Omair Ahmad’s Jimmy the Terrorist and The Storyteller’s Tale were landmark books in the history of Indian English writing. The first was a gripping tale of a minority protagonist and his tribulations in the farcical conditions of state and society in small-town India. It won the Crossword Award in 2010, and was somewhat reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s well-poised novella, The Chronicle of a Death Foretold, with its portentous foreboding. The Storyteller’s Tale was a magical dastan of otherworldly import, reminiscent of The Thousand and One Nights, rarely attempted in Indian English writing, except perhaps by Salman Rushdie. Both of Ahmad’s books found unique voices and charted new grounds in narrative technique. Such acts are often tough to follow.
The voice of Gorakhpur
If you approach Tall Tales by a Small Dog with similar expectations of a single, tightly-wrought narrative of profound implications that would be another milestone in Indian English writing, you may find the book a bit disappointing. But that is probably not the ambition of this book either. Perhaps the author has given in to the farce enacted around him in new India, and this is reflected in the stories he tells about his native Gorakhpur. What you get are six funny, weird, sensational, visceral, scatological, and legendary tales of small-town India occurrences, where the protagonists often find mysterious ways to stay on top of collapsing systems.
Yet, there is enough newness here, combined with Ahmad’s characteristically sharp and elegant prose. The force of a unified narrative of Ahmad’s earlier novellas is missing, but you find a merging of his earlier realism with his dastan-like storytelling in Kallu, the dog, as master narrator. Using a dog as a narrator subverts realist trends of storytelling much in vogue in Indian fiction at the present moment. Many literary works of our zeitgeist try to work as political critiques, but in days where everyday news is gory enough, one wonders upon reading such realistic renderings of politics, apartheids, and crime about the choice to read fiction at all.
The double edge of irony
Not so in these tales being narrated by Kallu the dog to a human scribe. Kallu’s perspective is witty, funny, and a tangent to most people’s. The anecdotes he narrates from Gorakhpur are not what you would hear in the metropolitan drawing room. These are tales of local strongmen, upstarts, quick wits, small-time mafia, conmen, ghosts, fake hunters, and young, self-taught English speakers from the Bhojpuri belt.
Very few of these characters take themselves seriously, and even fewer are taken seriously by Kallu. It is this double edge of irony that makes Ahmad’s fiction stand out today from fiction trying to capture the present moment and all its inherent violence through banal realism. To give but one example – in our world where the formal education of political leaders is contested, Ahmad encapsulates it in the microcosm of Eastern Uttar Pradesh: “…there was only Gorakhpur, and a [college] degree did nothing for you here”. The protagonist of this story is an armed goon, a badmash, but with the ludicrous epithet Haggu, shitter, having shit his pants once under the force of a blow to his guts. Haggu makes it big, through violence, which is a prominent pathway to success in our time, but its stench never leaves him and never lets him rest. And all of this is presented with good humour.
Another example of this kind of comedy through characterisation is the depiction of the fake hunter, Gangu Ram, who poses as his brother, the hunter Hukum Singh. Where Indian readers are used to the gravitas and the sombre suspense of Jim Corbett’s narratives of the hunt, here we encounter Sisyphean failures from both the hunters and the hunted. Slapstick and farce, with a hint of the other-worldly, provide the suspense, not the real thrill of the hunt.
Perhaps, Ahmad derives his sense of comic timing, his droll characterisation, as well as the force of his satire, from Urdu’s powerful and evocative literary tradition of tanz-o-mazah, or comic satire, having already exhibited his familiarity with the dastan in his previous works. The dog voice is still unusual. While the first story “The Dog Thrower of Chhote Qazipur” has a clear presence of Kallu in the story, giving us a good rationale for the dog perspective, the other stories with a dog narrator at times appear to be affected by an artificial unifying trope. Or perhaps Kallu is a ruse, the author’s self-critical abjuration of the stories of his own mitti or soil that he admits in his Author’s Note to find “embarrassing in the extreme.” Kallu, the dog, then works like a harmless alter-ego, whose perspective is never quite fully animal, but then this isn’t realism.
Enjoy these stories from a shaggy dog.
Tall Tales By a Small Dog, Omair Ahmad, Speaking Tiger Books.