This anthology is put together by an editor who has always looked for the best story never told.
Some years ago, casting about for something from Indian languages that hadn’t been held up to the light frequently enough, I made a simple discovery: nearly every famous writer had memorable short stories and novels, and though many outstanding translations of both genres were available, there were hardly any Indian language novellas available in translation. Had they flown so low that they had escaped the radar? I persuaded Oxford University Press to publish a series of Indian language novellas translated into English. Some renderings were published and received well by critics and readers – a few of them even made it to study courses.
My ambition for our writers (and their amplifiers) is that they should not only be read and enjoyed but also studied. While shopping for novellas, I noticed but impatiently pushed aside another literary creature – the long short story – because it failed to make the word count I’d marked off for the Oxford Novellas series.
The long short story. Flashes from a lighthouse, appearing and disappearing with puja and festival specials: 8,000 words, 10,500 words, up to around 20,000 words.
While the novel depends on the proper development of characters, the short story allows no time for a slow unfurling. But when a “story” runs to twenty pages, the reader expects to see excellent characterisation as well as propulsive narrative action.
This collection of long shorts came about because I was unable to publish these stories on their own. Nevertheless, because they are such exceptional pieces of fiction, I thought that they would work well as part of a larger collection. It was in this way that Tell Me a Long, Long Story was born.
Before we get to the stories themselves, I’d like to give readers some background to fiction in Indian languages, how it is shaped, and makes its way, through translations, to readers in languages other than those in which it was originally created.
My immense and astounding country (into which the area of Britain would fit several times), has a god beneath every stone, a god of Fire, a god of Air, a god even of Death. This Truth and the myriad lesser truths of India present a formidable challenge to anyone who sets out to study the essence of the country, the essence that drives its creativity and informs its fiction. Layered with the secrets of antiquity,
Indian society had, by the second millennium after Christ, already acquired all its essential features. Many empires had risen and fallen in this religious and superstitious society, leaving behind their stamp on their one-time subjects; the division between cities and villages had been established; the pleating of a rich mix of genetic pools into subdivisions had taken place, and, with it, the economic hierarchy of the production and distribution of wealth and its management which gave rise to the disgraceful social inequalities evident even today.
For 600 years, from about the eleventh century onwards, powered by the Bhakti Movement, there was a literary and philosophical outpouring that militated against the policy of exclusion which was the social expression of Vedic Brahminism. When the languages spoken by the ordinary people of India in different regions began to be heard, things changed forever. These new bhashas (modern languages) came clothed in regional aspirations and fused into a protest against the hegemony of Sanskrit and the culture it stood for. However, it must be remembered that while this literary expansion was taking place, what prevailed was still a largely oral tradition.
On a parallel track to these developments came the Islamic invasions, bringing about a civilisational change.
While the conquering Turks, who established the Delhi Sultanate in the early thirteenth century on the plains of north India, ushered in a new era of political domination, they also enriched the region culturally through the introduction of Arabic and Persian. India not only “nativised” both these languages but, when the Hindi family of dialects mixed with the Islamic languages, it produced a hybrid language, namely Urdu.
What is less well known is that long before the thirteenth century, thanks to the Arab traders on the Konkan and Malabar coasts, and their peaceful penetration into the land of the Cholas (modern-day Tamil Nadu), there was a rich mingling of Tamilised Arabic, Arabi Malayalam and Arabi Tulu. Meanwhile Tamil, the oldest language of the subcontinent, continued to grow and flourish in south India, having developed sophisticated structures and systems of poetics and philosophy long before these invasions and upheavals.
The great cultural struggle for the psyche of India began with the British “discovery” of Sanskrit in the eighteenth century. Prior to that, British officers had studied Persian (the court language of the Mughals). However, as the traders became rulers it became necessary not merely to conduct trade profitably, but also to rule justly (and to appear to be doing so). This need to understand the historical complexity of India in order to control the natives naturally led to the rise of translation and a unique area of scholarship – Indology. How else could Indian forms of knowledge be converted into European objects of study?
The eighteenth century Indologist’s admiration for what was possibly a romanticised view of a glorious Indian past gave the study of Sanskrit a great leg-up.
The privileging of Sanskrit and its meteoric rise in the eyes of Europe as the Ursprache of the subcontinent was because Governor General Warren Hastings (1732-1818) was keen on Indians being tried according to their own laws. One of the consequences of this was that many of the important Sanskrit texts needed to be translated. These decades, therefore, saw the earliest translations of Sanskrit texts of philosophy and laws into English. Most of them were executed with the help of Brahmin pundits who explained and interpreted to Muslim scholars of Persian. These language brokers then translated what they had absorbed into Persian for the benefit of the Englishmen waiting to translate into English what they in turn had understood.
With a few exceptions, these translations were of dismal quality. When all the footnotes and explanations had been peeled away, what was not badly translated was wrongly translated or presented in discouragingly ponderous language. It set the foundation for a certain mistrust of the profession of translation which contemporary translators are still struggling to overcome.
In the century that followed, public prejudice in Britain began to affect the way in which India was ruled, and the manner in which Britons comported themselves. Hinduism was attacked by English evangelists and administrators whose careers and self-esteem depended on feeling racially superior to the natives. Missionary activity and translations of the Bible into Indian languages led to the preparation of dictionaries and the establishment of printing presses. Print culture altered the public sphere. Curriculum development and the preparation of textbooks knitted with the spread of journals, magazines, and newspapers in the local languages generating a middle-class readership that wanted to read something other than stories and poems about gods and goddesses; they wanted to read about people like themselves.
So during the late nineteenth century, forms and models found in English literature were quickly adapted by Indian writers.
Meanwhile, Hindu reformists and revivalists, sensing the danger of having their traditions submerged by a seductively attractive alien influence, which also offered privileges and a livelihood (through English), began to mount counter-attacks. These initiatives were led by Indians who had by then mastered English. Unsurprisingly, Indians who studied English understood English people better than the rulers did the ruled. In this ironic and unstoppable manner, a language that had no indigenous base in India, became one of the mediums of our intellectual discourse and the means by which we began to communicate with the outside world. “The English language,” to quote GN Devy, “was grafted onto India’s linguistic banyan tree.”
That, briefly, is the backdrop against which this compilation of long short stories needs to be placed. The tradition into which the stories in this book can be slotted – translations of Indian works into English – had an auspicious start: a portion of the Mahabharata. It was the first text to be translated directly from Sanskrit into English without intermediaries and by someone who knew the original language. The title, Bhagvat Geeta ; the translator, Charles Wilkins (30 May 1784).Today nearly every publisher contributes to this stream, this third language made up of an Indian soul and an English body.
Some of the stories in this collection celebrate the creativity, intelligence and practical wisdom of the non-lettered, and all of them drive home the importance of bhasha writings for our intellectual lives, encouraging us all to becoming critical insiders.
I can confidently assert that the enlarging of horizons that translation makes possible affects not only readers and writers of a language, but the very nature of language itself. The more a language absorbs elements and turns of phrase from another language, the stronger and more flexible it becomes. It is safe to paraphrase Goethe who believed that a literature exhausts itself and its resources if it closes itself off to the influences of other language worlds.
Can this be said of the vigorous culture of translations in India?
Every one of the writers in this volume was influenced not only by the different movements in their own languages but by the different streams that ran into their literature, including the rivulets from translations of European writers into Indian languages. Thus, 200 years ago, the multilingual ethos of India was forever infiltrated, hybridised and energised by Western languages and their histories and, more recently, by all the socio-linguistic and scientific advances and discoveries that accompanied India’s contact with Britain, including the impact of an agrarian nation struggling to be reborn as an industrial one.
In my opening paragraphs I made a reference to various forms of the Truth. There is another truth and it lies in fiction. It lies in immersing oneself in tellings loaded with spices and a pinch of salt, a process which has an amazing power to arouse feelings and therefore to change lives.
I hope that readers of literature who lead relatively predictable lives will be startled, maybe even unsettled, but ultimately rewarded by the depth and complexity of these twelve stories, their masterful use of rhetorical devices, the sweep of their insights, and the lustrous expanses of emotional detail. I hope that these stories will enable readers to experience the many different lives that dwell within the pages. But, more importantly, to experience their own lives differently.
Excerpted from “The Long Short”, by Mini Krishnan, from Tell Me A Long, Long Story: Memorable Stories From India, edited by Mini Krishnan, Aleph Book Company.