very good idea as it provides a break from the stories. In many ways, the stories seem bold by contemporary standards of writing as well. But clubbing so many together seems to diminish their oomph factor. Perhaps, if they had been arranged chronologically, according to the date of publication, then the growth of the writer would also have been evident. For now, the stories are enjoyable but in small doses.
Once the stories are read, then Wajida Tabassum’s rant about be open to stories rather than being led by the nose becomes obvious in paragraphs such as this about endorsements. She is so clear about her views.
In our literature, forewords have become customary. I feel they lean our readers in a certain direction, which is worrying. Why do we need a renowned name to endorse our work to the extent that critique is printed onthe dust cover? I have many letters from celebrated writers, who applaud my work. Many of them are dear to me. They would compose a preface in an instant. But I disagree with the idea. The foreword to me is a diversion for the reader’s mind and a tool of cheap publicity. When someone wants to move ahead, they should walk without a crutch. Even if they means taking an uneasy road to the last stop.
This kind of sharp clarity is required in more and more writers of today. Perhaps the resurrection of a powerful women writer such as Wajida Tabassum in English will ensure that not only is she read far and wide but she inspires and influences new generations of writers to share their opinions in an equally forthright manner.
Sin is definitely a collection of short stories worth recommending.
Her mother likes telling stories about her. The time when she split open her knee and went all by herself to the dispensary. The time when she got her first pair of white ballerina shoes and was told to be careful not to dirty them, and how she became so cautious that she outgrew them before she had ever had a chance to wear them outside the house. The other thing her mother likes to say is, don’t get too caught up with thinking. She said it when her wedding was arranged with her cousin’s brother-in-law and she hadn’t quite finished college. Don’t think so much. The only choice one has is how to do the thing that’s got to be done. Do it easy and quick, it gets done easy and quick.
That’s how she does things, quick and quiet. They like her for it. They say how quiet and quick she is. When her first son arrived, they bought her a pair of gold jhumkas. Bracelets, the second time around. Glistening black eyes, fat with pride and relief, now watch her move around the house, on her feet all day, doing what’s got to be done: 6a.m., tea for the in-laws, 6.30, tea for the husband. Start chopping potatoes for the breakfast poha at 6.45. Bathe and dress the older one at 7.15, feed him at 7.30. Walk him tot he bus stop at 7.50. Call the others to breakfast at 8.30. Feed the younger one before aeting herself. Take stock of the kitchen at 10. Start cooking lunch at 10.30.
Unknown to them, after the school bus has taken away her first child, she stops for a secret glug of time. … She doesn’t dare stay longer than ten minutes. The other mothers would have returned to the building and her family will start to wonder. Still, she stretches out the minute as far as it will go.
( p.46-7) “A Housewife Walks out with her Children but Fails to Board the Train”
Award-winning writer, Anni Zaidi’s new short story collection, City of Incident: A Novel in Twelve Parts, is of nameless characters who live in the city. It is published by Aleph Book Company. The short story titles are the only indication of the character’s identity — policeman, salesgirl, bank teller, wood worker, housewife, beggar, security guard, adulterous man, trinket seller, and manager. These descriptions are very similar to how stories are shared by Indians in languages apart from English. Stories begin from the middle, consist of nameless characters and move ahead and equally abruptly end.
annie Zaidi’s keen eye is extraordinary. She observes with a minuteness that is breathtaking. Her stories are reminiscent of J. Alfred Prufrock:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
Annie Zaidi, probably like many of her readers, has imagined stories about the many nameless people in a crowd. Zaidi has taken it a step further — she has written down the stories. Short sketches are meant to be packed with detail, not a word out of place, and this is exactly the vividness that characterises this collection. And yet there is a sense of universality about the sketches as the reader will instantly recognise such characters in their lives too. The empathy with which she writes is at the heart and soul of every story. The stories linger with the reader after the book is closed.
The universality of her characters is also played out by the ordinariness of their roles. Community, caste, and religion are not the identifying features of these stories. These scenarios can belong to anyone. It comes as a shock to the reader to realise this. Everyone has a story to tell. This collection proves it as long as one is prepared to look beyond the nameless faces and make the effort to understand. City of Incident: A Novel in Twelve Parts puts the spotlight on the ordinary challenges, ordinary dreams, ordinary ambitions, of the ordinary folk. The significance of this is accentuated given that Annie Zaidi is known for her sharp commentaries through the arts on sectarian violence. The grief and distress of the ongoing pandemic, coupled with the normalisation of communal hatred in society, has been horrific. Yet, Annie Zaidi has chosen to bring the conversation back to where it is essential — the common man and his/her daily struggles. Annie Zaidi epitomises the role of a writer/artist in society; and as always, she does it with calm fortitude and grace.
Shikhandin’s new collection of short stories called Impetuous Women is a slow, quiet, exploration of the relationships, situations, experiences that many women find themselves in. It is “slow”, not necessarily in the pace of the storytelling, but the nature of the lives the women live. The incidents that are focussed upon in the stories are so ordinary and yet Shikhandin, gets the tiny twists brilliantly. She gets their scheming, viciousness, spunkiness and sometimes the despairing loneliness of the women very well. These are stories of women who mill around us all day, or perhaps is one of us readers too. Who knows? There are always little jolts of recognition, in terms of characterisation, attitudes, comments, scenarios and reactions that make one wonder if these stories are truly figments of Shikhandin’s imagination or not?
There can never be enough of women’s writing. There are always more and more spaces that need to be explored. The true beauty of these stories lies in Shikhandin’s acute observation of her womens’ characters personalities and the manner in which they act with other women. She gets their pathetic snarkiness in trying to playing one upmanship, the friction other women can create within a man-woman relationship, the physically and emotionally exhausting lives women lead without ever being able to truly comfortable in their marital homes — “wondering how your position was any better than that of a refugee”.
Impetuous Women will make a perfect companion volume to Shikhandin’s previous short story collection called, Immoderate Men“. The ease and yet, intensity, with which she inhabits the minds of her characters and flits between genders, creating characters with empathy, is probably explained by her strong belief and the selection of her nom de plume, Shikhandin, that “the writer in me doesn’t have a gender, or is made up of all the genders“. ( 12 Sept 2017)
Impestuous Women is a remarkable collection. Read it.
Baby Dollby Gracy is a very bold, sparkling and forthright collection of short stories, written over a span of thirty years. The stories have been translated by award-winning translator, Fathima E.V. The stories have been arranged chronologically, so there is a sense of the evolution of Gracy as a writer. These stories delve into the ordinary lives of ordinary people but go a little beyond. Gracy unearths and makes visible thoughts, conversations, describes actions of women that would otherwise be unheard of in the written word. In these stories characters are persuasively drawn, irrespective of whether you agree with their thoughts, words and deeds. These are very unexpected stories but I am glad they have been made available in English. It is time that storytellers like Gracy were eligible to participate in literary prizes such as The Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist will be announced next week, on 10 March 2021. There needs to be a broader literary landscape to be made available to readers worldwide.
Fathima ‘s translation is superb. It reads effortlessly in English while recreating the local landscapes beautifully. Unlike some translations where there is a constant struggle between the original and destination language, it does not occur in Baby Doll. The translator’s note is exactly how it should be — written with care and deep understanding of the writer’s body of work, a textual analysis of the short stories included in this anthology and contextualising Gracy’s style of writing within the world of Malayalam literature. Also, without forgetting the significant contribution that these stories make to feminist understanding of being a woman and making visible to the lay reader the many, many ways in which women are oppressed in the name of tradition and social norms. This is truly an excellent collection.
May I just say that I absolutely adore such books? Books that one can dip into and emerge with information shared simply. No fussy narratives. No jargon. No back and forth in timelines. Just a story well told. A story told around an object but in good old-fashioned style with a beginning, middle and end. No clever turn of phrase. A lovely combination of historical facts with modern relevance and application. It is a style first made famous by Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. It is an easy way of retelling stories about the significant moments in history. It is a dangerous trap too for there is a tendency to over simplify and scrub out of the narratives any nuances that may prove to be uncomfortable irritants. But that is not rhe case with Tim Harford’s essays based on his popular podcasts. His selection of very unlikely collection of topics includes the postage stamp, canned food, auctions, fund-raising appeals, Santa Claus, the blockchain, stock options, RFID, movable-type printing press, menstrual pads, pornography, QWERTY, vulcanisation, dwarf wheat, gyroscope, spreadsheets and chess algorithms. These read like short stories except that they are all based in facts anre absolutely rivetting!