The art of the storyteller is an exacting one. The creation
of a character or characters must also be a seamless part of the circumstances
that make them behave in a certain manner at a given moment. The outcome of
their actions may carry a moral, or perhaps none in these increasingly amoral
times. Vyasa’s task may have been easier writing an epic like the Mahabharata,
as it was for others who helped to write or compile it over a long period of
time. It is a moot point whether the Mahabharata is the work of a single
author or many who added episodes to a gigantic narrative sprawling across 10,400
tales, covering every imaginable human emotion.
The very nature of this multi-layered narrative dictates its morality and indeed, its ethics. But by the mid-twentieth century, the final outcome of a story, not unlike those from older times, was dependent on its artistry, regardless of its moral or ethical thrust. Out of the three storytellers included in this piece, two—Ruskin Bond and Hamdi Bey—belong to an older literary canon, whereas the third, Ashok Srinivasan, is of the post-modernist Western literary school where ambiguity, both moral and ethical, is as integral to a writer’s art as is his/her talent.
It is easier to enjoy stories by Ruskin Bond and Hamdi Bey because they deal with ordinary human emotions, though of the two, Bey takes greater risks for dealing with the darker side of human nature. Bond’s stories deal with simple things like love—usually lost, the necessity of earning a living, and the travails of ordinary Indians, generally from small towns. His subject matter is predictable but his writing is truly sensitive, to use that overused word. His writing reminds you of a gentler, more laidback world. He is able to capture simply the complexity that lies beneath the apparently placid surfaces of his tales. It is perhaps this quality that makes him so popular with readers who enjoy his yarn spinning without bothering—in most cases—too much about his ability to conceal the hidden depths of his art easily.
Bond’s artistry is apparent in A Guardian Angel, a five-and-a-half page story. It is written in the first person by a schoolboy. The tale begins thus:
“I can still picture the little Dilaram Bazaar as I first saw it 20 years ago. Hanging on the hem of Aunt Mariam’s sari, I had followed her along the sunlit length of the dusty road and up the wooden staircase to her rooms above the barber’s shop.”
Having set the scene economically yet graphically, Bond proceeds further:
“There were a number of children playing on the road and they all stared at me. They must have wondered what my dark, black-haired aunt was doing with a strange child who was fairer than most.”
The unnamed boy is orphaned twice; first as a baby when his father, an Englishman dies, and then his mother succumbs to tuberculosis. He remembers:
“My sixth birthday was approaching when she died, in the middle of the night, without my being aware of it. And I woke up to experience, for a day, all the terror of abandonment.
“But that same evening Aunt Mariam arrived. Her warmth, worldliness and carefree chatter gave me the reassurance I needed so badly. She slept beside me that night and the morning, after the funeral, took me to her rooms in the bazaar. This small flat was to be my home for the next year and a half.”
The boy’s aunt had “disgraced” the family. She had various men paying for her upkeep, to use an euphemism. The child narrator remembers her in his twenties with deep affection and care.
“... She was a joyous, bubbling creature—a force of nature rather than a woman—and every time I think of her I am tempted to put down on paper some aspect of her conversation, or her gestures, or her magnificent physique...
“She was a strong woman, taller than most men in the bazaar, but this did not detract from her charms. Her voice was warm and deep, her face was a happy one, broad and unlined, and her teeth gleamed white in the dark brilliance of her complexion.”
He continues in the same vein:
“She had large soft breasts, long arms and broad thighs. She was majestic and at the same time graceful. Above all, she was warm and full of understanding and it was this tenderness of hers that overcame resentment and jealousy in other women.”
Bond, in this effortless, masterly description of a childless, earthy Earth-Mother, shows his perception about human beings and human situations. Aunt Mariam is worried that her little nephew might be influenced by the free and easy atmosphere at home with men visiting her regularly for carnal reasons, with the child asleep in the next room. She makes arrangements for her “Ladla” or beloved child to go to a boarding school. The boy goes under protest. His aunt, much to her sorrow, puts him on the train. That is the last he sees of her. His long dead father’s relatives take legal action saying that “Aunt Mariam was not a fit person to be a child’s guardian.”
The boy is sent to a family in a Railway Colony, near Moradabad, where he remains unhappily until he finishes school. When he comes back as a young man to Dilaram Bazaar, it has changed physically, with new buildings and new people all around. Aunt Mariam has long been dead; she had a weak heart despite her outward vitality. He goes to the cemetery at the outskirts of the town to his aunt’s grave.
“One of her more devoted admirers had provided a handsome gravestone surmounted by a sculptured angel. One of the wings had broken off and the face was chipped which gave the angel a slightly crooked smile.”
Bond deliberately ends the story on an “ordinary” schoolboy note by saying:
“But in spite of the broken wing and the smile it was a very ordinary stone angel and could not hold a candle to my Aunt Mariam, the very special guardian angel of my childhood.”
Ruskin Bond’s story has real depth and understanding of the human condition and recalls some of the tales by A. E. Coppard, the forgotten English master of the short story.
amdi Bey was a journalist with The Statesman, Calcutta, before the port-city became Kolkata. It was the premier English language daily in India in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He was a sub-editor who, over time, became a fine journalist. His short stories, not many in number, written in his spare time, were brought out in a single volume titled Small Town Stories. There are 23 of them, many rich and deep, almost all of them set in his native Bihar. A fact that becomes all the more clear 40 years after the publication of Small Town Stories is that, at his best, he was a storyteller who could hold his own against the best in the land.
Unlike Ruskin Bond and Ashok Srinivasan, his first language was not English, although he earned his bread from it. Bey published one more story, Shillingworth’s Paths, in the Statesman Miscellany. He remains a major storyteller on the strength of 24 stories that are distinct and powerful renderings of the human experience.
Fifty-six Knives tells of a beautiful young bride turned into a dancing courtesan (tawaif) by circumstances beyond her control. Her mother-in-law, mad with jealousy because of all the attention showered by her son on the bride, goads him into an unforgivable act. He drives his very young, defenceless bride out of the house.
She, poor girl, is found by neighbours, traumatised, sitting by the roadside, at some distance from home. The enraged boy-husband, on getting the news, rushes out to her to inflict 56 knife wounds which are shallow, but scar her for life. She survives despite enormous blood loss, and has to lie in court to save her husband’s life and property and the honour of her in-laws!
The character, Chhappan-Chhuri—literally meaning 56 knives—lived for others till the end. She, because of feudal Indian (Hindu) society’s stranglehold over her life can never hope to be free. Bey thus describes her tragedy with wit and precision:
“In court she denied that her husband had stabbed her. It was a stranger she could not name. It could have been one of her husband’s cousin’s, who bore enmity towards her and her husband, but as a pardanashin she could not recognise her husband’s cousins.
The crowd in the court burst out in laughter when she described herself as purdanashin. Could she recognise her assailant? “No,” she said emphatically when her husband was produced before her and she was asked if he wasn’t the man who had stabbed her.
On that “no”, the case ended. The husband was freed. He came up and clasped for a minute her scarred hands out of gratitude. And then pleaded his inability to take her back home. Mother had said that she wouldn’t permit the return of a woman who had been with unfamiliar men in hospital and police station, whom crowds had flocked to stare at in court—crowds which had jeered at her and nicknamed her Chhappan-Chhuri instead of being sympathetic towards her.
“One has to live among people,” explained her husband, “and you have seen throughout this long trial what people think of you, how they mock you.”
Bey’s sardonic humour and outrage come out in such vignettes:
“She turned a dumb face towards the fatherly half-masked policeman (he has a large moustache) on whose whiskers a few thin grey wisps reassuringly declared an elderly detachment with beautiful young girls. ... “I will make some arrangement for her”, the policeman told her husband. Ram Jatan’s father expressed his gratitude to the policeman and left.
“A few days later the policeman sold her to a man who said: ‘You can’t be a prostitute for your face is scarred and ugly but you look supple. I will try you out as a dancer. And if you succeed as a dancer you may be a successful prostitute too’.”
Chhappan-Chhuri attains fame and fortune and continues to look after the financial needs of her legal husband Sita Raksha (the defender of Sita, Lord Rama’s wife) and his family. Ram Jatan, her husband’s son by his second marriage, comes regularly to inquire after his step-mother’s well-being, and to take money on one pretext or the other. The policeman lords it over her, quaffing glass after glass of bhang laced with generous amounts of almonds.
Bey’s detached sense of irony and wit remains throughout the story.
“She died while still a good dancer, while her nimble-stepping and ecstatic whirls did not throw off water-filled tumblers from her head to drench spectators, did not extinguish the tongues of flame on the balanced candles.”
When Chhapan-Chhuri dies and her body is bathed before cremation, the curious barber woman actually counts the number of scars visible. The writer then observes: “In spite of those scars, Chhapan-Chhuri awaiting her shroud looked small and innocent and fresh like a newborn. ‘They should have called a mid-wife instead of me,’ said the barber woman.”
The seething anger concealed by worldly wit and humour comes to the fore in the concluding paragraph of the story.
“Outside in the veranda stood Ram Jatan, erect and manly in his stance with his long moustache ends stiff and curling upwards. It was the first time he was seen publicly in her house (both he and his late father visited stealthily at night) and everybody thought it was generous of him to come to the funeral. As a stepson he had no obligation, and as a dancer she had no claims on an honourable family. Everybody thought him generous except the lawyer who accompanied him for the lawyer carried her will.”
Hamdi Bey’s stories are set in a feudal world that has not quite disappeared from the subcontinent. He wrote about serious matters with wit, humour, detachment and considerable depth. His collection deserves to be read by a discerning audience. A new, properly proof-read edition of Small Town Stories would be welcome.
shok Srinivasan is the third storyteller in this discussion. His aesthetic preferences are different. His stories often play hop-scotch with time, contain linkages between disparate elements. His characters often go through enormous suffering and in the process encounter wild, improbable situations. His stories seem to suggest that it is the business of the author to make the unbelievable believable. He uses words with precision and is a master at creating atmosphere; in this particular area there is hardly a writer in the English language who can match him.
It is strange that a writer of his gifts has not bothered to have a collection published until now. Early this year, Fourth Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins, published Book of Common Signs containing 15 of his stories.
Srinivasan has worked as an editor with many reputable publishing houses including Orient Blackswan. He also for many years ran the cultural wing of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), under the Ministry of External Affairs. He is a slow, meticulous writer whose dedication to his craft bears comparison with a jeweller’s to his.
Book of Common Signs bears the following dedication: “Dedicated to the peoples of Palestine, Pakistan, the Tamils of Sri Lanka and Jews the world over—you who have borne more than your portion of hard reality, please share among yourselves this paltry enough illusion of an illusion”.
Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges are two of the masters of 20th century Western literature who have influenced Srinivasan’s literary imagination and given him the greatest pleasure as a reader. Their ability to yoke contradictory ideas to create a scary yet alluring third entity is reflected in his writing as well. Here is a sample from Srinivasan’s A Hangman’s Tale:
“Lok Dutt Tokas was the hangman in the city’s central jail. When Tokas was made hangman, it was still a prestigious post. But of late, there has been a falling off in its popularity, with the employees opting for transfers to more profitable positions. Even the number of hangings has come down.”
After this Kafkaesque opening paragraph, the writer continues:
“In the good old days, a hanging was a public event, a joyous festival. The announcement was made well in advance, weeks before the scaffolding was assembled in one of the city’s major market squares.
“The celebration went on for weeks and culminated in the main event, which was the hanging. The lights burned late into the night and early morning, and troupes of tumblers, jugglers, dancers and street thespians wove their way through the groggy throng entertaining and shouting imprecations at the passers-by. There were motorcyclists in the well-of-death, dressed in the colourful regalia with their leather helmets, goggles, knee-length boots; magicians squatting on reed mats with caged birds that told your fortune by choosing one of several alternative futures uniquely penned and waiting solely for you... The hangman then was a considerable figure–a personage to be reckoned with–the man at the centre of festivities.”
The only incongruous element in this medieval tableau is the motorcyclists in the well-of-death. Srinivasan gives the reader a glimpse of the kind of literary mischief he can get up to.
The story, written in the late 20th century, mixes medieval and contemporary elements into a seamless whole. Tokas the hangman falls hard for Lekha, a wet nurse by day and prostitute by night. She, having given birth to a stillborn baby, longs for a child. She and Tokas find Mantara, a semi-starved child street acrobat with a drunken vagrant for a father. Lekha finds fulfilment in Mantara as Tokas does in Lekha:
“Lekha’s new life centred on Mantara. For her, Tokas was a useful man to have around, someone who heard her out with a kind of patience she had never encountered before. However, the minute attention she paid to Mantara left her very little time to think of herself to say nothing of Tokas. Tokas’s world was Lekha. Mantara appeared in the corner of his eye only in so far as she was the focus of Lekha’s maternal possessiveness.”
The unlikely trio of Tokas, Lekha and Mantara are together till cancer gives its ominous intimations during a pilgrimage. Lekha, reduced to bare bones, dies and makes Tokas promise he will look after Mantara. Mantara, under the assumed name of Dia-Lata, like her adopted mother Lekha starts off as a bar dancer and then proceeds to superstardom in the movies. In the passage describing Dia-Lata’s rise to fame, Srinivasan again plays mischief with time:
“So popular was she that pictures of her were edging out the usual depictions of gods and their consorts on calendars and almanacs. Later ages would see Dia-Lata’s face as the sign of the times. Tokas returned to the city without an inkling that he had returned to the city. He was exhausted and driven wild by his years of fruitless search.”
A hangman’s search for the likeness of a dead woman he has loved in his own way can, and does, end as a futile tragedy. In this tale, as in his others, Ashok Srinivasan comes across as a masterly teller of bizarre and tragic tales.
Short story writing had its heyday in Bengal from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. After Rabindranath Tagore, a consummate master of the form, there emerged Manik Bandopadhyay, whose studies of Freud and Marx combined well with his deep knowledge of human nature and genuine empathy with those dealt a bad hand by nature. A communist by conviction and a psychologist by inclination, he wrote some 300 stories, 60 of them still worthy of attention.
Other major storytellers in Bengali were Premendra Mitra, Narayan Gangopadhyay, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, and Satinath Bhaduri, all of whom wrote in the realist idiom. The one exception was a late starter, Jagdish Gupta, a court clerk who wrote bizarre yet arresting stories about human relations.
There are others in other languages, like Sadat Hassan Manto in Urdu, whose unflinching gaze at human depravity, particularly in the Partition stories, and unshakeable love of flawed humanity give a timeless quality to many of his stories. There is Ismat Chughtai as well.
If a single great teller of tales were to be chosen from Hindi it would be Phanishwar Nath Renu whose stories, immersed in profound depths of emotion arising out of an understanding of the futility of human aspirations, ring invariably true.
Malayalam has produced Vaikom Muhammad Bashir, whose unwavering idealism is time and again reflected in his deeply romantic stories about everyday life.
All of these and many others are blood brothers to Ruskin Bond, Hamdi Bey and Ashok Srinivasan. They write in English and have a wide ranging exposure to and deep understanding of Occidental culture, but are undeniably part of a collective Indian experience. Their aesthetic sensibilities are different but there is no doubting their deep affinity with all things Indian.