Friday, March 18, 2016

The Rise of the Indian Short Story

This story begins with a caveat. This write has a collection of short stories, which he is trying to sell to a name publisher for the last two years (He is old-school. He doesn’t want to self-publish!). He even hired a literary agent (These days most name publishers want to receive manuscripts from literary agents. It helps the publisher determine the quality and market for a particular book.). Then the agent got back to him saying that while she thought the stories were good, no one was interested, because short stories do not sell. Publishers believe all people want to read are bulky Great Indian Novels. Novels are nominated for awards and they sell well. (Remember the bestselling phenomenon that was the 1,300-page tome called A Suitable Boy?)

The writer could not abide by this verdict. The argument was just not valid. When we discuss changing reading habits (moving from printed pages to digital screens) and constantly diminishing attention span, short story is the only format that can deal with these changes. As the name suggests, it is short and it tells a story within a short time.

Yes, it’s true, since 1980s, when Salman Rushdie put Indian literature in the world map, with the publication of Midnight’s Children, novels have been the raison d’ĂȘtre Indian English language publishing, relegating the short story genre to the backburner. Yet, short stories survived, and now, in the last two years, the genre is making a comeback.

Just look at two of the best-reviewed books in the market right now, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s The Adivasi will not Dance and Mahesh Rao’s One Point Two Billion. Both are short story collections, but with a twist. Shekhar’s stories focus on tribal characters from Jharkhand. Each of Rao’s stories is set in a different Indian state, from Assam to Delhi. The title refers to the population of India.

Then we have Kanishk Tharoor, the talented son of Shashi Tharoor, who was the toast of the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, for his Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories. The book is yet to hit the market and it has already received enthusiastic reviews.

The genre received the biggest shot in the arm when David Davidar, the co-founder of Aleph Book Company edited A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present in 2014. Now, Aleph is publishing Arunava Sinha’s translations of The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told.

Short stories were always a part of our literature, especially in regional writing. Today, we remember Tagore (The Hungry Stone), Premchand (Shatranj Ke Khiladi), Vaikam Muhammed Basheer, Mahasweta Devi (Draupadi), Manto (Toba Tek Singh) and Ishmat Chugtai (Lihaaf) for their short fiction.

Examples abound in English as well. We have all read the magical stories of RK Narayan (Malgudi Days) and Ruskin Bond (Our Trees Still Grow in Dehra).

Jhumpa Lahiri shot to international fame after her short collection Interpreter of Maladies was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. Even Aravind Adiga published a short story collection (Between the Assassinations) after his Booker Prize in 2008.

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