Monday, March 7, 2016

A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces - Edited by David Davidar

39 stories. 39 authors. Some amazing writing. You can see why they are masters and why they are masterpieces. However all of them are not masterpeices in my opinion. Some belong to the old boys club. For me a masterpiece must dazzle you, shake you, trouble you and stay with you. The best ones infect you. Others merge into your story and shape your outlook. The ones that do neither, the ones I do not remember clearly, I do not put in that category.

Which of these stories impressed me most? The start is electric. Tagore's 'Hunger of Stones' is about a haunted house and a government official who chooses to live there. Somehow by the end of the story you feel that the ghost has entered you, that you know that palace well enough. Munshi Premchand's 'Shroud' is a story I read before - of the father-son drunkard duo who drink away the money they raise for the funeral of the son's wife who died that morning at childbirth. Premchand takes you by the hand into their dreary lives, the hut, the dead body of the poor wife. R.K. Narayan's 'A Horse and Two Goats' is a delightfully mishievous story of an old shepherd and his communication with a foreigner - neither can speak the others language and both conclude a deal by which they are richer - a deal about a statue that neither owns. Buddhadeva Bose's 'A Life' is a tiresome journey of the man who makes it his life mission to write a dictionary and we see his whole life span out. The writer however finds success at the end of the road which makes for a happy ending. Saadat Hasan Manto's incredibly powerful story of a man who loses his sanity, and his country during partition, and prefers to die in the no man's land between India and Pakistan. Sivasankara Pillai's 'Flood' has an unlikely hero - a dog - that is left behind by its master during the flood. Its desolation as the flood rises, its hunger and its loyalty as it fights a band of robbers who loot this master's house before dying in its noble fight is hard to bear. Ismat Chughtai's 'Quilt' is a young person's initiation into adulthood quite by accident. Amrita Pritam's 'Stench of Kerosene' prepares you but is still shocking in its end as a young lady who does not bear children faces exclusion and then a final escape. Anna Bhau Sathe's 'Gold from the Grave' is an unusual setting for a common problem and an unusual ending that is so hopeless. Tilak's 'Man Who saw God' marks a man who has his own rules and lives and dies by them. Harisankar Parsai's 'Inspector Matadeen on the Moon' is quite a story that pokes fun at our policing system in such an endearingly tongue in cheek way. Matadeen himself is a character one cannot forget as he trains the moon police on how to arrest the witnesses and make them the prime accused. Mahasweta Devi's 'Draupadi' is an in-your-gut style of storytelling that leaves you gasping - a woman naxal who is captured by the police and is raped as part of the punishment. Vijaydan Detha's 'Countless Hitlers' has a chilling end and makes you wonder at how simply certain things can end. U.R. Ananthamurthy's 'Mouni' captures the subtle differences of a man of principle and his neighbour, a man of the world. Ruskin Bond's 'The Blue Umbrella' is such a delight that I wondered why Vishal Bharadwaj messed it up so in the movie. Gulzar's 'Crossing the Ravi' is as tragic as any partition story but the end makes you angry at him for drawing you into a world that is so unnecessary, an end that is so hopeless. Paul Zacharia's 'Bhaskar Pattelar and My Life' shows a mirror into how life must have really been, probably is. Devanoora Mahadeva 'Tar Arrives' is vividly visual and a world we all understand. Githa Hariharan's 'Nursing God's Countries' is a tale of a Malayali nurse who leaves her family and young child to earn money and slowly grows old and probably dies before her dreams of her family settling down come true. Cyrus Mistry's 'Proposed for Condemnation' is a familiar story in a delightfully different setting. Shanaz Bashir's 'Gravestone' has a classic twist in the end, and you realise some poeple just never get what they want.

Vikram Seth's 'The Elephant and the Tragopan' is a poem about animals who rise up in a strike against the local politicians who plan to build a dam. The small tragopan is angry and is seen as the leader and is marked for death. After a lot of going to and fro, the poor tragopan gets killed. Things cool off after but the Tragopan dies needlessly. I liked the lines Seth winds up with

'As quasi morals here are two: The first is that you never know
Just when your luck may break, and so
You may as well work for your cause
Even without overt applause;
You might in time, achieve your ends,

The second is that you'll find friends
In the most unexpected places,
Hidden among unfriendly faces
- For Smallfry (someone who helps them) swims in every pond,
Even the Doldrums of Despond.'

Reminds me of the Kanhaiyya issue. Angry Tragopan Kanhaiyya. The might of the government and the establishment on the other. Go back to your job young man and do it, and do it well. Y
ou will finally make the chage you wish to see. Vikram Seth's storytelling prowess makes you sit up. That's talent for you. Makes you wonder - how can anyone make it look so simple.

Wonderful reading. So many more stories have now expanded me so much more.

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