It is notoriously hard to review short stories, even more so if they are thirty in number and ordered neither by theme or author or cultural milieu, except that they were written in the same language (or kind of, between dialects and the ever increasing gulf between spoken and written Tamil). There is no logic except what the editor has made of the assignment to collate the greatest Tamil stories ever told. And the editor’s rationale rings in the foreword: the stories provide the reader with a “fair idea of the Thamizh people and their vibrant culture.” I will take the reviewer’s liberty to make the object nouns plural: peoples and cultures.

I am not an expert on the volume of work that encompasses literature written in Tamil, nor on the sociological groups that partake in this enterprise. But one gets the sense that if they were to pull up the Tamil Nadu censuses from the late British Raj (which would have been Madras Presidency, I suppose) to the recent ones, they would find most of the major groups in this collection: from Indira Parthasarathy’s upper middle class man to Father Mark’s Dalit Christians to Dilip Kumar’s Gujarati-Tamil population, the list goes long. And that is indeed what the collection aims to do, for all strata of Tamil society to “have their voices here.”

The collection also boasts of some of the most prominent literary voices that have written in Tamil from the 1900s, from the pre-independence Pudumaipittan, Bharathiyar, and Kalki to the contemporary Perumal Murugan, Ambai, Bama. There are some names visibly missing as well, like Jayakanthan or Salma, but that is a fruitless critique, because literature is capacious and it is an impossible task to organise stories that will exhaust all authors and themes and groups and ideas. And as much as any collection claims to carry the whole length and breadth of a language’s literary produce, that claim is as truthful as claiming Tamilians don’t have linguistic pride.

Drama and monologues

This review, like the stories themselves, has no common anchor. The themes are varied, the literary concerns are varied, and so is the quality of the individual stories. The form of the short story shoulders immense responsibility on its tiny body: to develop character, build a concern, and deliver an ending that rounds them all off. Unlike its lengthier cousin, the novel, the short story necessitates intense precision. Sometimes one detail is all it takes to either make the story brim with life or push it into a cesspool of missed opportunity.

Dilip Kumar’s “The Solution” is such an example of attention to detail. The Gujarati household’s obsession with ritual purity finds expression even in the specifics of which hand should be used to pick up a bucket while going to the toilet. The hypocrisy of such cleanliness comes to its boiling point when a rat is found dead in the communal well. What follows is the drama of getting the corpse out and purifying the water, the (re)solution of the story.

La Sa Ra’s “Rivulets” also begins with a boy’s thoughts on his father’s incorruptible pristine whiteness. Multiple details set up the boy’s character for us: childhood memories and random philosophical rumination on the nature of existence. There’s even a well that introduces the narrator to the titular word “rivulets”: the thin thread of water that fills the well continuously from an underground spring.

But none of these details actually leads up to the primary conflict of the story: a baby is found dead and abandoned in a rubbish heap and its mother is whipped in public as part of street justice. The narrator’s mother launches into a lengthy public monologue about the unfairness of punishing only the woman. But we know nothing about her, nor her propensity for bold feminist lectures. The story records several details in stream of consciousness but without the underlying logic needed to execute it.

The form of the monologue also figures in Maalan’s “The Door Opens.” A depressed man, completely disillusioned and fed up of life, meets a saamiyar (a kind of monk). He comments sardonically on the opulence of one who has supposedly renounced the world, before observing the different people who seek life advice from the saamiyar.

The narration breaks suddenly when the Saamiyar offers a preachy monologue in response to an American man’s desire to become a monk. To don saffron, he says, is not renunciation but the embracing of everyone and everything, Universal Love. The story ends immediately after this monologue, with the narrator claiming the door in his mind had been opened. A (random) lesson for all.

Tyranny and justice

But not all lessons need to be in a monologue. In fact, lessons not in the form of a monologue might have a better impact. CS Chellappa’s “The Door Closes” narrates the story of prisoner 623. After serving term as a political prisoner, 623 makes his way outside the prison only to be met with the glaring emptiness of the outside in stark contrast to his imaginings of freedom. Sundara Ramaswamy’s Naadar sir, despite breathing new passion into his students for football, finds himself rebuked by an administration that can only comprehend exam scores. Father Mark Stephen’s “Penance” explores the structural hypocrisy that marks Dalit Christians as light-bearers for Mother Mary but simultaneously vulgarises that job. The fruitlessness of individual agency in the face of structural injustice comes to the fore, while a sense of hopeless injustice pervades.

An individual’s fight against tyranny become crucial foci in Poomani’s “Change” and Bama’s “Ponnuthayi”. But instead of despondency, they initiate the kind of feminist protest that the mother in “Rivulets” unsuccessfully executes. Poomani narrates the story of Muthupechhi, who works as an agricultural labourer. Muthupechhi confronts the landlord who pays them in worm-infested grain, finally organising the other labourers to boycott the landlord’s farm the very next day, leading his farm to partial ruin. Bama’s Ponnuthayi calls the police on her abusive husband, a matter that elicits the interest of everyone around her. But no amount of scorn, rebukes, including her own mother’s harsh words, move Ponnuthayi, who uses the thali that had shackled her earlier to her husband to fund her own petty shop.

The idea of fitting retribution finds its way into other stories, but with more open endings. Anbaathavan’s “Certificate!” narrates the story of an Irular boy’s attempts to get a caste certificate in order to join high school. After being insulted for his caste being that of snake-catchers, the boy flings baby snakes in the office in order to “prove” his caste to the apathetic officials.

Sa Kandasamy’s “The Slaying of Hiranya” follows the story of a Koothu performer who takes his revenge on the lead actor for raping his wife. In a gruesome, even cinematic, narration, the enraged man in his performance of Narasimha gores the entrails of the villain Hiranya before embracing his wife in his triumph over evil.

Mythology and processes of myth-making in themselves become fertile ground for other stories. Kumudini’s “Letters from the Inner Palace,” and Balakumaran’s “Rain, Endless Rain” partake in the stories from the Ramayanam and Mahabharatam, reviewing their narrative worlds. On the other hand, Thoppil Mohamed Meeran’s “Space Travellers” and Imayam’s “The Binding Vow” animate local legends alongside modern concerns of environmental degradation and gendered caste violence.

Identities and connections

Vasantha Surya, in her introduction, finds in the Tamil literary aesthetic a commitment to an “ethic of doubt and questioning,” in other words, a willingness to probe uncomfortable situations. Stories like Chudamani’s “My Name is Madhavan” and Ambai’s “Journey” confront topics like disability rights and marital infidelity with sympathetic curiosity.

Ambai explores a pregnant woman’s life: from rejecting a dowry-demanding bridegroom to marrying an impotent but adoring husband to becoming impregnated by her new father-in-law, provoking questions on the honour of reproduction and its demands on desire. Chudamani’s “sightless” young man’s typewriting skills become just another “blind boy” circus trick for the narrator’s mother. “My name is not ‘blind boy’,” says the young man, “My name is Madhavan,” before walking out of the house and the story itself.

In other stories, characters’ self-assuredness is tested against the influence of another. And so the crow in Bharathiyar’s “The Story of a Crow Learning Prosody,” influenced by his wife’s art of love, forgets his desire to learn the art of poesy. The protagonist of Aadhavan’s “Arrogance” who judges his people-pleasing Guru discovers the uneasy weight of being adored by a learned rasika.

Anukoolasamy, the teacher-protagonist of Thi Janakiraman’s “Crown of Thorns,” finds to his horror that despite his staunch practice of non-violence, his words have caused one boy to be shunned by the entire class for a year. And god himself in Pudumaipittan’s “God and Kandasami Pillai,” finds his venerated dances dismissed by a modern audience.

In some cases, this influence of the other finds no explanation, even as it rips apart the self’s possession. An inexplicable connection draws Thatha and the Paychi tree in S Thenmozhi’s “Paychi Tree.” Not just Thatha, but his wife and the rest of the family also struggle to articulate their intimacy with the woman after whom the tree was planted.

In S Ramakrishnan’s “Pigeon Fever,” the slightly cuckoo (or should I say pigeon) Goverdhan, a middle-aged clerk with a monotonous lifestyle, embarks on a journey to count every pigeon in Madras. During one such outing, he comes across a purdah-clad woman who shares his passion. In their second chance meeting, Goverdhan, compelled by a force outside his reasoning, hands over his detailed notebook to her.

With reasoning, however, I must now hand over my notebook to you. Multiple stories and multiple themes have inevitably been kept out of this review. It would be an impossible task, much like the task of compiling such a collection, to be able to re-view every story within a word limit. But despite what Vasantha Surya says in her introduction, these stories – like every story – need to be “saddled with commentaries” beyond just this review, in order that they may “roam free in the wilderness of the shared imagination, and give birth to others like themselves, and yet, unlike themselves.”

The Greatest Tamil Stories Ever Told, selected and edited by Sujatha Vijayraghavan and Mini Krishnan, Aleph Book Company.