Malashri Lal "Women in India have traditionally been tellers of tales."

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Introduction: English

Contributing Editor
Malashri Lal



       “Women in India have traditionally been tellers of tales.”

       Lakshmi Holmstrom

       Anthologizing short stories is an act of conservation. It is also an act of faith. Short stories appear mostly in magazines, journals and newspapers which have a restricted shelf life and, in India, are difficult to track down in libraries and stock rooms for back numbers. Consequently, one depends heavily on memory, fortuitous paper clippings, a few popular collections, and recommen-dations from eminent critics.

       Ephemeral though its existence may be in the print world, the short story has captured an ever growing readership. Moreover, some important novelists have occasionally turned their creativity to composing tightly structured tales, thereby guaranteeing them a kind of reflected glory. “The short story has remained, by and large, a by-product of the novel workshop in Indian English literature from its beginnings. This trend continues in recent writing also,” say M.K. Naik and Shyamala Narayan in a critical survey published in 2001. The compactness of the short story has been equally its attraction as well as the cause of its secondary status in literary hierarchy. That an idea is expressed in a limited number of pages gives it no corporate identity unless associated with others of a similar nature and structure. This explains multi-authored volumes based on themes such as Love or Death or regional and language based ones. On the other hand, some stories with a gem-like sparkle become permanent players in anthologies and appear ubiquitously.

       The present selection of contemporary English stories written by Indian women was difficult to arrive at because of the many operative variables. Choosing from the less known to the well known, assuring a thematic and geographical spread, staying with material which would not necessitate footnoting, I have tried to remember that quality above all is the determining factor. But I also use this forum to stage a discussion on gender and genre with reference to the shorter fiction in Indian English, a subject neglected so far. For instance, in recalling the history of Indian English literature, insufficient attention has been paid to the fact that the earliest set of tales date back to a woman, Kamala Sattianandan who wrote Stories from Indian Christian Life in 1898. The next important work of ethnographic sketches was again by a woman, Cornelia Sorabjee, Love and Life Behind the Purdah (1901). These, by far, predate the assumed main-head of Indian English in the writings of R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand. Furthermore, such acknowledgement to history places the so-called ‘first wave’ of women novelists -- Anita Desai, Ruth Jhabvala, Nayantara Sehgal and Kamala Markandeya -- in relation to their literary fore mothers. This is not to claim that women, necessarily, write differently from men but to recognise the lineage of women’s stories from a multiplicity of sources.

       The origin of the short story in India is itself debatable. It has often been cited that the foundational sources are the Jataka, the Panchatantra and the Kathasaritsagar. While this may be true for regional or Bhasha literature, the English story, in form but not in content, derives, I believe, from the Anglo-American tradition. Edgar Allan Poe’s directive, written in 1842, has held true for many generations:


A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect.

       More recent pronouncements on the short story merely extend the implications of this early statement. A Walton Litz, for example, speaks of how “a short story concentrates on a single character in a single situation in a single moment” (1975).

       Such creative principles are clearly visible in the English story telling practice in India which has a much later beginning than the traditional Indian classic or folk. However it is easy to acknowledge the induction of local material in the modern English form, such that may use cultural artifacts or linguistic items. Because of this complex matrix of influence and transitions, the English short story in India is a fascinating genre for address. Shiv K. Kumar had made a bold claim when he wrote, “The early short story, whether written in English or any Indian language, grew under Western tutelage” (1991). The finer distinctions are yet to be attempted.

       The gender component in the creative practice complicates formulations further. The interstice of gender and genre should point us in a direction suggested by Clare Hansen in Re-reading the Short Story, “ The short story has offered itself to…women, blacks -- writers who for one reason or another have not been part of the ruling ‘narrative’ or experimental/experiential framework of society” (1989). If this were applied to the Indian context, one would easily see the subversive potential of the women’s story. From the earliest times until now, women writers have been stamped into the category of domestic subjectivity. And this being generally considered limiting and trivial, many writers, specially the highly reputed ones, have refused the label of a gendered identity. Of those whose works are published here, Shashi Deshpande and Githa Hariharan have strenuously avoided being part of a women’s “club” and insisted that writers are primarily creative persons, their gender is a secondary issue. However, read another way, the fact that their stories are often reflective of women’s place in society and deeply sensitive to the nuances of body and psyche, should qualitatively enhance the value of domestic reference rather than lower it.

       Perceptions dwell upon the politics of reading. Rather than see women’s story writing, or telling for that matter, as a cottage industry, one can promote its ideological edge. If women create vignettes which tend to be realistic and representational as imaginative modes of conveying female experience, why not attribute it with critical leverage? Feminist theory has rightly disputed the location of power in the traditional denominations of male and female activity. Feminist theory has also challenged the hierarchical division of the private and the public. The realm of psychological interiority, the minutiae and the personal are imbued with the colour of resistance to patriarchy. By a curious analogue, the short story can be its emblem. Sitting at the edge of the high status given to the novel, seen often as the time-filler for the author as well as the reader, the form nonetheless contains the energy for reorienting the discourse of genre. Specially in the contemporary urban scenario where “small is beautiful” comes as an easy dictum, the short narrative offers a rich and random diversity impossible through any other literary method. Its “magazinist” origin is no cause for apology.

       The stories presented in this anthology are indicators of this diversity. Shashi Deshpande, author of nine novels, has only recently published a comprehensive collection of her stories written over the last thirty years. “Independence Day” both recaptures and questions the euphoria of a historical moment which promised freedom as well as national identity. It is a narrative which deliberately hides its richness behind a remarkable austerity of words. Peeling away the layers of reference is the challenging and creative task entrusted to the reader. On the surface, the story gathers a clutch of vignettes tossed up by the narrator’s memories, following her father’s death. The random sketches however are linked by a familiar motif that governs life -- the interfusion of gain and loss. When India gains independence, she simultaneously loses a substantial part of her land and people. The narrator, as a little schoolgirl, is chosen to play the role of Bharat Mata at the celebration of Independence Day; but her mother’s superstitious reluctance to cut and stitch her wedding sari to shape a costume for her daughter erodes the child’s happiness. More poignant is the substratum of the tale, webbed together by the narrator’s recollection of disparate, partially forgotten incidents as well as her belated insight about people close to her heart. Re-memory, according to Toni Morrison is the instrument for re-definitions. Deshpande too, uses a magnificent range of images which negotiate the time between the protagonist’s present sense of abandonment and her childhood state of bewilderment about the Partition. Acting the role of Bharat Mata is at best an ambiguous honour, at worst, a neglect of human tragedy. “My writing comes out of a consciousness of the conflict between my idea of myself as a human being and the idea that society has of me as a woman,” says Shashi Deshpande in an essay, “Of Concerns, of Anxieties.” Appropriately, on India’s 50th year observance of Independence, the BBC broadcasted the story “Independence Day” which juxtaposes the nation’s pride with a narration of personal loss. The authorial voice underscores the politicization of public spaces.

       Githa Hariharan’s “Remains of the Feast” although frequently anthologized is a marvellous example of the use of the tragi-comic mode in fiction. The story portrays the tender nature of the love that enriches the lives of Ratna, a medical student, and Rukmini, her feisty great grandmother. Almost ninety years of age and well into her “second childishness”, Rukmini is however not of the ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’ type. One notices a curious upturning of assumptions in the contrast between the old woman’s excessive greed and zest for life and the young girl’s mature, self reflexivity. This is touchingly brought out in the scene where Ratna cheerfully parts with her new Diwali sari in order to fulfil her widowed great grandmother’s last (and perhaps senile) wish to make her final exit in bridal glory and grandeur. The widowed and dying grandmother’s craving for forbidden food, forbidden self decoration, forbidden articulations of desire is a bemused critique of institutional structures. The wealth of cultural understanding places such a story in the midst of obstructive traditions inimical to women. At the same time, it asks for humour and grace. J.M. Coetzee praised Hariharan as “an outstanding writer” and it is her rare ability to match the cerebral with the visual that makes her so. In a brief note, “Why I Write,” Githa Hariharan uses the analogy of a woman in an Indian folk tale who gets fatter and fatter because she does not tell the stories swelling up her insides. For her own self Githa says, “I need to communicate the designs and patterns I constantly see -- stories -- if I am to continue with the business of living.”

       Manju Kapur attracted sudden and wide acclaim with her first novel, Difficult Daughters, now followed by the second, A Married Woman. A “wifely” tale with a difference, “Chocolate”, the story I have selected for this anthology shows a finely crafted reversal of expectations of feminine duty. The tale dramatizes the souring of a marital relationship caused by the all-too-familiar importance accorded to patriarchal codes of behaviour and traditional gender roles. What does a woman do when her husband ‘lovingly’ fattens her on chocolates in order to hide his extra-marital amours? Pay back by cuckolding him or find another way? The story explores this dilemma to show how social beliefs and orthodoxies may drive wronged women -- bound within loveless partnerships and forced to maintain a façade of harmony -- to find unique ‘solutions’ within ‘respectability’. The avenging strategy that Tara adopts will bring a chuckle and a wry smile, for Manju Kapur’s touch is light and incisive. Yet, the story encourages reflection on how an economically dependent woman can still express her resentment without apparently breaking the norms of patriarchy. This narrative, like several other examples one can find from Indian women writers, uses the trope of food to subvert the domestic conundrums which have trapped women in the kitchen. By inverting the locus of power, the writers have often achieved marvellous effects wherein the “domesticity” provides occasion to exercise control, authority and tools of offence.

       “The Warp and the Weft” by Sujata Sankranti weaves a portrait of three women betrayed and blighted by fate, all of them terminally ill with cancer. The spectre of death looms over an innocent nine-year-old Alfonsa, a nameless, middle-aged woman watches her family’s grief even as she struggles with her own illness, and a bitter, quarrelsome Bhagwanti rages against her visitors. Their responses are, admittedly, conditioned by their age and life-experiences: Alfonsa’s hope rests on her irrepressible optimism, the nameless character’s placidity results from an acceptance of family dynamics, and Bhagwanti’s curses are outbursts against a selfish, covetous and uncaring society. Clearly, the empathetic presentation of finely nuanced characters is Sankranti’s forte. “Underneath the silk scarf my head feels like a stubble field” says more for cancer than any ringing phrases. Sujata Sankrankti won the Commonwealth Award for the Best Short Story, 1998, for “The Warp and the Weft.” Born in Kerala and educated in Delhi, Sankranti maps images from various parts of India in the stories that she has penned over many years. The one selected here is emblematic of her style -- descriptive, brooding, thoughtful, dotted with unforgettable insights into a woman’s psyche in crisis situations. Julia Darling from U.K. paid a compliment to Sujata’s work saying, “ The stories… are beautifully written, and I think they do exactly what stories are meant to…they resonate at a number of levels and leave you to wonder.”

       Suma Josson’s fantasy tale, “The Village,” is sure to leave enduring images in the reader’s mind. It is Kafkaesque in probing an existential mindscape. A troubling ambiguity is played out through minimalist characters and surreal terrains. A young man undertakes the task of following his archeologist father’s dream of a world embedded in forgotten layers of new civilizations. The city bred goes to the village, the urbane encounters a mystical otherness. The protagonist’s search for the village brings a contemporary note to the ageold quest motif while his father’s dying wish alludes to the precarious nature of modern idealism. The eerie atmosphere is however relieved by the core of optimism around which the story revolves. The bizarre experiences “beyond the wall” open up a view of the essential depravity of human beings, but the young man’s refusal to give up hope affirms the strength of nurturing relationships. Selected from an early volume of Katha Prize Stories, this haunting tale moves at the liminal edges of reality but grapples with everyday questions. Does education give insight or does it block the imagination? Is arrogance the legacy of modernity? Different in style and locale from the selections made so far, Josson is marked by her bold experimentation. Of the story, Josson said it originated in her thoughts that “All around, values that one believed in, values based on justice, compassion and humanness seemed to be coming apart, forcing one to gauge and observe the moral resilience of the individual…” ( KPS, 3, p. 263).

       Also of an imagined village, Puthenkavu, this time in Kerala, Susan Viswanathan spins a yarn about mothers and daughters, betrayal and loyalties. A sojourner from abroad strays into the privacy of a local family and catches glimpses of “Something Barely Remembered.” Mere hints stir residual memories and the intersecting paths of diaspora intellectuals and stay-at- home “common” folk lead to a tense but quiet drama of untold pain. It is a story that explores the problematic nature of motherhood. Throwing out the stereotype of self sacrifice and suffering, the narrative boldly suggests an alternative in a mother’s choice of a separate path and another space. Undoubtedly there is the attendant trauma of separation from a biological child and the inchoate longings of the heart. Beautifully crafted to bring out the multiple viewpoints on a woman’s unconventional bid for freedom, the story, interestingly has a male protagonist who is puzzled by his own moral position. “Something Barely Remembered” is the title story of Viswanathan’s first book which comprises of a series of overlapping tales, experimental for the manner in which characters and time frames grid together while retaining their exclusivity and individuation.

       The selection of six stories I offer is undoubtedly personalized and I have assumed their illustrative capability for a discussion of gender and genre. Authors do not use conscious political designs, yet it is for critics to shape the diversity into discernible patterns, to place the signposts that chart new journeys. Such has been my endeavour. Indian women writers have too long been subsumed within a descriptive discourse. It is time to see their narratology as a measure of social change.

Is Professor of English. She is also the current Director of the Women’s Studies and Development Centre of the University of Delhi which functions as a nodal agency for teaching and research, documentation, gender sensitization, and faculty enrichment programmes. She has written and lectured extensively in India and abroad on women’s socio-cultural positioning and women’s literature. She has authored The Law of the Threshold: Women Writers in Indian English (1995, reprinted 2000), edited a collection of essays titled Feminist Spaces: Cultural Readings from Canada and India (1997), and co-authored Female Empowerment (1995). Her most recent publications are the co-edited volumes, The Home and the World: A Window on Contemporary Indian Literature (2002), and Women’s Studies in India : Contours of Change (2002).

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