Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review published in The Indian, September 2007 issue. The Indian is published in Hong Kong

Murli Melwani, in his book, Indian English Stories, reverses some commonly held perceptions about the Indian short story in English.

The Indian novel in English has long been held as the preeminent mirror to Indian life. Fine, Melwani says, that is true so far as certain broad themes, like the colonial experience, the place of faith in Indian life and two or three others, are concerned. What about the nuances of everyday living, the little dramas that are enacted in the privacy of our thoughts and relationships, especially since Indians are expected to, outwardly, conform to certain norms and patterns of behaviour. Indians basically enjoy inner freedom; to think, feel and act as we like in the privacy of our lives. Only the short story, with its brevity, its concentration and sensitiveness, can capture these moments. The short story form thus has dealt with a wider area of experience than the novel.

By the time Murli Melwani has finished surveying the themes, the backgrounds,the characters and approaches of the dozens of writers who practiced this form between 1835 to the present day, the reader, certainly the present reviewer, accepts this truth.

Indian English Stories is the first comprehensive study of the Indian short story in English, from both a historical and critical perspective. Melwani’s approach to the study of the short story form differs from the conventional one. The usual approach is to discuss a few individual stories of a particular author. What Melwani does is to take the whole body of an author’s work and look for patterns in it. If he finds one, he points it out; if not, he does not impose one.

The author, to use a cliché, begins at the beginning. He starts with the first ever story written in English by an Indian, way back in 1835. He comments briefly on the work of most of the writers who wrote for the next 100 years. Most of the writers of that period wanted to show off India, documentary-style, to their Western readers.

The big names came in the 1930s- Mulk Raj Anand with his social concern, R.K. Narayan discovering comedy in the round of daily life, and Raja Rao with his experiments with language and form.

In the fifties Khushwant Singh made his appearance; his stamina remains undiminished today. His contemporary, Attia Hosain, captured the poignancy of Partition in finely chiseled stories.

The sixties boast of writers like Ruth Jhabvala, Bunny Reuben, Ruskin Bond( prolific even now) and Bhabani Bhattacharya.

In the seventies there was a sudden burst of creativity. Authors like Anita Desai, Keki Daruwalla, Padma Hejmadi, Kamala Das, Manohar Malgonkar, Shahsi Despande and others explored new themes.

The young writers of today have continued this trend. Prominent among them are Vikram Chandra, Nisha Da Cunha, Lavanya Sankaran, Shree Ghagate, Githa Hariharan, Anjana Appachana, Meher Pestonji, and Susan Visvnathan, to mention a few among a talented gallery.

Melwani’s manner of writing is easy and informal, conversational almost. His approach differs from author to author. He allows the stories to make their impact on him; he records the impressions these made on him. This is in contrast to the conventional practice of judging a story with certain established literary princples

Indian English Stories is a great introduction to a genre of writing which is largely ignored. Murli Melwani’s enthusiasm for its practitioners is bound to be infectious. It has certainly led this reviewer to make a resolution: to certainly read the authors discussed in the book. I believe it will affect other readers in a similar manner.

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