After the end of an unusually challenging academic year, when I could finally read for leisure once more, I found I had two conflicting impulses. As the horrific second wave of the pandemic took off in India, I wanted to be attuned to the sufferings there and also to find some escape from it. One book that’s allowed me to do both is Mulk Raj Anand’s Greatest Short Stories, an edited selection of some of his best stories, originally published in various collections between 1934 and 1973.
In 2020, after the national lockdown was hastily implemented in India, we heard the heartbreaking stories of migrant workers attempting to walk hundreds of kilometers to try and get home to their villages. Anand’s stories from decades ago present to us men and women forced to walk great distances in blistering heat, whether to find work or to escape violence. Here is a description of a frail ageing man’s journey from the story “Old Bapu”: “The city was still a mile away, and the flesh of his feet burnt where it touched the new hot metalled road through the holes in the shoes. And the sweat poured down across the furrows on his face…”
Old Bapu, who looks so old that no one wants to hire him, is not the only character on the road. In “Birth,” a heavily pregnant woman walks behind her father-in-law as they both head to work – to break stones to build roads. She goes into labour but is afraid to ask for help.
In “Lajwanti,” the woman who is trying to escape from her lecherous brother-in-law must walk ten miles before she is rescued. When she finally arrives at her father’s house in the village, her father, afraid of village gossip and scandal, escorts her back to her in-laws. Throughout her ordeals, Lajwanti never parts with her little caged mynah whose wings flutter helplessly against hunger and heat.
The caged bird, a powerful symbol of the trapped woman in a patriarchal society, returns in the Partition story, “The Parrot in the Cage,” where an old woman joins other refugees from Lahore as they wait for the “Dipty Collector” to come and give them food. The woman’s pet parrot keeps up the refrain, “Ni tun kithe hain?” – Where are you? – a question to which the woman, dizzy with hunger and exhaustion, has no answer. The poor gram seller’s gruff kindness to her is contrasted with the heartlessness of government officials and the police who set off a lathi charge to dispel the refugees.
Anand’s short stories, like his novels, grapple with social issues, injustice and oppression, pitting rich against poor, upper castes against lower, cities against villages, the British against Indians, and men against women. One of the most tragic stories is “Lullaby,” whose sweet title is deceptive. The lullaby comes from the hum of a machine in a factory, its relentless roar and mechanical, heartless movement serving as the background score to a mother rocking her sick baby to sleep. The ill-fated baby reminds Phalini of her young lover, a wandering stranger who disappeared as suddenly as he came. She is tied to the machine and to her husband in a loveless marriage.
Machines are a recurring symbol in these stories. Whether a sewing machine, a tractor, a hydroelectric dam or just a phut-phutti (auto rickshaw), their noisy presence creates a disruption in the lives of villagers, introducing new “evil” ways to their worlds. But, of course, it is not quite so simple. Anand knew fully well the benefits of science and technology.
The double-edged sword that is progress is the subject of one of the most complex stories, “The Power of Darkness.” Bali the Bard, who is an electrician as well as a poet, tells the narrator about the little hamlet of Kamli, which was to be submerged to make way for the Mangal Dam. The villagers refuse to relocate to the new plots of land and houses allotted to them. Eventually, Bali uses his song to persuade the villagers. This story within a story is beautifully woven, with digressions, dramatic pauses and, of course, poetry.
The stories are categorised under different sections such as Lyrical Awareness, The Social Scene, and so on. These categories are somewhat arbitrary for the themes and moods overlap. For example, one of my favourites, “The Gold Watch,” is not in the Probing the Mind section although it might well be, for it deals with a clerk’s growing sense of dread after he’s summoned by his British boss at Marmalade Empire of Henry King and Co.
The boss, Mr Acton, promises him a gold watch when they meet. Anticipation builds as Srijut Sharma is convinced that he will be asked to retire prematurely. Just like Lajwanti in the presence of her in-laws, when finally confronted with the Englishman, Mr. Sharma is rendered speechless, leaving us to witness a helpless acceptance of his fate.
It’s easy to assume the stories are all dark and depressing. However, this is a time when we might also want to read for relief. If you’re looking for poetry or comedy, you can find both here.
In the “Introduction” – which you should skip until you’ve read the stories, for it contains spoilers – scholar MK Raja points out that Anand was greatly influenced by folk and fairy tales. He even retold fairy tales in two collections of his own.
Anand’s goal when writing short stories was to combine “the framework of folk tales with concentration on character and situations of contemporary life.” The story called “Five Short Fables” shows the influence of Aesop and the Panchatantra. Human characters are replaced by birds, butterflies, and a tender little leaf uprooted in a storm and exiled far away.
These tales are endearing and poignant and their lessons never heavy handed. Left to themselves, they might seem a little too simple, but anthologised alongside the other, more complex and darker stories, they provide just the right amount of tranquility.
In “Little Chicks,” the narrator reflects: “For a moment, I watch the miracle of littleness trying to go forward.” These stories are about nature, the cycle of birth and rebirth, and the miracle of life, things we all need to believe in right now.
For those who just want a good laugh, there’s a whole section called The Comic Vein. “The Two Lady Rams” is a delightful little story where Lalla Jhinda Ram is faced with a peculiar predicament after he is knighted by the British Empire. Both his wives want to be called Lady Ram, and of course, both of them want to accompany him to the Governor’s Garden Party. How is he going to resolve the domestic dispute that ensues?
In “A Pair of Mustachios,” the snobbish Khan Azam Khan is quite proprietorial about his supposedly feudal lineage and the tiger moustache he sports to prove it. He would rather give away all his worldly possessions to the upstart money lender than allow him to copy his tiger moustache instead of the one that truly befits his inferior position, the goat moustache. The folksy, gentle humor of these stories reminded me of tales of Birbal, the jester at Akbar’s court, from whom, it turns out, Anand indeed drew inspiration.
The first story in this book is one of the most lyrical. In “The Lost Child,” lush descriptions of the rural landscape yield to the “whirlpool” of the fair, a sensory delight full of colored sweets, balloons, snake charmers and flowers. At first, these are what the little boy demands from his parents until, suddenly, he realizes he is lost and the mood switches abruptly from one “brimming with life” to a darker, more somber tone.
My mood, while I read this collection, also kept changing. “A Village Idyll,” may be a good one to end with. Here, the lovers Govind and Gauri meet in a lentil field on the first full moon night of autumn. The account of how he chases and pins her to the ground despite her (insincere) protests may seem predatory now, but of course that was not the author’s intention. For it’s made clear that Gauri smiled as she said “No,” and that she was as giddy with love and desire as he was even if she, in keeping with the modesty appropriate for her gender, acted like she was not.
The prose is over the top at times and reads like bad erotica. But the story is not only about romance; it’s about creation and is almost spiritual in nature (notice the divine names of the protagonists.) “And from the dying, and through the rebirth, there grow lotuses among the reeds, the flaming smiling pinks, pushed up in the quagmire by the vital spark that keeps things alive.” In this anthology, the story comes right after the ones about birth and death. It comes almost like a burst of spring. Reading it in spring (in Michigan where I live,) as India reels under the burden of countless deaths, felt redemptive, and reminded me of why I wanted to return once more to my bottom shelf.