Flannery O’Connor warned us against the fate of short stories in 1957. In the essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”, published in the Sewanee Review, O’Connor argued that the emphasis colleges place on creative writing had led to a situation where anyone with minimal talent can emerge from a writing class capable of writing a competent story. Her counterintuitive conclusion was that this increased competency threatens the medium. And she wasn’t wrong.

With more short stories, all the factors that elevate a medium – a unique perspective, insight, and artistic depth – move further out of reach. The medium dies a cultural and historical death, failing to do much beyond showcasing mere technical proficiency. (Nowadays, if you’re reading a short story, the writer’s bio likely includes either an MFA in Fiction or a Minor in Creative Writing.)

Some short stories, of course, prove us wrong. Take Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person”. The story was published during the height of the #MeToo movement, touching upon power dynamics, consent, and the nuances of navigating intimate relationships, making it particularly relevant within the broader cultural conversation. But having to concede to only a single counterexample affirms that the main literary markets for short stories are limited to literary magazines, anthologies, contests, and non-literary publications that feature short stories. Publishers steer clear from placing a short story collection on the flimsy bookshelf of the market. It’ll topple over.

Benyamin’s short story collection Marquez, EMS, Gulam and Others, translated from Malayalam to English by Swarup BR, enters the medium in this backdrop and catwalks the fraying red carpet with magic soles. Although the Malyalalam language publishing industry doesn’t necessarily have an ick against the short story collection – Benyamin himself joined the literary world as a short story writer – BR’s translation avoids smoothening the rough edges of the standard translated draft. That was perhaps why this collection stood against the grain of a withering medium.

An intense experience

It’s unlikely that a non-Malayalee reader will have the same experience, but when I read the book, I could tell it was translated. Set across various locations – Doha, Ireland, and Pune, to name a few – it includes a range of characters whose stories remind you, strangely, of some proverb or the other. These stories are generational, and like proverbs, they offer reminders in a concise and memorable form.

In “Solapur,” a destitute Hanumanta, driven by desperation, sells graphic pictures of his wife, Shobhi. Before this, Shobhi tried to pay for their ailing son’s medical bills through a kidney trade. The physical scars of that skewed exchange worked against the couple. Porn has no place for women like her. No “respectable man” can enjoy watching her. As Benyamin said, successful short stories are an “intense experience.” Although statistics go a long way in acknowledging how the porn industry scours the already marginalised, “Solapur,” appeals to the reader’s emotions. By that simple tactic, the story underlines how representation and absence from porn illustrate marginality. There’s no escaping this fate for women like Shobhi.

In “The Argentina Jersey,” a debt-ridden father contemplates consuming poison he had purchased for his entire family. He bought children clothes without realising that they were the jerseys of the losing team, cementing his kids’ socioeconomic position in the school where other children bullied them for wearing the jerseys. Coupled with the heart-wrenching dialogue between the unnamed protagonist and his wife, Meenakshi, the first-person point of view of this story knots the reader’s throat with the nonchalance of an assassin.

Deliberate translation

That’s not to say there aren’t humorous stories amidst the collection; Benyamin admits to the many slices of life while acknowledging that some characters’ possibilities for happiness are more than others. In “Marquez,” a young journalist believes he has become an eponymous author. His witty wife slaps him back into reality by giving him a taste of his medicine: She pretends to be Llosa, who hit Marquez for an unknown reason. (In this story, we learn why, of course). Benyamin’s dialogue tickles our funny bones, but the credit isn’t his alone.

There’s a deliberate and visible control with which Swarup BR reins Benyamin’s dialogue in English, playing with its pace. It’s deliberate because it illustrates how he prioritises the universal characteristic of Benyamin’s narratives over the nuances of the Malayalam language. And visible because it calls attention to another text, the original from which it was born. But he never over-translates, avoiding exoticising the many characters that inhabit Benyamin’s short stories. The translator achieved this without making the text dull, diverting his translation to capturing Benyamin’s characterisation rather than simply his language.

Marquez, EMS, Gulam and Others, Benyamin, translated from the Malayalam by Swarup BR, HarperCollins India.