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