Book Review: A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces - edited by David Davidar
A hard bound book containing 39 short stories from Indian authors spanning in time from the 19th century to the present, published by Aleph book company and priced at Rs 695 is what I decided to buy after reading about it in newspapers like The Hindu and Deccan Chronicle. I finished reading ten stories from this "clutch" about three months back, eight of which are translated works. I wanted to finish this book and then review it in a single blog post but that seems quite unlikely, the last few months have been filled with a multitude of activities that have hogged "my" time, been really hard to pay due attention to this or any book.
Today I happened to dust off the book's top cover and recollected few details of all stories I have read till now , I decided to pen down a portion of the complete review before it slips my mind.
The book begins with an elaborate preface titled Our Stories, talks at length about how David got hooked to books, he had the gift of literature from his grandfather who got him abridged versions of Western classics and his grandmother who narrated tales from local folklore, quite like us. In this section, he fervently looks for an apt definition for the term short story, there is actually none and places his trust in Anton Chekhov's (considered the father of modern short story) style/version. The book, according to him, includes stories that he loved, that made a mark on him in the last forty years of serious reading and he has arranged his favorites in chronological order based on author's date of birth.
The most important section of the preface deals with an important observation - how Indian literature is rich and diverse due to the country being multi lingual with 24 national languages (including English and Hindi) and the 2011 census registering 1635 mother tongues. There are a myriad storytellers in each language who created excellent works of literature and left an indelible impression making the scene complex for an average book lover. That is where translation plays a key role in bringing unreachable volumes of best works to the reader's desk, opening access to otherwise incomprehensible stuff, imparting greater joy of reading and widening scope of appreciation. All said and done, an act of translation cannot guarantee every nuance, fine emotion or inkling in the original be reproduced without loss of meaning or clumsiness.
Most of us will agree to this since we encounter problems translating iconic dialogues or humorous moments while watching a movie in our mother tongue to English to help somebody who cannot understand it. It is much like a Is the glass half empty or half full? situation. The act of translation, however far from perfection, helps the onlooker to at least acknowledge the premise rather than completely drawing a blank. Quoting from the preface - "There's a musicality that underlies a book, and I think that if you can move that into English, you can catch it and you have got it".
The book starts with Rabindranath Tagore's The Hunger of Stones, translated from Bengali to English by Amitav Ghosh. The final translated work is impeccable, but a ghost story or anything supernatural from Tagore was least expected.
The Shroud (published as Kaffan) by Munshi Premchand, translated from Hindi by Arshia Sattar carries the stamp of realism, melancholy, irony blended in describing societal issues especially those faced by women set against rural/poor Indian background. His stories hit you hard and this one is no different.
A Horse and Two Goats (non translated) by RK Narayan comes as a refreshing change from sad overtones of the predecessor in the book. Brilliantly humorous, this story leaves you with a big smile.
A Life by Buddhadeva Bose translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha is a heart wrenching story, depicting toil of one man and his family, the account is engaging all through, easily the best of what I have read till now. This can be declared as a fine masterpiece. I am compelled to read more works of this author and have nailed down The Love Letter and Other stories - a compilation by the same author and translator for a future read.
Toba Tek Singh by Saadat Hasan Manto, translated from urdu by Khushwant Singh is a satirical work on India-Pakistan, the relations they shared right after partition, the story sends one in pensive mood.
The Flood written by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and translated from Malayalam by OV Usha is set in Kuttanad, a simple story that tells how man and animals behave differently in face of natural calamity, leave s you with moist eyes even if you don't love pets.
The Blue Light by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer translated from Malayalam by OV Usha is enjoyable stuff. A man's tete-a-tete with a ghost in a haunted house could not have been dealt with more eloquently and beautifully.
The Somersault by Gopinath Mohanty translated from Oriya by Sitakant Mohapatra reveals what we do quite callously, propel someone to towering glory in wake of an achievement, stifle him/her with matchless reverence and then send them dashing to the ground in the first instance of defeat and erase them from memory as if they were non existent.
Khushwant Singh's Portrait of a Lady can be given an quick read. I have doubts if it should only appear in this collection.
Ismat Chughtai's Quilt translated from Urdu by R Jalil leaves one in shock for it is too bold a story in the times in which it was published (1942). The book ends with a note on stories, note on authors and note on translators in which it is mentioned the author was sued for obscenity by Lahore court for writing this story, she contested the case and won it rather than apologize. A hard smack, I must say, much like her story!
Only one story - The Life seemed extraordinary to me but I hope there are more and true masterpieces to come as I progress through the book. 8 of 10 are translated works and if you quiz me is the glass half full or empty, I would only say half-full. If not for translation, I wouldn't have been able to read works of Thakazhi, Vaikom and Ismat which have left a lasting impression and an urge to read more from their quarters. So was anything lost in translation? Hmmmm ... not really, I stood to gain (cheers)