About halfway down Tell Me A Long, Long Story, edited by Mini Krishnan, four lines capture, almost accurately, everything you’d feel reading this collection.
“What one writes after experience – that’s fiction. Experiencing what’s written – that’s life. That’s the inconvenience of life. And the freedom of fiction.”
For Krishnan has chosen the twelve long stories that make up this anthology with enormous care. They’re ancient and modern, brutal and beautiful, funny and fiercely sad. They creep up and across the country – from Sikkim and Kashmir, through Punjab and Delhi, to Bengal, Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. No two settings are similar. Nearly all the drama in one happens inside a rose bush. In another, you’re dragged around the great, icy peaks of the Eastern Himalayas. There are savage endings and surprises – here, a goat is a hero, there, bulbuls. The women long for handsome men, and in one memorable scene, it is a woman who gazes at a man, his body, his hair, as he plays the harmonium and gives music lessons. (Oh and he’s a hermit.)
The thread that unites the twelve stories is their length: they’re longer than a short story, and that’s certainly their strength. Mahasweta Devi has time and space to build and keep the tension in “Seed”, leaving you gasping, weeping. Shripad Narayan Pendse similarly transports you to rural Maharashtra in “Jumman”, where the goat-god entertains and exasperates, only to end with his blood drenching the idol of Mhasoba.
The other common element is that all except one are superb translations from Indian languages (the exception being a stunning and original English story). As an editor of translations at Oxford University Press, Krishnan knows this territory well, and she’s picked gems that add up to a rich and rewarding collection. Excerpts from an interview with Krishnan:
Could you explain your choice of the stories? The geographies – spanning, quite literally, the length and breadth of the country – and the political history which act as the backdrops are particularly fascinating. For instance, the Sikkim story is placed around the Chinese conflict and Mahasweta Devi’s story is about a peasant-versus-landlord struggle. Were these stories picked for their context and setting, or was that secondary to the telling?
I had three concerns: first – to get a spread of languages. Then, a range of backdrops or environments. And then, the prestige and fame of the writers. I cannot say I thought much about history or politics, but conflicts between the oppressor and the victim is often one of the preoccupations of literary reads. Or let me say that it should be! Are we merely a population of literary clubs reading to each other for fun? What about fellow feeling and the force and energy of the dispossessed and the unlettered? It is this peasant class that carries the memories and traditions of our tribal origins and was also largely unaffected by English and Anglicised lifestyles. Shouldn’t their stories be told and retold? So yes, there is a slant.
The stories in this collection were written between 1956 and 2013. And nearly half are from the period of rapid urbanisation and migration to towns and cities (1980s and 1990s). Yet the flavour of the book is largely rural, and the preoccupations, often pastoral. Was it a conscious decision to pick those that reflected the experiences of two-thirds of our country, or were these themes more visible across the long story genre?
When I started the translation series at Macmillan in 1996, I had worked on the launch list for four years. Partly because I had lived only in cities I felt a vague desire to capture stories set in agrarian and small-town contexts. Also because so much of the origins of all our languages and cultures goes right back to the mud of the subcontinent, I found myself searching for a vanishing way of life. Not to romanticise them, but to preserve a section of our past.
During the early decades covered by the selections you see in my book, many writers went back to villages and forests to tell their stories. And yes, of course some of the themes of the other stories in the book have been deftly handled by celebrated writers, the obvious ones being UR Ananthamurthy and Devanura Mahadeva in Kannada and MT Vasudevan Nair in Malayalam, who are not in this book.
The most charged stories in the collection feature an ascetic and a widow, respectively. This theme of forbidden love, longing and passion – and the woman being in control – was both surprising and stunning, especially when the space for such a narrative (in print and cinema) is either shrinking or quickly descends into controversy. Could you comment on where and how such stories did (and can) thrive?
Fiction is the safest place for such narratives. And can you suppress real life with rules? There are equally startling stories written earlier than the one you refer to. They just do not reach a wider reading public because we have translated (for national understanding and discussion) so very little of our corpus. We have a sturdy tradition in fiction featuring women taking charge. If there haven’t been controversies, it is because these stories have not been widely circulated or because they are very literary in nature and therefore of not much interest to those who would like to find fault.
In your introduction you speak of a third language – after Indian languages and English – which has an “Indian soul and English body”. Could you elaborate on this, especially in the context of translations?
Well, geographically, historically, we are Eastern, Asian. Our Western-oriented education has given us other resources that have both interfered with our core strengths and taken something away for ever and enriched us with alien powers. “I told him ki…” (what language is that?) “Bhayankara tension” (will anyone except we understand such words?). Nguigi wa Thiongo called language a silent cultural bomb. A sort of implosion after which things have to change.
Not a single writer I’ve selected was unaffected by colonial influences and the entry of the visitor language which refused to leave. They couldn’t have stayed isolated and survived as writers. So I see translation into English (and into other languages) as a part of the ongoing human struggle to make ourselves understood. I want my friends all over India to read writers from South India. I want to read poetry and fiction from Kashmir, from Bodo, from Urdu, from Odia. There is so much to read and so little time.
The long story varies dramatically in length, the shortest about 13 pages long, and the longest, 60. Apart from the freedom to develop characters, what are the other advantages of the length?
I think I’ve described this further in the introduction, saying that the long story gives the writer space and time to build atmosphere and construct supporting characters as well. It is also a more satisfying form of time travel for the reader, who gets to spend a longer spell with fictional people. The imagination stays inflated for just half an hour more than it might have when you are riding through a “short” story!
Could you comment about handpicking from various languages – including the one original from English, which by itself is very nearly an Indian language – at a time when there is a call to make Hindi the national language? What would we lose if thought in others were not encouraged (even if not quite forbidden)?
The time of forbidding the use of a language is over! I don’t think there a single person in the non-Hindi speaking regions who would agree that (linguistically) a mono-diet of Hindi for such a diverse and fragmented country is the right decision. The recent Language Survey has proved that language changes every 15 kilometres. Besides, language is a birthright and as personal as food preferences. What if chapatis were banned and everyone was told, “Look here, eat idli or lose your livelihood”? Would it happen? All our languages are “national” ones are they not? I’ve read that under the Official Languages Act (1962) Hindi won by a single vote because, the report said, Dr Rajendra Prasad, the presiding officer of the Constituent Assembly, voted in its favour. At that time the House was evenly divided, for and against.
About selections…sadly I could not look beyond the languages you see in the volume. Tulu, Konkani, Sindhi, Dogri, amongst many others, have gone unrepresented. The English story was David Davidar’s selection for the volume – I hadn’t read it before he drew my attention to it. Entering it you simply forget that the reading experience and environment are being created in a language that has no geographic base in India.
Were there many stories you could not include? Do you have other, similar collections in mind?
Yes, there were many I could not include.
Some day I would like to move in the opposite direction and do a collection of very short stories. That is a completely different art, calling for a different set of literary skills.