Neil Gaiman once described short stories as “journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” The Tamil Story: Through the Times, Through the Tides, translated from the Tamil by Subashree Krishnaswamy and edited by Dilip Kumar, is a whopping collection of stories: capacious enough to work as a mode of immersive slow travel, or as 88 little trips into as many Tamil worlds.

Kumar and Krishnaswamy have worked hard to produce a volume that offers up variety alongside a sense of historical context that is all-too-rare in Indian publishing, especially for literature in translation. So while it's fun to dip in and out of the book's different literary registers and locations, I was glad to be able to look up the writer of a story I particularly enjoyed in the Bio Notes.

And once you've read a bunch of stories, Dilip Kumar's Foreword helps place the writers within his brief history of the Tamil short story: from the earliest experimenters of the first two decades of the twentieth century, to the writers who made their name with the journal Manikodi in the 1930s – Mauni, Pudumaippittan, Ku Pa Rajagopalan – through the sharper, more cynical post-independence decades, and into the 1990s, when Dalit writing began to emerge as a distinct voice.

Across space and time

The stories assembled here range as widely as possible across time and space and milieu. So for instance, there are striking depictions of rural settings, past and present. I found Ki Rajnarayan's humorous 1969 tale The Chair, about how a household acquires their first-ever chair and finds that the whole village has a use for it, full of thoroughly enjoyable detail – the sub-judge who starts everything off by visiting in “suit-boot” rather than coming “like one of us, in a veshti and shirt”, or the grandmother who keeps pressing her own stretched legs.

Na Muthuswamy's Ghee Stain (2004) is starkly different in tone, couched as an artful address to the present-day reader, who is assumed not to be able to visualise – and yet urged to understand – the rural world being described. The whole text feels like a paean to that remembered life – the houses with their courtyards, the screens of coconut fronds, the line of sight from the outer pial to the interior of the kitchen – before the ending disrupts the nostalgic mood entirely.

The city, too, features often, starting early on. The 1921 story Subbayan, for instance, harks back to Victoria Park / Singara Park / Rani Park as the site of a great fire in 1876. Pudumaippittan's The Great Graveyard (1941) is a devastatingly caustic take on urban poverty, describing the Mount Road round-tana as a “good place to die”. There is representation both of the multicultural life of Madras – the Anglo-Indian community in Faraway Land comes across as deeply rooted in this Tamil landscape – and of Tamilians in other places, ranging from Mexico to Bombay.

One of my favourite urban stories in the collection is The Sound of Footsteps, a taut and surprising 1971 story about a working woman whose worries are wifely: “Would he have eaten? She had left only after cooking. She had asked him to eat if it got too late. He would of course be worried...He woud be peeping out from the balcony.” The city isn't named, but the protagonist traverses what appears to be a Delhi geography, taking a bus from Gol Market to “Motibhagh I” and walking along an unlit Ring Road.

Themes that return

Certain recurring themes are exactly the ones you might expect from a collection of Tamil writing: caste, electoral politics and the cinema. Reading these stories makes it apparent that caste consciousness hasn't gone anywhere, only acquired altered forms and new spaces for expression. Among the earliest iterations of caste here is in the story Kannan's Grand Mission, in which five women are returning from their bath in the river with “dots of kumkumam on the foreheads of their glowing Brahmin faces” when they meet “untouchables” and abuse them for not stepping aside. Lest this 1925 tale and Ghee Stain fool us into thinking that the pollution-purity aspect of caste is buried in some distant past, the editor includes two razor-sharp contemporary stories – Bama's The Judgement (2003) and Sivakami's A Long Train Journey (1999), in both of which a world with all the accoutrements of modernity – trains, municipal water supply, public schools – is shown up as riven by caste feeling.

In another story from 1977, Jeyanthan's Bonds of the Daytime, a caste feud rocks a government Panchayat office. More devastatingly, caste enters insidiously into the most intimate of spheres, becoming a way for a woman to taunt her husband.

Caste has always lain just beneath the surface of Indian politics, and the stories here are no exception. Nanjil Nadan's story Vote Grabbers is a deliciously sarcastic 1981 account of the partitioning of electoral constituencies to ensure the victory of certain communities: “Anyway, in the constituency, despite dinning in from Standard Five...that this is a secular, egalitarian republic, no one other than a Velaalan who belonged to the Marumakkal community could ever win here. Not even Mahatma Gandhi.” The figure of Mahatma Gandhi appears more literally in Saarvaagan's droll Flag Hoisting in Chinnoor – as a bust “imported from Italy for five hundred rupees”, on which kumkumam must be smeared before every speech.

I also really enjoyed Daily: A Pandian Express, a lovely telling of the day in the life of a political fixer – a man from Madurai who is now “our man in Madras” for a steady stream of favour-seekers from his hometown.

The cinema hall was clearly the temple of the Tamil twentieth century. It appears as a place of refuge, but also of dramatic action. If Prapanchan's In a Town, Two Men lays out his urban geography in terms of the non-stop sprouting of cinema halls, The Story of Saroja starts its bathos-filled tale with the birth of a baby in the cinema.

The fictional pull of cinema also appears. In the rather odd The First Cheque Arrives, a couple stage a “murder” to test if the story is convincing enough to bag a film contract. Ashokamitran's affecting Tiger Artiste is a very different take on film's fictional universe: seeing it from the unglamorous perspective of stuntmen and junior artistes, but still managing to imbue the idea of performance with magicality.

Other stories could be transposed easily from Tamil Nadu to elsewhere in India: like several portraits of marriages, from youthful newness (Timepass) to jaded argumentativeness (In Search of Truth). Kumudhini's The Passing of a Day casts an affectionate glance at a whole universe by tracking an old lady who could be considered a busybody or an indispensable pillar of the community. Two stories that deal with animals and their relationship to human life – Dhavamani, in which a woman loses her treasured cow because of a neglectful family, or Shards, about a man who shoes bulls’ hooves for a living – could have been written by Premchand. The familial cruelties administered to poor old Naagu Paati for continuing to have a taste for food – i.e., life – in Journey reminded me of Sarbajaya's sharp-tongued responses to the withered old Pishi in Pather Panchali.

The translation strategy

Subashree Krishnaswamy's translation pays a great deal of attention to language, especially to the figures of speech that bring a world to life. In Journey, for instance, the younger women who taunt Nagu Paati never fail to use the symbolism of food: “to pour ire into my stomach”, “my belly is burning”, “everyone is going, and you are still sitting digesting all this”. As the translator points out in a Note at the start of the book, they have given “a free rein to Indian English”.

This worked well for me in the dialogue, even when it was clear that the characters are speaking in Tamil. So in In a Town, Two Men we find: “What, 'pa, Gopalu, you've completely forgotten, is it?” or in Busting of Bravado: “From then I'm listening, next time, next time...This fellow is a great leader it seems.” In the superbly told The Opposite End by SA Kandasamy, about a physical education teacher with a reputation for temper, we get: “What, saar, you are talking like this and all...” and “Why, saar, all this unnecessary quarrel?”

But much of the time this Tamil English enters into the telling of the tale, spilling over from the dialogue into the narration. For instance, in the same story, we have, “Vasudevan had accused that the brother hadn't shown the correct account”. Or in Faraway Land, we get “They both were neighbours”. In Scribe, “A doubt suddenly appeared: would he ask money for writing?”, or in Their Separate Ways, “Very fair she was, almost bloodless.” Or in Vote-Grabbers: “Eight to ten open carts and three fully-covered ones. Besides all these, to go around a crane-white Ambassador car.” This is something of an experiment in translation. To find out if it works to immerse you further in the Tamil universe, or occasionally brings you up short, you'll need to read the book yourself.

The Tamil Story: Through The Times, Through The Tides, edited by Dilip Kumar, translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy, Tranquebar.