Thursday, March 24, 2011

Our Many Thanksgivings

For me Thanksgiving comes twice a year, once in July and again in November. I attribute this happy situation to my dual heritage, the Indian and the American.

One of the moving festivals on the Indian cultural calendar is known as Guru Purnima. It falls on the day of the full moon in July.

An ancient text, the Katha Upanishad, likens one’s efforts to realize God to walking on a razor’s edge. (Somerset Maugham wrote a novel, The Razor’s Edge, on this theme; Bill Murray acted in the movie based on it). An aspirant needs a guide, one who has walked the path. The guide is called the guru

"Gu" in Sanskrit means darkness or ignorance. "Ru" stands for the remover of that darkness. The guru sets aspirants on the spiritual path, observes their practice, and teaches them to navigate and finally transcend the mind.

Guru Purnima is the day on which the aspirant takes stock of his progress and expresses his gratitude to his preceptor.

Since Hinduism is a way of life and not a dogma, the truth of a precept can only be validated by one’s own experience. Since I have the freedom to interpret tradition in my own way, I choose to make the bedrock of experience as broad as possible.

A guru for me is not only someone who has been my teacher, in both a scholarly and a spiritual sense, but also a person from whom I’ve learnt something.

On Guru Purnima day I sit quietly on waking up, as I do almost every morning, to go into myself, On this particular day, I remember everyone from my kindergarten teacher, who taught me to count, to the college professor, who initiated me into the joys of literature. I recall my associates, friends, buddies, all those who gave me something of themselves. I think of the speakers, from various religious traditions, that I have been privileged to hear. My mind calls up the faces of strangers, fellow passengers on planes and trains, whose casual remarks made an impact on me. I remember authors whose writing gave an insight or two into life. I express gratitude to my sisters and brother, my wife, my children and grandchildren for teaching me that love is infinitely more than an emotion. Finally, I thank the greatest guru of all, God, who, I think, in my vanity, created this lovely universe specially for me and who gave me the wisdom to understand and express gratitude.

Then I do what everyone does to express happiness: I gather my family and we have a great meal together and talk and laugh and want the present to last forever.

On the last Thursday of November, I sit quietly in the morning and think of the gifts I have been given: good health; the privilege of travelling and living in so many countries; the joy of meeting a fascinating gallery of people. I recall invitations to Chinese New Year dinners, Diwali feasts, Christmas dinners and Thanksgiving get togethers. I call up the faces of family and friends who are here. I think of my tennis buddies and editors in Texas, who in accepting me and my writing, saved me the problems and pangs of adjustment. I also remember the friends who are not here, living full lives in lands of their choice. I regard it as my good fortune to be the inheritor of two rich cultural traditions, the Indian and the American. I give thanks for the harmony, peace and freedoms that prevail in the community and the country I live in; my gratitude goes out to those who work hard to preserve them. My mind cannot but dwells on the beauty of the world and the Power and Imagination of the Architect who created it and set me in it.

Then I celebrate as everyone does: I gather my family. We have a great meal together and talk and laugh and want the present to last forever.

This peice appeared in The Dallas Morning News dated 22 Nov 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

“A short story is a collaboration between a writer and a reader.” Interview In Indian Book Reviews

By Shana Susan Ninan
Murli Melwani is the perceptive author of Themes In The Indian Short Story In English: An Historical And A Critical Survey. Below is an email interview of his. Keen and crisp observations mark his answers.His remarks are insightful.

SSN: Besides Indian short stories in English being under-projected, what were your reasons to do a critical survey of the same?

MM: The reasons are both literary and personal. First, the literary. Look at all the cultures and sub-cultures we have in this huge country. You need flexible literary forms to convey the essence of these patterns of life. After poetry, the short story is the most flexible of literary forms. A short story can be anything the writer makes it. Something as fragile as Liam O’Flaherty’s sketch of the first flight of a black bird to something as heavily carpentered as Somerset Maugham’s plotted stories of atmosphere, interplay of motive and incisive characterisation. Conveying an unusual or a particular ethnic experience is best done by writing, to use Jane Austen’s phrase, on a “little bit – two inches wide –of ivory”. The short story is that two inches of ivory.

Also, collections of short stories have a tendency to disappear as easily from public memory as they do from library shelves. People are talking about Madhusree Mukherjee’s* portrayal of the Great Bengal Famine, but who remembers Ela Sen’s collection of short stories today?**. The famine occurred in 1943. Ela Sen’s book came out in 1944. Ela Sen’s portrayal is so very authentic. Almost as if she was walking among the starving skeletal figures.

The personal. I made a career change: from a college teacher in India to an exporter in Taiwan. In those days Taipei had only one English book store. Most of the books were on English as a second language! The conversation by and large centered round business charts, figures, targets. I needed to give myself an intellectual lifeline. H.E.Bates’s The Modern Short Story came to my rescue. This book gives us the author’s personal assessment of a number of great short story writers in England, Ireland, America and Russia. This book was my inspiration for a long-term project. I love short stories. I found there was very little critical work on Indian short stories in English. I asked myself, why not pioneer an historical and a critical survey? I got over collections of short stories from India. Made notes for the twenty five years I lived in Taiwan. I put the notes together when I moved to the U.S. The book came out in late 2009.

SSN: What gives short stories their richness? As in, when compared to other forms of writing.
MM; A number of qualities. Suggestiveness, for one. Brevity, for another. Compression, for a third. A short story is really a collaboration between a writer and a reader. The words are the code. The pages are the transmitter. The reader’s imagination is the transistor that receives the waves and reconstructs a whole. It is this elasticity of the short story that makes it such a great form.

SSN: Having been a short story writer yourself, was it easier to critically survey such a topic?

MM: Definitely. I could see how the short story writer was trying to create a character. Assume the author’s aim was to bring alive a character by means of her gestures: at one point he could show her smoothening back her hair with a casual brush of the palm; at another, using her hands to make a point. A skilful writer can suggest the atmosphere of a rainy day by indicating the dampness that permeated the walls. The point is I could read the writer’s intentions.

SSN: What was the inspiration for the cover of your book?
MM: When my publisher asked me what I’d like to emphasise on the cover, I told him to try to depict the traditional and the modern existing side by side. The co-existence of tradition and change are a fact of Indian life. How can short stories writers not tacitly or implicitly acknowledge them? The publisher’s artist did the rest.

SSN: What is the reception of Indian short stories in English abroad, not just the countries with a large Indian population?
MM: To be honest, collections of short stories sell less than novels. The American universities that offer Asian studies carry them. Mostly stories are eye openers for Americans. “There’s hardly anything about caste in this book.” This from a review of Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay. I would not know the situation in other countries.

SSN: Internet, social networking sites and ‘little’ publishers have given a renewed impetus to short stories. Do you think this’ll inspire up and coming writers?

MM: Without doubt. Just pull up e-zine sites. Look at these two online magazines Zoetrope and Narrative. In 2008, Penguin India brought a selection Blogprint: The Winners of the Online Writing Contest. I believe received over a thousand entries for the contest.

SSN: Qualities that a short story writer should possess.
MM: A very difficult question. I’ll try to answer it, anyway. He should compress language. He should suggest, rather than pencil in, character. He should hint at, rather than paint the setting. The theme should be self-evident, rather than stated. Raymond Carver’s stories are good models of a short story writer’s craft.

SSN: Any existing short story you think you should’ve written and why.
MM: I wish I could have written Padma Hejmadi’s The Uncles and the Mahatma. It’s a gem of a story. Why? Because it has richness of theme, a touch of comedy, finely etched characters, a deep understanding of Indian tradition.

SSN: Anything else you’d like to comment on.
MM: Two comments, if you will allow me. One, Women writers in India continue to amaze me with their unusual perspectives and experiences. A recent example: the stories by women in Shinie Antony’s anthology, Why We Don’t Talk. Two, I am pleased at the growth in the number of publishers in India in the last few years. This means more openings for writers.


*in her book, Churchill’s Secret War. Tranquebar

**Darkening Days. Sushil Gupta & Co

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Critical works on Indian Short stories are very rare, although the genre of short story is practiced by a large number of writers. Murli Das Melwani has done a great service to the academic world by offering his valuable historical and critical survey of the Indian short story from the earliest writer, K.C.Dutt (1835) to the latest one, Nikika Laloo Tariang. Though the genre of short story is neglected as if it is a step-child of literature, it provides a wealth of diversified material to the researcher, who is sophisticated in his approach. As Melwani rightly suggests, the vision of short fiction is diversified, mosaic, piecemeal and kaleidoscopic. Hence it offers a challenge to the researcher, if not to a common reader, to discern the hidden patterns of thought, behaviour and culture. Far from parroting the Western critical concepts, Melwani rightly goes to the Indian roots of the genre like the Jataka Tales and Kathasaritsagara and juxtaposes them with the Western masters like Maupassant, Chekhov and others. After offering a perceptive introduction to the theory of short story from a global perspective, he traces the growth of it by briefly discussing all the major Indian short story writers of different decades.

The chapter on the beginnings of the Indian short story during 1835-1935 is very valuable as it offers information on writers like Cornelia Sorabji, S. B.Bannerjea, A.S.P. Ayyar and Shankar Ram, who are not sufficiently known to modern scholars. The first flowering of the short story writers (1935-1945) is attributable to the celebrities like Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao and Manjeri Iswaran. The following chapters introduce the other short story writers, who are not easily visible in critical works, like Leslie Noronha, Nargis Dalal, Rishi Reddy and others. He has covered the works of writers published up to 2007. He must be congratulated for giving a legitimate place for these writers in the history of Indian English short fiction. But the present reviewer is surprised to notice that his own two short story collections like The Thief of Nagarahalli and Other Stories (1999, 2008, short listed for the Commonwealth Fiction Prize for the Best First Book from Eurasia in 2000), and The Rebellious Rani of Belavadi and Other Stories (2001) are conspicuously missing from Melwani’s otherwise excellent survey.

The greatness of Melwani’s survey is to be found in the fact that he has given the award of recognition to almost all the Indian English writers of short fiction; that he has made very insightful and candid remarks about the general qualities of each short story writer and particular features of important short stories of the same writer; and that he comments on the major concerns of each decade seen in the stories of the writers of that decade. On the whole, Melwani has shown how the short story has moved from fantasy to realism, from the supernatural to the social and from the religious to the secular and psychological dimension. He rightly pays homage to the little magazines and small publishers, who have nourished the genre of short story in India to a great extent. Similarly he deplores the absence of attractive literary awards and prizes in India exclusively meant for Indian English writers, especially short story writers.

Melwani’s book is happily free from the fashionable, trendy, stodgy, Western critical jargon and may be enjoyed by the academic scholar as well as by the common reader alike. He deserves our heart-felt congratulations for his hard won insights, which are a product of life-long dedication and cogitation and not of the hasty conclusions of a Ph.D. scholar. The book provides abundant material and direction to the M. Phil and Ph.D. scholars, who will be eagerly looking for fresh topics for fruitful research. One hopes that Melwani keeps on revising and updating his valuable book every year.

Reviewed by
Basavaraj Naikar
Professor & Chairman,Department of English
Karnatak University, Dharwad 580 003

The Review in The Hindu newspaper, February 9, 2010

Aesop’s Fables, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Boccaccio’s The Decameron and the Indian Jataka tales, the Panchatantra, Somadeva’s Katha-sarit-sagara are among the forerunners of the short story. The advent of its present form can be traced to the early 19th century and of its parent, the novel, to the 18th century. The brevity of its narrative, single action, and thematic focus naturally met with a wordwide reception and thus short fiction matured into an artistic genre, casting its net across the world. Murli Das Melwani’s book makes a historical survey right from the beginning to the present-day. Such a wide-ranging critical survey has hitherto not been attempted. He raises two weighty questions that merit our attention. First, has the Indian short story writer contributed anything of value to it? and second, has his work made the form more flexible, as say, Hemingway’s or Chekov’s did? Melwani subjects all short-story writers — 66 in all — from 1835 to 2008 to a close scrutiny. The stories are not discussed individually, though some specimens are close-read and locally analysed. But a writer’s entire collection is examined and evaluated, with conclusions drawn at the end.

Mulk Raj Anand, R.K. Narayan, and Raja Rao, who represent the first flowering (1935-45) of this genre, responded to the nationalist movement, each in his own way — Mulk Raj Anand, the social activist, presenting a true vision of Indian life; R.K. Narayan, with his perception of the average as positive, exploring the nature of life and reality; and Raja Rao experimenting with form. The second flowering (1960-70) looked for answers to the question often raised in academic circles: can the Indian sensibility be expressed in English? Ruth Prawar Jabwalla’s “detached involvement with the Indian situation,” and Bhabani Bhattacharya’s professionalism and the easy readability of his stories supply some answers to that question. The 1970s more than fulfil the expectations of the ‘60s. The decade is marked by an endless variety in the handling of themes and variations, coupled with varying modes and techniques of narration influenced by Russian and American short fiction.

Galaxy of writers
We have a galaxy of writers — Keki Daruwalla, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Arun Joshi, Kamala Das and a host of others — participating in the ongoing process of openness in form, reliable and unreliable narration with multiple points of view, and shifting focalisation. The period between 1980 and 2008 reflects, in the words of Melwani, a “burgeoning creativity.” There are more women writers now than at any time in the past. Altering perspectives in man-woman relationships, alienation in modern life, and the impact of feminism and feminist theories on the academia have supplied meat and juice to a potential creative writer. As readership expanded across the world, Indian stories tended to get translated into foreign languages. The author is quite right in his assessment that the short story has covered a wider range of subjects with a larger gallery of characters and that the record of Indian life is more authentic in this genre than in the novel. The ‘little’ magazine that is most selective in choosing the material for publication — getting a story published in it is considered highly prestigious — has done much to improve the quality of this genre. Paperback print editions and online literary magazines too have helped a great deal in popularising this form. He suggests that instituting literary prizes and bringing out a collection of the best short stories every year will encourage new talent.

Melwani adroitly integrates his critical comments on the works with the short introductory remarks of each section on the evolving political and social mores of the times. On the whole, the book is absorbing and well-researched. It is a convincing, lively narrative history of the short story that still remains a developing literary form. We need more — and yet more — of such narrative histories that can discuss changes in artistic trends, materials, techniques, et al. The scope for the Indian short story is indeed boundless.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dr Suroopa Mukherjee's review in World Literature Today, Oklahoma, Sept-Oct 2008 issue

Murli Melwani's *Indian Short Stories: From Colonial Beginnings toPost-modern Tales* is a historical overview of what he describes as the"step child of literature", the Indian short story in English. As a genre short stories are neglected by both publishers and critics, though authors,including mainstream novelists have experimented with the form, mainly because of its brevity, and the free play it allows with themes, style and characterization.A short story can be philosophical, political, lyrical and subversive.

What Melwani suggests is striking; as a literary form it is especially suitable to deal with the wide range of Indian experiences, so that thematically it is more expansive and faithful to the nuances of a multicultural, diverse nation like India than the Indian novel in English.

At a time when the Indian novel in English is being noticed in the literary scenario, winning both awards and accolades, this seems a timely critical interjection.Melwani makes it very clear that he is not discussing individual stories, so that each chapter is period based and gives us brief pen portrait of authors and their works, ranging from established writers, to lesser known names, to those whom we discover for the first time.

To that extent there is nothing predictable in the choice of works and the way they have been placed in thehistorical, socio-political context. The analysis never palls because each author, and the list is comprehensive and wide ranging, is accompanied by sharp, insightful comments on different aspects of writing and reading.Normally this sort of capsule presentation of a particular period, covering a decade, can give a sense of sampling rather than providing an in-depth literary analysis; it is to Melwani's credit that he is both astute and incisive in his commentary, however brief they might be.

At times why he includes a writer can be a trifle whimsical, but his individual author analysis is rarely sketchy. Thus we get an interesting analysis of why Melwani feels Ruth Pawar Jhabvala is a better short story writer than a novelist. Sometimes he provides startling juxtapositions such as Jhabvala'suse of satire as compared to Kushwant Singh's satirical writing.We also get to know about Keki Daruwala's short stories, a lesser known aspect of the poet. The space that is given to authors can vary. So Anita Desai gets as much space as Hamdi Bey or Jug Suraiya. Some authors are barely mentioned in a catalogue style, which can be frustrating and can take away from the flow of the argument.

At times one gets the sense that key themes such as the politics of Indian writing in English is given too little space, though here again the analysis is sharp and insightful.Melwani's contention is that the question of Indian writing in English is asked 2 decades later, so that when Ruskin Bond and Bunny Rueben are writing short stories in English the question of authenticity is no longer a key issue.

However it is in the postmodern tales that Melwani becomes a little too predictable, and one begins to feel the absence of a more contemporary treatment of modern literature in relation to complex times. Many a time the analysis becomes too cursory, almost superficial, and the book ends up endorsing what it had claimed to challenge.

In the final analysis it would seem that the step motherly treatment given to short stories is largelybecause key writers, mostly novelists and poets, merely experiment with short stories so that it remains a side activity. A pity that a neglected literary form with enormous potential, which Melwani suggests in away that is often tantalizing and intriguing, can only arouse luke warm interest in the reader. The portrait gallery suggests mediocrity rather than real genius.This aspect has been brought into the argument but only with reference to individual writing rather than as a matter of critical contention. However Melwani successfully draws our attention to works that are less known, and to authors whom we tend to neglect. I for one would be tempted to pick up the works of Attia Hosain and Padma Hejmadi.

Reviewed by Suroopa Mukerjee, author of *Across the Mystic Shore*,Macmillan New Writing, 2006
I was raised in Shillong. Educated at St Edmund's College. Left in 1980 to head an export company in Taiwan. After 25 years in Taiwan, moved to Miami in 2005. In 2007 moved to Plano, Texas.Author of "Stories of a Salesman(collection of short stories),"Deep Roots"(a three-act play),"Themes in Indo Anglian Literature,"(literary criticism)," "Indian English Stories: From Post Colonial Beginings to Modern Times"(literary criticism)" Forthcoming:"Themes in the Indian Short in English"A number of my stories have found their way in anthologies
My recent journalistic writing in The Dallas Morning News and NeighborsGo(a subsidiary of The Dallas Morning News)
Sweetening the melting pot
Wine article
Birds of a feather: NG
Asian Fusion NG
Highpoint tennis
Super Sunday
Tennis n relocations
Finding Tennis Partners in Plano
Lark in the Park
Celebrating Asian American culture
Fight Anxiety during Eco downturn