more than a dozen short stories from some of India’s best contemporary writers, collectively offer an insightful portrait of the beauty and complexity of Indian landscape, culture, and society.
See Kashmir’s fabled vistas through the eyes of Salman Rushdie as he takes you to the scene of a stricken household and a grand theft in Srinagar. Go back four centuries in time to the Taj Mahal with Kunal Basu as the humble accountant of his story becomes, in another incarnation, the architect of one of the world’s most resplendent monuments. Let Vikram Chandra lead you by the hand into the ghettos of Mumbai (Bombay), where a small-time thug fences gold bars he has stolen. Journey with Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay’s silver-tongued salesman of medicated oil as he travels the trains around Calcutta, the city he loves more than anything else. And Nazir Mansuri’s Melvillian “The Whale” transports us to a small fishing village on the west coast of India, where an embittered sailor makes every whale he sees the object of his fury.
Stories from eight languages and more than a dozen distinct cultures and regions—from north, south, east, west, and even from India’s remote northeast—are brought together in this vibrant collection. India offers a thrilling portrayal of the glories of India and a front row seat to its traditions of storytelling.
View the Preface | Interview with the Editor
The selection of these stories is a brave experiment that succeeds beautifully.
We can hear a country speak and better learn its secrets through the voices of its great writers…. an evocative addition to an engaging series—a compelling idea, thoughtfully executed.
A must for any international short fiction enthusiast.
—Midwest Book Review
- Salman Rushdie, The Prophet’s Hair
- Qurratulain Hyder, The Sound of Falling Leaves
- Kunal Basu, The Accountant
- Mamang Dai, The Scent of Orange Blossom
- Phanishwarnath Renu, Panchlight
- Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay, Canvasser Krishnanlal
- Fakir Mohan Senapati, Asura Pond
- Vikram Chandra, Ganesh Gaitonde Sells His Gold
- Anjum Hasan, Eye in the Sky
- Jayant Kaikini, Dots and Lines
- Lalithambika Antherjanam, In the Moonlight
- Githa Hariharan, Halfway Animals
- A writer and literary critic, editor Chandrahas Choudhury is the weekly book critic of the Indian newspaper Mint Lounge, as well as numerous U.S. periodicals, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the Sunday Telegraph, the Scotsman, Himal, and Foreign Policy. He lives in Mumbai.
- Vikram Chandra is the author of two of the best works of fiction published in India in the last two decades — a collection of long stories, Love and Longing in Bombay (1997), and the novel Sacred Games (2006). He writes a muscular, tightly coiled prose that possesses some of the same strength and sheen of the city about which he writes, Bombay. One of the marvels of Chandra’s writing is how he manages to sound classical and colloquial at the same time, inflecting a dense and lyrical English with the harsher sounds of the language of the street. In this excerpt from Sacred Games, we see Ganesh Gaitonde, one of the novel’s two protagonists, first hiding a treasure trove of gold that has come his way, and then attempting to sell a few of the bars. Gaitonde’s unease in the city changes by degrees into a nascent strength and confidence even as the hidden vortexes of power in the great, pulsing metropolis – the capital of both the white and the black economies of India, and also the site of a million dreams and desires — are beautifully opened out in Chandra’s darting and daring narration.
- The doyenne of Urdu letters for most of the second half of the twentieth century, Qurratulain Hyder (1927–2007) wrote an eclectic and cosmopolitan fiction that frequently embraced the dynamics of a household and the long sweep of history in the same narrative space. One of her idiosyncrasies was translating her own work into English, often in such a way as to end up with not a version of that work, but a new work altogether (her great novel Aag Ka Darya, or River of Fire, is self-translated in this way). The questing, emotionally unsatisfied female protagonist of this story is typical of Hyder’s work. But behind her we also see a many-hued Delhi that belonged to “the colourful, interesting world of unpartitioned India” and was part of the same civilizational continuum as the city of Lahore, which becomes a part of Pakistan in the “now” of the story, where the narrator finishes up.
- One of the most original of the current generation of Indian writers in English, Kunal Basu roves boldly across space and time in his work. His three novels—The Opium Clerk, The Miniaturist, and Racists—all employ some original and startling premise. This story, comic and poignant by turns, perhaps one of the best stories ever written about a monument, employs the trope of reincarnation to take us far back into Mughal India. We see the Taj Mahal not as the familiar and beloved monument as it is today, but as a dream still waiting to be realised, and our narrator is the agent.
- The Hindi writer Uday Prakash (1952– ) grew up in a small village on the border of the Indian states of Madhya, Pradesh, and Chattisgarh. His stories illuminate the world of the rural social and political order, such as the interlocking of caste, religion, and politics described in this story, which shows us a man doubly punished for growing too big for his boots. Some of the best translations of Prakash’s work have been produced by an American, Robert Hueckstedt. This translation Americanizes the story slightly—using the phrase “greasy spoon,” for instance, for what in India would be called a dhaba—while also bringing across the specificities of Prakash’s idiom and worldview into a jaunty English.
- The stories of Jahnavi Barua (1967– ) are noteworthy for their acute portrayals of the dynamics of Indian families—especially the relationship between parents and children—and for the luminous descriptions of her native Assam, the verdant land next to one of the greatest of Indian rivers, the Brahmaputra. Barua’s first book, Next Door, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize in 2009. Among the themes explored in this story is the tension in urban India between the ideas of the joint family and the nuclear family.
- Mamang Dai (1957– ) is a journalist and former civil servant. In addition to a collection of short stories, The Legends of Pensam (from which this piece is taken), she has also written a book of verse (River Poems), and a non-fiction exploration of the culture and history of Arunachal Pradesh—one of the most remote states in India, and claimed by China as its own territory—called The Hidden Land. “The Scent of Orange Blossom” channels the ideas of landscape, memory, tribe, and family into a vivid and harmonious whole through the viewpoint of a young wife.
- The achievement of Phanishwarnath Renu (1921–1977) was to unhook Hindi prose from the classical, formal, “high” style that was the standard of his day, and to create, for the village characters of his native Bihar, a rich and expressive language inflected by the various dialects of Hindi spoken across north and east India. This story describes a paradigmatic encounter between the urban and the rural, tradition and modernity—versions of which are still playing themselves out in Indian villages to this day. Renu adroitly shuffles the points of view of different individuals and that of the community. The members of the “Mahto caste” in the story comprise the lowest caste group in the village social order, which explains their self-consciousness about looking outside their circle for help with lighting the panchlight. The chant with which the story closes—Jai ho!—is also the refrain of one of the songs of the movie Slumdog Millionaire.
- Arguably the greatest of Indian short-story writers, Bengali writer Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay(1893–1950) combined a visionary perception of man and nature with his marvellous gifts in dialogue and narrative artistry. His father was an itinerant reciter of stories from the epics, and he often took his son along on his travels. “Canvasser Krishnalal,” one of his many stories that depict characters on the road, is noteworthy for the specificity of its portrayal of both village and city, the mingled realism and romanticism of its man-woman relations, and its superb “folding” of narrative past and present into a seamless whole. Satyajit Ray’s great film sequence The Apu Trilogy is based on Bandhopadhyay’s novels Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) and Aparajito (The Unvanquished).
- The Oriya writer Fakir Mohan Senapati (1843–1918) was the author of one of the foundational Indian novels, Six Acres and a Third (1902)—a book that laid down a distinctively Indian template for the newly arrived form. One of Senapati’s major innovations, immediately visible in the story here, is the use of a narrational voice that expresses itself through a “we” rather than the conventional “I” or “he,” thus impersonating the voice of the village community, while also co-opting the reader into its world. Sly and salty, Senapati’s prose illuminates the village pond (to this day often the source of water for domestic use in rural India) as a space where all the currents of village life, from myth to gossip, fishing to bathing, come together.
- One of the best known of contemporary Gujarati writers, Nazir Mansuri (1965– ) works as a lecturer in Gujarati in a college in Navsari. This story, set in a fishing village, with its brooding descriptions of the sea, elaborate knowledge of fish, and undertow of repressed sexuality, may remind readers of the famous whale at the heart of American literature. Mansuri’s descriptions of age-old trade routes from the west coast of India, and the bastard protagonist’s Portuguese father, make this a story set in a world at once small and vast.
- Anjum Hasan (1972– ) is the author of one of the best novels to have appeared recently in the world of Indian fiction, Lunatic In My Head (2007), set in the northeastern town of Shillong where she grew up. Hasan has also written a book of poems, Street on the Hill, and as this story shows, hers is a poet’s prose. Her scrupulous observations turn the familiar into something strange. Hasan moved to Bangalore, and perhaps it is from there that the protagonist in “Eye in the Sky” sets out on her journey to Goa.
- Jayant Kaikini(1955– ) is a short-story writer and poet. He was born in the temple town of Gokarna in Karnataka, which is where the protagonist of this story also comes from, and lived for many years in what was formerly Bombay before moving to Bangalore. This story describes minutely the uncertainties of a youth leaving home for the first time, and it also beautifully illustrates the serendipities of train travel in India and the short, intense encounters with strangers. The particular situation depicted here illustrates how the home looms large even though it is being left behind.
- The stories of Lalithambika Antherjanam (1909–1985) give voice to the struggles and anxieties of the women of her native Kerala. Antherjanam belonged to a caste group—the namboodiri brahmins—who prided themselves on their fidelity to tradition, which included a view of women as confined rigidly to the domestic sphere. (The word antherjanam literally means “one who lives inside.”) Despite—or perhaps because of—these restrictions, Antherjanam managed to convey sympathetically the dilemmas of people both like and unlike her. This tender love story, which depicts a woman both metaphorically and literally incarcerated, is set among the Syrian Christian community and unfolds across two Christmases.
- Githa Hariharan (1954– ) is one of India’s most distinctive practitioners of fiction in English. Among her best-known novels are The Thousand Faces of Night and The Ghosts of Vasu Master. This piece, taken from The Art of Dying and Other Stories, has an unusual combination of redundancy, stoicism, and Darwinism. It might also be considered an acknowledgement of the status of monkeys in the Indian imagination. Incidentally, Hariharan won a famous court case that gave her the right to name her children after herself instead of carrying the father’s name.
India: A Traveler’s Literary Companion
Trade paperback original
5 x 7¼, 256 pp.,
Publication date: Spring 2010
Posted on 24 February 2010