Short stories are love, a universe in a compact whole. And yet, they are often shortchanged. Publishers say they don’t sell, and many literary awards ignore them in favour of the novel. And yet, some of the best and most memorable books in India – as elsewhere in the world – are actually collections of short fiction, especially in translation.
Growing up as I did in the early 1980s in Imphal, Manipur, in a time disconnected from the rest of the country and surrounded by news of violence with no access to books written in English, I developed a passion for Manipuri short stories – admired and discussed, and adapted into radio plays and films – that has been transformed into an abiding love for the form. Here is a list of some of the notable collections of short stories published in India in English – including translations – in 2021.
The Last Light of Glory Days: Stories from Nagaland, Avinuo Kire
Evocative stories steeped in the rich sociocultural ethos of a land that has been ravaged as much by external military strife as by internal churning within a society going from tribal and traditional belief systems to modern times. Divided into two segments, the book includes stories set during the traumatic events of the Indo-Naga conflict from the late 1940s to the 1990s, and “New Tales from an Old World”, that tackle contemporary themes with just a hint of Naga folk legends.
Each of the stories in this collection leaves an impact on readers: The rich narrative style alone ensures this. The folk elements add an extra zing to stories of young love, which includes those about a young woman living with the memory of her husband, with whom she discovered travelling when he was alive; a young man who learns that one must take and receive only what is given according to one’s needs; a young girl trying to ward off the unwelcome physical advances of her tutor at home.
Baby Doll: Short Stories, Gracy, translated from the Malayalam by Fathima EV
These stories are indeed short, some at less than 500 words. They catch men and women in the throes of the most basic desires: lust, greed, anger and rage, and the madness that beauty and curses bring. Gracy writes with an abandon that infuses a brutal truth into her characters and their emotions.
Along the way, Gracy captures the frenzy of human frailties, how passions can cloud and smother or just die, the claustrophobia of being boxed in by societal expectations, and the way the innocence of childhood is fraught with vulnerabilities. Each story veers on the precipice of things waiting to happen, which they do.
The Lesbian Cow and Other Stories, Indu Menon, translated from the Malayalam by Nandakumar K
The women in the stories are unforgettable: they are victims and perpetrators of vengeance for deep social and personal shame, but the men too are equal carriers of festering wounds that have to – and, indeed, do – burst over time. The characters make you sit up warily and scramble to make sense of what hit you, more so as they are regular people in the traditional conventional get up, dressed conservatively with demure personalities. But then the real selves emerge – and how!
The stories explore notions of thwarted and failed love, and are told in a no-holds barred manner, with no mercy when it comes to bringing out out in plain sight the darkness that lurks in human beings. The single exception is to this is a solitary tender love story.
Guilt and Other Stories, Harekrishna Deka, translated from the Assamese by Mitra Phukan
Stories rooted in the ethos and socio-political setting of Assam and those that could be true of any place. A former IPS officer as author means some rather interesting characters associated with crime in a few of the stories. The writing varies, keeping the reader unprepared for the range that this book has to offer. There are those with writing and writers at the center of them: one looks at creative expression and how writers resort to writing the real in their fiction but also puts out how real life can be less predictable than fiction; another probes whether writers write for themselves or what they are comfortable with writing or if they cater to what the reader wants, all of this while looking at life and death; another examines the various labels on writing and writers who have to adapt themselves to fit in those labels - modern, post modern.
How are You Veg?: Dalit Stories from Telugu, Joopaka Subhadra, translated by Alladi Uma and M Sridhar
Centred on the lives of the women of the Madigas, the most oppressed amongst the Dalits of Telangana, these stories make you realise that even today there are people who are not treated as equal in society, and that entire communities are marginalised because of what they eat and what work they are restricted to.
The stories not only voice the injustices and oppression heaped on them from the outside, but also talk about the oppression within, and how this plays out under the weight of patriarchal norms and belief systems. Joopaka Subhadra’s writing has a strong narrative voice, one that makes you feel you are in the thick of things, even as you are reminded of how entitlements and privileges for a few come at the cost of suffering for many.
The English Teacher and Other Stories, Kiran Doshi
This collection almost guarantees a smile. There are stories that look at the whims of regular people. Those set against the backdrop of diplomatic circles consider the human element in relationships, both personal and professional. Each story has a gentle pace and a natural flair for humour. And the women’s choices and acts will make you sit up and applaud.
The Unforgiving City and Other Stories, Vasundhendra, translated from the Kannada by Mysore Nataraja
These deft narratives weave contemporary elements with vestiges of the old. The stories set against contemporary backdrops build on traditional elements, but the modern and the traditional are not positioned in conflict with one another. The author neither pitches his characters into face-offs, nor forces the reader to take sides.
From the rush for high pressure jobs cushioned by lifestyles on credit and what happens when the bubble bursts to parents adjusting to changes because of their children’s choices, such as so-called “intercaste marriages”, these stories show how the old and new ways sometimes merge: tentatively but inevitably.
Ecstasy and Other Stories, Thi Janakiraman, translated from the Tamil by David Shulman, S Ramakrishnan and Uma Shankari.
Although these stories are set in an earlier time, they do not feel dated, for they hum with the timeless human feelings of fear and doubt, guilt and remorse. Some of them have themes of parent-child bonds or the absence of children in a couple’s life running through them, while others include music.
The titular story brings both the elements together to comment on the gap between the old classical music and the new Tamil film music, showing how good music transcends language but remains a way to stay connected. It is a story that is as sublime as the soul of the music that it talks about.
The House Next to the Factory, Sonal Kohli
These stories are connected through their association with a particular building and the people who live and work there: a tutor who comes to teach the two young sons of the family, a domestic staff member working at the house, a homemaker, and so on. Spread over different historical time periods, starting from the Partition years and crossing over to the 2000s, the stories map socio-political winds without resorting to theatrics, subtly weaving common strands of familial and neighbourly relationships.
Four Strokes of Luck, Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Nandini Krishnan
The master of nuance is at work here with stories that appear ordinary in their premises, but swell and ebb with endless possibilities, the kind that makes you anticipate the twists and turns. With stories ranging over a variety of subjects, from body image issues – the story of a fan of actor Arvind Swamy’s – to the many uncertainties of a silent night in a forlorn corner of a city, Perumal Murugan has you at his mercy.
Chitra Ahanthem is former editor of Imphal Free Press, a newspaper published in Manipur. She is also a Manipuri-to-English translator.s